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  • Dickie Zebregs

Auspicious Dutchies: the History of the Netherlands in Japan

­After the discovery of Japan by Europeans in about 1542, when the Portuguese Fernandez Mendez Pinto was driven thither by storms aboard a Chinese junk ship and landed in Kinshiu, his travel-partner Zaimoto educated the Japanese, most notably about firearms and gunpowder. In these early times of connection with the outside world, the inhabitants of the archipelago were kind to foreigners and very curious. As discussed in our Explained ‘Namban: Art for the Barbarians’, the Portuguese were able to mission on Japan and convert some Japanese to Christianity and were even able to trade with the Japanese and produce early Namban lacquerwares. Of the opening thus made for commerce, the Dutch were first to take advantage and monopolized the trade with Japan. During this period, European pictorial traditions were introduced and the influence in Japanese art became more prominent. One of the earliest examples can be seen in an inro from the collection of Mrs Dobson (depicted in: Marcus B. Huish, L.L.B., Japan and its Art, Alpha Editions, 2017), where the artist clearly created a motif derived from Dutch leather paper, which found favour and was copied more, as can be seen in a pipe-case from our collection. The Dutch started the trade with Japan from as early as 1610, even when the archipelago closed its ports and borders to foreign traders and was isolated, and were able to do so, restricted, until 1854 when a commercial treaty signed by the American Commodore Perry that ended the isolation and monopoly of the Dutch.

Early years The first ship to arrive in Japan was ‘De Liefde’, which was welcomed by Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu with great admiration. The merchant Melchior van Santvoort got acquainted with the Shogun, which resulted in a good relationship between the two countries. In 1609 a letter of the Dutch Stadhouder Prince Maurits of Orange was given to the Shogun, with the positively received request to open all Japanese ports to the Dutch trade. Jacques Specx became the first head of command or Opperhoofd of Japan. When the Dutch opened a trade-post on Taiwan (Formosa), trade really started to bloom. However, the successor of Tokugawa Ieyasu was more afraid of the pushiness of the Europeans and restricted trade to the ports of Hirado and Nagasaki only. Tokugawa Iemitsu, in tradition to his predecessor, closed Japan off to all international trade and banished the Portuguese to the island of Deshima. In a brief rebellion by the Portuguese, the Dutch took the side of the Japanese, which resulted in the permission to trade with Japan as the sole European country.

In 1639, all Portuguese were banished from Japan and trade was forbidden with death penalty as a result. When the Portuguese tried to come with another fleet, 40 men were executed. All over Japan, wooden signs were placed, encouraging the Japanese to report Portuguese, Christians or Japanese who traded with the Portuguese in return for a bonus. One of these so called ‘Edict Boards’ or kosatsu, is in our collection and for sale.

Life on Deshima

Living on Deshima, which was about the size of two football fields and only connected to land by a single bridge, wasn’t very pleasant for the Dutch and they had to abide strict rules. Only 10 to 15 men could stay on the island and other then the annual visit to Edo to pledge allegiance to the Shogun, they couldn’t leave. During the trade season from August to November, the inhabitants were the Opperhoofd, the second merchant, some other lower-ranking merchants and assistants amongst who a doctor. At the end of the season, most would leave for Jakarta (Batavia) again. Furthermore, they were constantly controlled by the Japanese otana (quartermasters) and metsuke (secret police) or dwarskijkers. Some 270 Japanese worked on and for the island, amongst who 150 translators. The other locals brought food and worked as cooks, firemen, security and carriers. Christian objects such as bibles and crosses and weaponry were put into barrels upon arrival and sealed by the Japanese authorities. And last but not least, no Dutchman could be buried on Japanese soil, and the deceased were to have a Sailor’s Grave in front of the Nagasaki coast.

Kawahara Keiga - Depiction of Deshima, from our collection (sold)

Passing the time Life was boring on Deshima, and the Dutch passed their time with rooster-fights, gambling and of course women. Only two women ever set foot on Deshima during the isolation, Titia Bergsma and her wet nurse Petronella. So the Dutch – pastors were not allowed either – eagerly made use of the local prostitutes. The public women, named keisei, were divided into three groups in the pleasure district of Nagasaki. The oranda-yuki, kara-yuki, and the nihon-yuki, respectively the prostitutes for the Dutch, Chinese and Japanese. In the country, these women were not allowed to leave their district, but in Nagasaki an exception was made because the Dutch could not leave their island. Servants were not allowed on the island at night, so the keisei were there to provide the Dutch with their schnapps at night as well. The keisei distinguished themselves from their mainland colleagues in behaviour as well, for the first expected to behave modestly, but the latter mingled in conversations, shook hands, kissed, wore jewellery, drank coffee and ate chocolate. Hendrik Doeff, also known as Governor Duff, Opperhoofd from 1805 to 1817 made an exceptional trip to Mogiura with twenty keisei and held a legendary party. The New Year was also celebrated at Deshima, and many officials and translators were invited to join dinner which started at noon. Dutch dishes were served, and afterwards Japanese dishes, to please all visitors. These parties were renowned for the music, dancing and free-flowing alcoholic beverages, which lasted until the early hours.

