Japan's encounter with Europe, 1573 – 1853

The first Europeans to arrive in Japan did so by accident rather than design. In 1543 a Portuguese ship was blown off course by a typhoon, shipwrecking the sailors on the island of Tanegashima, off the south-west tip of Japan. Eager to trade with Japan, the Portuguese soon established more formal traffic through the port of Nagasaki, and in 1549 the Jesuit priest Francis Xavier (1506 – 52) arrived in the country to found the first Christian mission.

For the Japanese, any initial feelings of alarm caused by the appearance of the nanban-jin, or 'southern barbarians', as the Portuguese were called, was soon overshadowed by the exotic appeal of these curious visitors. The fascination aroused by the arrival of Europeans is revealed in many aspects of late 16th- and early 17th-century Japanese visual culture, most dramatically in screens that depict the arrival of a Portuguese vessel into a Japanese port. In an example from our collection, the artist has emphasised the strange physical features and seemingly outlandish dress of the Europeans, who are shown with long noses and balloon-like trousers.

Six fold screen depicting arrival of a Portuguese Ship, maker unknown, 1600 – 30, Japan. Museum no. 803-1892. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Six fold screen depicting arrival of a Portuguese ship (detail), maker unknown, 1600 – 30, Japan. Museum no. 803-1892. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Screens such as this were painted, not in Nagasaki, but in Kyoto and as such, they reflected the imagination of the painter rather than a specific reality. The theme of the painting follows traditional Japanese iconography. The Portuguese vessel represents a treasure ship (takarabune) bringing wealth and happiness from overseas, while the Europeans themselves were viewed as almost supernatural beings and the bearers of good fortune. Images of nanban-jin occur on objects such as stirrups, mirrors and flasks used by the ruling elite of Japan. A fashion even developed for dressing up in 'southern barbarian' style.

The items the Portuguese brought with them had a real impact on Japanese politics and power in the years of the Momoyama (1573 – 1615) and early Edo (1615 – 1868) periods. The Portuguese had arrived in 1543 armed with matchlock guns, which at a time of civil war in Japan, made them particularly welcome. Japan's feuding warlords were quick to recognise the power of this new weapon, and within a decade the guns were being produced in large numbers. Traditional Japanese armour was relatively ineffective against the gun, so heavy western plate-armour was copied and sometimes even adapted by armourers to a more Japanese style.

Helmet, about 1590 – 1610; neck-guard, about 1750, Japan. Museum no. 57-1889. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The arrival of Christianity also had a profound effect on Japan. The Catholic mission founded by Xavier was one of the most successful in Asia. By the early 1590s there were an estimated 215,000 Japanese Christians. At that time the Imperial Regent of Japan, Toyotomi Hideoshi (1537 – 98), began to sense that an allegiance to God would threaten his own authority and so issued a decree in 1587 expelling all Christians. This edict was never carried out but persecutions and executions of Christians occurred under the later rule of Tokugawa Ieyasu (1542 – 1616) and his successors. Following a failed Christian uprising in 1637 – 38, all Japanese Christians were forced to renounce their religion or be executed. From 1639, under the sakoku ('closed country') policy all Portuguese were forbidden from entering the country.

The Portuguese weren't the only Europeans to establish trade in Japan. The first Dutch ship arrived in 1600, and in 1609 the Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, or VOC) established a trading factory in Hirado. Following the expulsion of the Portuguese in 1639, the Dutch became the only Europeans allowed to remain in Japan. They were forced to move to Dejima, a tiny artificial island in Nagasaki Bay, where they were kept under close scrutiny.

Hand-scroll depicting the Dutch factory at Dejima (detail), maker unknown, about 1800, Nagasaki, Japan. Museum no. D.151-1905. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The principal purpose of trade with Japan was to obtain gold, silver and copper, of which the country had valuable deposits. However, the luxury goods produced by Japan's craftsmen also had immediate appeal and soon became a significant part of the goods that were transported back to Europe. Lacquer was virtually unknown in the West at this time, and the Portuguese, marvelling at its lustre and decorative potential, began to commission lacquer objects designed to appeal to the European market.

