Magazine article History Today

The Dutch in Japan

Magazine article History Today

The Dutch in Japan

Article excerpt

Paul Doolan describes the unique 400-year-long trading; intellectual and artistic contacts between the Dutch and the Japanese.

MANY OF US have read James Clavell's Shogun (1975), the fictional account of the adventures of the crew of the Dutch ship De Liefde, or have seen the television series starring Richard Chamberlain. April 2000 marks the 400th anniversary of the Liefde's arrival in Japan in 1600, an event which began four centuries of Japanese-Dutch relations.

The Portuguese had been the first Europeans to settle in Japan in the mid-sixteenth century, seeking both riches and souls. In the 1570s Nagasaki was opened as the main port for foreign trade by the local daimyo (lord), and became the centre for the Jesuit Francis Xavier's mission to convert Japan to Christianity. The Portuguese also brought firearms with them. Japan at this time was wracked by power struggles, and the last shogun (military ruler) of the Ashihara clan was deposed in 1573. Over the next thirty years Toyotomi Hideyoshi built up his position as the most powerful man in Japan, though he never claimed the title of shogun. One of his former rivals, Tokugawa Ieyasu, went over to his side and on Hideyoshi's death in 1598 Ieyasu continued to battle the regional daimyo for control over the whole of Japan.

Then, in 1598, a fleet of four ships left Rotterdam intending to circum-navigate the world. After a disastrous voyage, the one surviving vessel, the Liefde (Charity), reached southern Japan in April 1600. Of the original 110 crew members only twenty-four survived, six of whom died shortly after arriving. By this time Tokugawa Ieyasu had grown suspicious of the Portuguese and was pleased to learn that the Dutch were their enemies. He also wished to break the influence of the Portuguese mission, and the Dutch assured him that they had no interest in converting his subjects to Christianity. In October 1600 Tokugawa Ieyasu decisively defeated his main rivals at the Battle of Sekigahara in central Honshu. For the battle he was able to call on the help of Dutch gunners and eighteen cannons from the Liefde, and his favourable impression of these new Europeans was confirmed. He appointed two of the crew, the Englishman Will Adams and Jan Joosten van Lodensteijn, as senior advisors to his government. Both remained in the service of Japan for the rest of their lives.

In 1603 Ieyasu established himself as shogun, setting up the Tokugawa Shogunate that ruled Japan until 1868. Then in 1609 two ships of the recently formed Dutch East India Company (VOC) sailed into the port of Hirado in south-western Japan. They carried a letter from the Dutch leader Maurice of Orange, in which he invited the Shogun to commence official relations between the two countries. The Shogun was so flattered by the tone of the letter that he presented the Dutch with a permit giving them access to all Japanese ports. The VOC opened its first trading post in Hirado. The Portuguese trade monopoly was finally broken.

Ieyasu continued to distrust the Christian missionaries, fearing the new faith would provide a focus for opposition to his rule, and in 1612 and 1614 he prohibited Christianity, initiating a period of ever-worsening persecution. During the 1630s, the Portuguese were also increasingly penalised by the Japanese with trade restrictions, while the English abandoned as hopeless their attempt to break into the Japanese market. In 1641 the Portuguese were expelled altogether and the Dutch were ordered to move their trading post from Hirado to the tiny artificial island of Deshima in Nagasaki Bay. In order to ensure its own survival Japan now closed itself off from the rest of the world almost completely.

From 1641 until the arrival of the Americans in 1853, the strictly-controlled Dutch post on Deshima was Japan's sole window on the Western world. This created a bilateral relationship unique in history. Crucial Western developments during these centuries -- from Newton's work on gravity to the development of the technique of smallpox vaccination -- entered Japan via the VOC's seemingly insignificant little outpost. …

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