Woodblock print depicting the Dutch parade to Edo, from our collection (for sale)

Annual audience

Every year the Dutch had to journey to the Shogun’s court in Edo, which was a great privilege. The journey was a welcome change in everyday Deshima life but quickly became a burden for it was very expensive and took three months and 2000 kilometres, partially over land. During this trip, the Opperhoofd, who was heightened in rank to the level of a daimyo, for this was necessary to be welcomed by the Shogun, was accompanied by a few Dutchmen and a

large number of Japanese carriers, translators and servants. The Shogun got presents from the Dutch, which later turned into demands that had to be met. This wish-list came to be known as the ‘Eisen van de Keizer’, in which was described oddly detailed, in text and drawing, what had to be brought to him. In 1765 for instance, three Persian stallions were ordered, not to be older than nine years, well trained and each had to be of a certain colour. Other typical demand-gifts were textiles, clockworks, telescopes, books, exotic animals and natural curiosities. In return, the Dutch would be presented 30 embroidered-silk kimono. Presents also had to be brought for the high-ranking officials, amongst who the Secretary of Foreigners, who ordered a male dog in 1785, 20 thumbs large with a single curl in its tail, and the Governor of Nagasaki who ordered a pendulum clock in 1814, as well as a trumpet and a globe. In 1790 court and the Dutch decided the latter only had to travel to Edo once in four years, which by the way did not relieve them from the obligation to give presents.

Auspicious Dutchies The image the Japanese had of the Dutch was often negative, but sometimes mildly positive. Hirata Atsutane (1776-1873) wrote that the Dutch “were tall, had a light skin tone, a large nose and twinkling stars in their eyes. They like to laugh, are never angry and are not dirty like the Chinese. They have dog’s eyes and while urinating, they lift one leg like a dog. They don’t have a heel; this is why they wear heals under their boots. They don’t live long and never grow older than 50, whilst some Japanese become 100 years old.” The three-month journey to Edo was a great attraction for the Japanese, who crowded along the roads to see a glimpse of the parade of the red-haired Barbarians, who adorned themselves in their most beautiful clothing. Of course, the word on what the Dutch looked like spread fast, albeit often badly reproduced. This resulted in charming representations of the Dutch in the Japanese arts.

The Dutch brought exotic items and wealth to Japan which made them interesting to the locals. Furthermore, there was a legend in the southern parts of Japan which described spirits coming from the south bringing wealth and prosperity; the counterpart of the Mayan legend describing gods coming from the west i.e. the Conquistadores. Regarding the fact that the Portuguese, and later the Dutch, came to Japan travelling the Southern-China Sea trade routes, this quickly became popular belief. These spirits from the west swiftly became talismans and charms for merchants, the Dutch were even worshipped as gods in temples. The Dutchmen not being able to leave their artificial island attributed to the mystery and popularity.

The Japanese wrote the following about the Dutch: “….The country lays in Europe in the North-West of the world. It has seven provinces and seventeen lords who rule there. Holland lays between 50 and 53 degrees from the North pole and it is a very cold country. The inhabitants have five characteristics: they have high noses, blue eyes, red hair, a white skin and elongated bodies. Their characters are called letteru, are written horizontally and cannot be read by Japanese, Chinese or other Asians. Their burukku [pants] are comparable with the Japanese momohiki. Their coats are called rokko which rensemnle our jiban. Their officials wear mantles like our maru kappa. Their food consists of bread, made of grain, which looks like a mochi but is baked. They also adore poultry, meat and fatty foods, and besides that eat a lot of raw daikon [raddish]. The country is far away from Japan, estimated 13.000 ri [about 51.000 km]. These days the only Dutch that are coming to Japan come from Java and not from Holland. Java was conquered by the Dutch and their most important castle is in Batavia, which resembles the settlement on red-haired Deshima. Java lays south of Japan, so they come with the southern winds during the rainy season in the fifth month and leave after they have imported their goods with the northern winds in the ninth month. […] The Dutch call their imposing hips skippu


Soon there was a large demand for netsuke, the toggles used on a kimono’s belt or obi to keep a pouch in place, depicting Dutchmen. Few netsuke carvers saw a Dutchman in real life, which resulted in hilarious depictions of the foreigners. Often with wide-brimmed hats, bulging eyes, curly hair and rotten teeth. The Dutchmen were depicted holding cockerels, for they held cockfights at Deshima, or dogs, for who would see a dog as a child and not as a pest? Dutch children were depicted as Chinese children or karako, because all foreign children must look the same and the Japanese only knew Chinese children. The boundary between Chinese and Dutch was vague in any case, for the carvers did not know what either looked like, which frequently resulted in a mix of a wide-brimmed hatted Dutchman with a Chinese expression, curly hair and silk mandarin coat.

Nagasaki-é The Dutchmen's strange faces, clothes, habits, and Western inventions such as pocket watches and telescopes intrigued the Japanese. As Japanese artists were not allowed to simply visit the Dutch on Deshima and make sketches, they too had to rely on brief glimpses, descriptions from people who had really seen the Dutchmen, work of colleagues and scarce examples of Western prints. Many Japanese travelled to Nagasaki to catch a glimpse of the isolated barbarians and would gladly bring a souvenir of their journey with them back home. Many woodblock prints depicting the large-nosed ugly tradesmen were published in Nagasaki and sold to these tourists. These so-called Nagasaki-é prints are nowadays extremely rare and sought-after.

The Japanese have since the arrival been interested in the Dutch, which nowadays still can be clearly noticed. Large numbers of Japanese tourists visit the Netherlands annually, besides the fact that they built a theme park with replicas of Dutch villages and buildings called Park Huis ten Bosch. Many Dutch words are still used in Japanese, such as miliku for milk and chisu for cheese (kaas). The depictions of Dutchman are quite possibly unique images of Westerners as viewed from the same level but foreign perspective and therefore are widely collected and adored by the Dutch.

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