Comptoir d’Escompte de Paris opened a branch in Japan in 1867 to support French economic expansion in the Far East before opening branches in France. The Land of the Rising Sun had imperialistic urges in eastern Asia, however, which discouraged and ultimately blocked the aims of Banque de Paris et des Pays-Bas of setting up in the region for nearly half a century, despite the promising economic outlook in Japan. It was only in the 1960s that BNP and Paribas finally established a permanent presence.
Early attempts by Comptoir d’Escompte de Paris to establish a presence in Japan
Well before branches had been opened in leading French cities, Comptoir d’Escompte had opted for a presence in Japan to support the domestic economy.
After more than two centuries of isolation, Japan began to open up to the world in the 1860s.
The 1859 Treaty of Amity and Commerce signed by Japan and the USA, the 1860 free trade agreement between France and United Kingdom and a petition by leading French citizens in Yokohama to France’s representative spoke volumes for Comptoir d’Escompte de Paris. In its concern to facilitate and finance imports by its French clients and with the aim of competing with the very dynamic British presence in the Far East, it was decided in 1866 to set up a presence at the very source of these imports to profit from new trade movements. The decision was made well before branches were opened in Marseille and Lyon.
An agency was opened in 1867 in the port of Yokohama under the authority of the Shanghai subsidiary, established in 1860. Yokohama was an extremely busy port and an open and cosmopolitan city that was home to a large Chinese community. The two cities were connected at the end of the 1860s by an additional maritime line across the sea separating the two countries.
The creation of new contacts between France and Japan coincided with a series of health catastrophes in Europe. The silk industry, whose capital was the French city of Lyon, was devastated by various pandemics affected silkworms. The presence of silk traders from Lyon in Yokohama was recorded from 1860 onwards, from where they shipped raw silk and silkworm eggs to France. France was forced to import 84% of its unwoven silk and Japanese silkworms turned out to be the only ones that could resist disease in Europe. Japanese raw silk offered the best quality on the global market. France became the leading importer, acquiring over 50% of Japanese output between 1865 and 1885. By 1875, Lyon was the world silk-processing capital and Yokohama the primary supplier of raw materials.
In 1872, Yokohama became a fully-fledged subsidiary of Comptoir d’Escompte de Paris, but was closed in 1877 before reopening in 1884 and then being permanently closed in 1893.
Japan experienced a decade of conservatism and nationalism in 1885-1895, which led to a decline in French influence. The nation strove to impose its authority in East Asia at the end of the 19th century, as shown by the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895). Japan’s victory prompted concerns in the French government about the nation’s intentions regarding the French colony in Indochina. Japan began colonising Taiwan in 1895, Korea in 1905, and, with the First Anglo-Japanese Alliance in 1902 and Japanese victory in the Russo-Japanese war (1904-1905), Japan emerged as a modern imperialist power.