Utagawa Yoshitora. North America (Kita Amerika shu), 1866. Gift of Emily Crane Chadbourne.

CHICAGO — Depending on whether you enter the long gallery from the north or south, Utagawa Sadahide’s “Revised Panoramic View of Yokohama” (1861) will be the first or last image you encounter as you make your way through The Idea of America in 19th-Century Japanese Prints. The six-panel, color woodblock print depicts the harbor and the narrow spit of land to which international merchants were confined following the opening of Japan to global trade in the 1850s. The scene is standard for a 19th-century Japanese panorama: a tidy town with elegant bridges, upright trees, and clusters of ordinary people going about their daily business in the streets and plazas. In the lower right is a white building, taller and more Western in appearance than the others. It is the headquarters of British traders Jardine, Matheson, and Company. In this building is the Illustrated London News, the key to understanding the prints of this exhibition.

Understanding, of course, is distinct from enjoying. There are many pleasures to be had in the exhibition even for the most casual observer: the sharply drawn profiles, for example, or the juxtaposition of different patterns typical of Japanese prints of the period, or the subtle narratives (an anonymous image of a crouching John James Audubon at the moment he discovers his ornithological sketches have been devoured by a rat is particularly delightful). But certain enigmas call out for explanation. Why is Utagawa Hiroshige’s image of an American city dominated by the façade of a Danish baroque palace? Why does Utagawa Yoshitora’s “North America” (1866) depict a church found in Kent, England and a tower from Agra, India? How to explain that Utagawa Yoshikazu’s “Arrival and Departure of an American Steam Train” (1861) shows a paddlewheel-sided behemoth more akin to a steamship than a train, and how would he have seen an American railroad in Yokohama? (One might also wonder why the name “Utagawa” is so prevalent among Japanese printmakers. Successful apprentices in the various schools of printmaking took the name of the school’s master, in this case Utagawa Toyoharu.)

Utagawa Yoshikazu. Sketch of a Copperplate Print of the City of Washington (Amerika shu no uchi washintonfu no kei doban no utsushi), 1861. Gift of Emily Crane Chadbourne.

The incongruous images are, in large measure, the result of Japanese artists leafing through The Illustrated London News, a document distributed to Yokohama from the Jardine, Matheson, and Company building. The publication featured numerous engravings of famous people, places, and events, including the Danish palaces, English churches, Indian towers, and American steamships that inspired the woodblocks on display at the Art Institute. The limited contact with the West imposed by the Japanese regime created endless curiosity that artists were eager to satisfy, accuracy be damned. Indeed, fanciful speculation often displaced careful observation entirely, as in Ochiai Yoshiiku’s “Picture of Men and Women from Many Countries” (1861), which depicts Americans next to the distorted and distended inhabitants of “no-belly land,” “long leg country” and “long arm country.” Other images, perhaps mundane to us, were exotic in different contexts: an American woman on horseback, for example, was markedly gender non-conforming to the nineteenth-century Japanese.

Images of Americans in these prints tell us a great deal about the local culture as it met the West. They tell us, specifically, about what many Japanese feared, and desired, from the encounter of cultures. “The Powhattan” (1854), an unknown artist’s depiction of Commodore Perry’s flagship, depicts a large, ominous-looking black ship towering over the Japanese boats it crowds into the corners of the picture plane; and Perry himself, in another anonymous print from the 1850s, appears monstrous, with a huge nose, grim mouth, and multiple chins. Various forms of warrior headgear are seen in the background, including a feathered bonnet that is not historically accurate, but indicates the trepidation local people felt at an aggressive and technologically advanced force on Japanese shores.

Utagawa Yoshikazu. Americans Drawn from Life (Sho utsushi Amerikajin), 1861. Gift of Emily Crane Chadbourn.

Western technology proved a consistent fascination to Japanese woodblock artists. We see not only a strange amalgam of steam train and paddlewheel steamer, but a range of technologies — from brass band instruments to wooden washboards — just being introduced to Japan. History has rendered the technology in “Foreign Reflecting-Reality Mirror” (unknown artist, early 1860s) as unfamiliar to us as it was to the 19th-century Japanese. A Caucasian man in a cap and long coat stands at the center, holding a small cabinet that projects a landscape image into the air as a Japanese man looks on in wonder. This kind of mirrored box was once used to create a three-dimensional illusion from a two-dimensional picture and, judging by the Japanese man’s expression, it made a powerful impression on those encountering it for the first time.

Despite some notes of apprehension, the dominant tone of the depictions of the West is one of openness and hope for mutual enrichment through commercial and cultural interchange: an incipient globalism. Those who can read the Japanese text on the woodblock prints will find phrases such as “a picture of prosperity” or “California is a port whose many ships come and go all over the world. It is said that the people acquired great knowledge through exchange.” The dream seems to be one of meeting the West on equal terms. In Utagawa Sadahide’s “True View of a Yokohama Merchant House” (1861), for example, an American woman and child happily play shuttlecock with a Japanese woman while a top-hatted American businessman negotiates with his Japanese counterpart in the background; and in the same artist’s “An American Mercantile Building in Yokohama” (1861) an American woman plucks a violin laid across her lap in emulation of a nearby Japanese woman with a shamisen.

Ochiai Yoshiiku. Picture of a Banquet of People of Five Nations at the Gankiro Teahouse (Gokakoku gankiro ni oite sakamori no zu), 1860. Gift of Emily Crane Chadbourne.

The only image of open struggle between America and Japan is Shigetoshi’s “Picture of a Sumo Wrestling Match in Yokohama” (1861), which shows a determined-looking American in military garb entirely overmatched by the much-larger Sumo wrestler who holds him in a headlock. Images of this kind — always with the Japanese wrestler dominant or in a pose of victory — are common. They reflect a desire for strength in meeting the Western other. The door to the West was open, but the hosts were almost as wary as they were hopeful about the outcome.

The Idea of America in 19th-Century Japanese Prints continues at the Art Institute of Chicago (111 South Michigan Avenue, Chicago, Illinois) through September 15.

Robert Archambeau is a poet and critic whose books include The Kafka Sutra, The Poet Resigns: Poetry in a Difficult Time, Inventions of a Barbarous Age: Poetry from Conceptualism to Rhyme Home and Variations,...