Tankard, unknown maker, 1600 – 20, Kyoto, Japan. Museum no. FE.23-1982. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

By Japanese standards, nanban lacquer (lacquerware intended for the European market) was made with comparatively little time and care. There are examples though of high-quality objects that were made for the Dutch during the 1630s and early 1640s, such as a document box made for Anton van Diemen, Governor General of the Dutch East Indies from 1636 to 1645. This piece is distinguished by the use of complex and elaborate lacquer techniques and a decorative theme derived from Japanese classical literature.

The Van Diemen Box, document box, maker unknown, 1636 – 39, Japan. Museum no. W.49-1916. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Lacquer though was always secondary in importance to porcelain. First made in Japan in and around the town of Arita, in the northern part of Kyushu, in the early 17th century, porcelain differed greatly from ceramics previously made in Japan. Both the use of the material and the way it was decorated owed much to the influence of China and Korea. By the 1660s Dutch traders in Japan were ordering tens of thousands of pieces a year. The decoration on Japanese blue-and-white export porcelain of the 17th century closely followed Chinese models, with some pieces also incorporating the initials VOC, the monogram of the Dutch East India Company. Shapes were often European in form, the tankard being the most popular.

(Left to right:) Vase, unknown maker, 1660 – 80, Arita, Japan; Dish with VOC monogram, unknown maker, 1660 – 80, Arita, Japan; Tankard, 1680 – 1700, Arita, Japan. Museum nos. 2737-1852, 3-1886 & C.416-1918. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Another popular type of Japanese porcelain was Kakiemon ware. These were characterised by simple, asymmetrical designs, using bright colours on a fine white ground that were applied onto the glazed surface and fired again at a lower temperature. Several independent enamelling studios were active in Arita, one was owned by the Kakiemon family from whom the whole category of ware takes its name. Kakiemon ware was the costliest and most sought-over type of Japanese porcelain exported to Europe and was widely copied by Dutch, German, French and English ceramic factories.

(Left to right:) Kakiemon-style dish with 'Three Friends of Winter' design, 1690 – 1720, Arita, Japan. Museum no. FE.83-1970, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London; Saucer, Meissen porcelain factory, 1729 – 1731. Museum no. C.575&A-1922, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London; Plate with partridge design, Bow porcelain factory, London, about 1755. Museum no. C.1005-1924, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

European influence on Japan

Despite the restrictions placed on foreign trade and relations, Japan in the period after 1639 was not entirely closed to foreign influence. After 1720, when the Shogun (military ruler) Tokugawa Yoshimune (1684 – 1751) relaxed the rules regarding the importation of foreign books, the Dutch and their goods, including the scientific knowledge they brought with them, were the subject of both scholarly inquiry and popular interest.

The latter half of the 18th century saw the development of rangaku or 'Dutch learning', which represented an important alternative to dominant intellectual practices derived from China. Nagasaki was the obvious focus for Japanese interest in the Dutch, but most who visited the city in the hope of seeing the Europeans left disappointed as access to Dejima was limited to local officials and courtesans. They could, however, purchase a pictorial souvenir of their visit to the port, in the form of a painting or, more commonly, a woodblock print.

Although only merchants, the Dutch were accorded the rare honour of regular audiences with the Shogun. While in the Shogun capital, the Dutch were lodged at the Nagasaki-ya. The famous image by Katsushika Hokusai (1760 – 1849) reveals the excitement their presence created among the residents of the city.

Places of Entertainment in the Eastern capital, Katsushika Hokusai, 1802, Edo, Japan. Museum no. E.2675-1925. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The taste for 'Dutch things' was widespread and varied, with images of Europeans appearing on fashionable accessories such as combs, inro (traditional Japanese case for holding small objects) and netsuke (miniature sculptures). For most people, rangaku represented the new and fashionable.

In understanding Japanese culture, emphasis is often placed on the polarity between 'native' and 'foreign', but it is also one of successful assimilation and absorption. The Dutch, like the Portuguese before them, had a significant impact on the cultural realities of Edo-period Japan. At the same time they continued to signify an 'other' world, but not so much a world without, as an alternative world within: an imaginary space of excitement, entertainment and exoticism.

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Hand-scroll depicting the Dutch factory at Dejima (detail), maker unknown, about 1800, Nagasaki, Japan. Museum no. D.151-1905. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London