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Sunday, Jan. 22, 2006

Home from home

Special to The Japan Times

The first Doreen Wingate saw of Yokohama was the immigration and customs office next to the now famous Red Brick Warehouse on Shinko Pier. The year was 1952, and Doreen, her husband and 6-month-old son were arriving in Japan by ship, the same way as most of Yokohama's fledgling expatriate community.

News photo
The clubhouse of the Yokohama Country and Athletic Club

Coming fresh from a few years spent living in Kenya's famously idyllic Happy Valley, in a home replete with pristine white table cloths, silverware and servants, the war-ravaged streets of Yokohama came as quite a surprise to Doreen: telegraph poles leaned dangerously askew against the dilapidated shacks of shanty towns, crowded streetcars trundled noisily down the streets and canals teemed with barges billowing smoke.

Fortunately for Doreen, her husband's employer, Shell Oil, had provided accommodation on The Bluff, a foreigners' sanctuary head and shoulders above the chaos of the recovering city. Within minutes of leaving the port, a smart company car was carrying the Wingates up the steep sides of the headland above Motomachi. The landscape suddenly began to take on a more familiar look. "It was an enormous relief," recalls Doreen. "We instantly recognized a little piece of England in a foreign land."

The area is Yamate, home to Japan's most densely congregated expat community since the Meiji Era, and now the site of the Yokohama Country and Athletic Club.

When Doreen, now 81, returned for a vacation in 2004, she found the institution the Wingates used to call "Happy Valley, only on a hill" was almost unchanged.

"The club feels just as I remember it," she said, "although the rest of Yokohama is utterly unrecognizable."

Yokohama Country and Athletic Club was, and still is, the Japan expat's ultimate refuge. Seeing the white walls of the clubhouse, the neatly trimmed lawns and smartly uniformed attendants, a first-time visitor could be forgiven for thinking they'd slipped though a cosmic wormhole to a select corner of the genteel Home Counties of southern England. And that's exactly what members want.

Sitting between the clubhouse and the bowling green, watching children jump off the high board into the pool, a British analyst with a large, foreign-affiliated bank (who preferred not to be named) describes the club as "bloody brilliant" -- adding: "Where else can you get a decent game of cricket and good tea?"

Indeed, the club's origin dates back to the Yokohama Cricket Club established by British merchants in 1868, the year of the Meiji Restoration, on the present-day site of the Yokohama Bay Stars stadium, where it staged Japan's first cricket, field hockey and rugby games. Then, in 1912, the club relocated to its current location after merging with another expat organization called the Union Club and adopting its current YC&AC name.

Initially a far-flung corner of the British Empire, with a membership reflecting that fact, the club now has 35 nationalities and some 1,200 members on its books. Only a tiny fraction of the members are Japanese, perhaps because non-expats (including permanent residents) are charged around 3.6 million yen to join -- a sum several times higher than the going rate for foreigners.

Though many might regard such two-tier pricing as anachronistic, the explanation is rooted in the club's principal attraction as an English-speaking oasis in a foreign country populated by what members used to refer to as "The Enemy."

Jaw-dropping facilities

For their money, members can enjoy a jaw-dropping range of top-class facilities, including seven tennis courts, a 10-pin bowling alley, gymnasium, sauna, library, restaurants and, of course, a bar.

In addition, regular parties and concerts (Beatles Night next weekend) keep the adults occupied, while their offspring take advantage of a bewildering array of martial arts, dance, music and sports classes -- all conducted in English.

The club's status as an oasis in an alien land does have its drawbacks. One long-term Yokohama resident, who is familiar with the club and who also asked not to be named, said its membership was characterized by "very little appreciation of the local culture."

For her part, another member, British expat wife Karen Warburton, said, "It's a bit ridiculous really, I've been here two years and can hardly string two words of Japanese together."

While the majority of members still have their dues paid by their companies as part of an expat package, nowadays fewer multinational firms are including membership of the YC&AC or the American Club in Tokyo, for example, as part of their relocation packages. Also, although Yokohama was once favored as the base for the Far East headquarters of dozens of multinationals, in a trend that the city government is striving to reverse, it has long since been abandoned in favor of Singapore and Hong Kong.

But all is not lost for the YC&AC. Although the proportion of its membership working for foreign-based multinationals may have dwindled, there has been a sharp increase in the number of members who have lived in Japan for many years, eventually building sufficient income to afford access to the idyllic environment and powerful social network the club offers. At least one member first came to Japan as an exchange student before progressing to teaching English before wangling his way to a top position at an international firm.

Whether they were sent here or chose to live here, Yokohama remains a strong draw for foreigners, and The Bluff is their address of choice. The best time to get a real feel for how many foreigners are squeezed into this tiny area of Japan's second most populous city is 3:30 on a weekday afternoon. Then, four out of five of the SUVs negotiating the narrow roads are piloted by Westerners or their Southeast Asian servants ferrying more than 1,000 pupils back home from Yokohama International School and St. Maur international school every day.

Another non-scientific indicator is readily evident at the Starbucks just below The Bluff on Motomachi Shopping Street, which has a foreigner-to-Japanese ratio to match the best Tokyo's cosmopolitan districts of Hiroo and Roppongi can manage.

While it may be "living in interesting times," the YC&AC is surely nothing if not what one member termed an "institution of continuity."

Without it, certainly, Yokohama would for many people lose more than a little of the international luster that has gilded its image for more than a century and a half since Japan ended its feudal era of international isolation.

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