In 1600 twenty-three half-starved Dutch sailors and one Englishman under the lead of Captain Will Adams landed in Usuki Bay in Kyushu, the southern Japanese island.
This was the beginning of a successful Dutch trade monopoly with Japan that lasted until 1854. However, the presence of the Dutch was restricted to the tiny, artificial island of Deshima in Nagasaki harbor.
The Dutch were not the first Europeans to come to Japan. In 1543 the Portuguese had landed on Tanegashima island. At the time of their arrival, Japan was a war-torn country with powerful feudal lords fighting against each other for supremacy. The Portuguese possessed something that caused immediately the attention of the Japanese warlords - firearms. The Japanese provincial leaders, the daimyo, eagerly started to trade with the Portuguese.
But on board of the Portuguese merchant vessels was more than just firearms. With the vessels came Christian, Jesuit missionaries. The Jesuit missions became very successful. Oda Nobunaga, 1534-1582, the first of the three unifiers of Japan, supported the Christian missionaries as a counterbalance against militant and powerful Buddhist cloisters which resisted his rule.
Toyotomi Hideyoshi, 1537-1598, his successor and second unifier, had a more ambivalent attitude towards the Jesuit and later the more aggressive Franciscan missionaries. He was torn between toleration and a total ban, which had however never been fully enforced.
Tokugawa Ieyasu, 1543-1616, was the third and final unifier of Japan. He managed to establish enduring peace in Japan. But the price was a complete seclusion of the country from any contacts with the outside world. Ieyasu saw the Portuguese and Spanish missionaries as a threat to the stability of his rule and banned Christianity in 1587.
In 1600 a Dutch ship, the Liefde arrived in Usuki Bay in Kyushu with 24 half-starved men - 23 Dutch and one Englishman. Seven of them were so weakened that they died later. The emaciated seamen were the survivors of an expedition force of originally 5 ships that had left Rotterdam nearly two years ago on June 27, 1598.
They had been sent on a risky venture to raid Spanish and Portuguese settlements in Africa and Asia and to return with pepper and other spices from Asia. In those days a man could earn a fortune with pepper. The German language still knows the expression Pfeffersack - meaning "a bag of pepper" - as a synonym for a very rich man.
Will Adams was the captain of the Liefde. By and by he managed to win the confidence of Tokugawa Ieyasu inspite of the interference of the Portuguese, who denounced the Dutch as pirates. This was the beginning of exclusive trade relations between Japan and the Dutch East India Company that would last for nearly 250 years.
In 1636 the shogun had ordered the construction of the artificial, tiny island of Deshima. It was originally planned to host the Portuguese merchants and isolate them from the Japanese population. But when the construction works had been finished, the Portuguese had been completely kicked out and the Dutch moved from Hirado to Deshima.
Usually two Dutch ships arrived in Nagasaki harbor per year. The arrival was a big event for everybody and especially for the Dutch residents in Dejima. The permanent staff comprised a director of the Dutch East India company and about ten employees.
No foreign women were allowed on Dejima. One courageous woman named Titia accompanied her husband Jan Cock Blomhoff, the newly appointed director for the Deshima trading post in 1817. She had to leave three months later on order of the Japanese government. Thus Titia Cock Blomhoff became the first Western woman to set foot on Japan. Unfortunately the poor woman died only 4 years later separated from her husband.
The Dutch ships imported mainly silk from China and goods from Southeast Asia and Europe and exported Japanese porcelain. Arita, Imari and other Japanese ceramics were very popular in the Netherlands and in other European countries. The Japanese artisans catered for their European clients with Dutch motives. When demand could not be met by imports, the Dutch copied Japanese porcelain in large quantities.
In 1823 Philip F. von Siebold came as a physician to the Dejima trading post. He used his stay for an intensive study of Japan. After his return to Europe he published his knowledge in 1832 in a book - Nippon. His presence had also an important impact on Japan by bringing Western medicine to the country.
Ieyasu Tokugawa had obliged the daimyo to pay homage to the shogun every two years in a big, formal and costly procession to the court in Edo (Tokyo). The intention was to assure their loyalty and to weaken them by putting financial burdens on them.
The Dutch were not exempt from showing their loyalty towards the shogun. Their procession schedule was from once per year to once in 4 years.
Then the whole Dutch community travelled from Nagasaki to Edo in full whistles and bells and with generous presents for the shogun. The Dutch were inventive and smart in keeping good relations with the Japanese rulers. They imported exotic animals like elephants or even camels as gifts for the shogun.
In 1853 and a second time in 1854 a US naval fleet under the command of Matthew Calbraith Perry (1794-1858) forced Japan to enter into negotiations with the US about an opening of the country for trade with the United States.
On Perry's second trip to Japan, the American delegation and the Japanese government signed the Treaty of Kanagawa. Other nations followed with similar treaties - England, France, Russia and the Netherlands.
Donker Curtius became the last Dutch director of Deshima. In 1855, one year after the Americans, he was able to reach a new trade agreement with the Japanese shogun government. Thus the Dutch influence could be kept, but the once so profitable monopoly of trade with Japan had ended in 1855 with the Treaty of Kanagawa.
Japanese woodblock prints that depict the Dutch, their ships or their exotic animal presents, are called Nagasaki-e. The prime time of these prints was from 1800 to 1860. Nagasaki-e were made for and bought by Japanese who had hardly ever a chance to see one of the red-haired, foreign 'barbarians' in their lifetime.
Nagasaki-e are even more rare than Yokohama-e. These later prints show foreigners and their technical achievements from the enclave of Yokohama.
Both, Nagasaki-e and Yokohama-e are not among those prints produced with elaborate techniques like mica or embossing. They were targeted at a broad Japanese public - more on a coffee table book level for people being curious how these barbarians might look like. The charm of these prints is rather in the historical subjects than in the skill level of woodblock craftsmanship.
Author: Dieter Wanczura