Blog 004, Kawahara Keiga

Blogpost 004 – The unique position of Nagasaki as international port city

Nagasaki as international port city

Looking at the Keiga folding screen, it soon becomes clear that Nagasaki is a proper port city. The bay of Nagasaki is filled with a large variety of ships. Besides the many Japanese ships, a few foreign ships are also present in the bay.

Minimal presence of foreign ships

A Dutch ship lays prominently at anchor situated to the right of the Dutch trading post Deshima. A bit further away, straight across from Deshima, two Chinese trading vessels can be discerned. Yet compared to other major international port cities of the time, such as London, Canton (now Guangzhou), Amsterdam, and Antwerp, the presence of foreign ships was minimal. Though small in number, the ‘abundance’ of foreign ships was an extraordinary sight for Japanese standards. The reason for this is that Japan for the greater part of the Edo-period (1600 – 1868) maintained a policy of isolation, which greatly restricted foreign trade. Nagasaki was one of the few exceptions during this period. In this city foreign trade was allowed, albeit under heavy restrictions and regulations. 

Buitenlandse schepen, Kawahara keiga
A Dutch ship and two Chinese ships at anchor in Nagasaki Bay. Four smaller Japanese vessels are also present, of which the ship with the white and black sail is a small reconnaissance ship of the local Tokugawa government. (Detail of Keiga folding screen, RV-7141-1)
1. This text is based on our own research and on (among others) the following articles: T. Kazui & S. D. Videen (1982), “Foreign Relations during the Edo Period: Sakoku Reexamined”, in The Journal of Japanese Studies 8 (2), pp. 283-306; L. Cullen (2017), “The Nagasaki Trade of the Tokugawa Era: Archives, Statistics and Management”, in Japan Review: Journal of the International Research Center for Japanese Studies 31, pp. 69-104. 

The ‘isolation’ of Japan (Jp. sakoku), c.1639 - 1854

The decision to implement policies which ‘isolated’ Japan can be traced back to two major causes. The first is that the Japanese government sought to defend the country against Western (Christian) influences. The government was headed by the shogun, the highest military official of the country. This hereditary title was passed down within the Tokugawa-clan, which rose to power in 1600. By the 1630s they were still consolidating their power and they feared for the loyalty of their Christian subjects. They were a potential danger for rebellions as their loyalty could lay with foreign powers instead of with the shogun and his military government. The Portuguese, who first arrived in 1543 and soon started investing in trade and carrying out (catholic) missionary work, were banished from the country in 1639. The (protestant) Dutch, who more exclusively focussed on trade and were not spreading their religion, remained as the only Europeans allowed to trade in Japan.

The second reason for isolation – or rather regulation, as many historians now view the situation – was the protection of the Japanese economy. To prevent foreign powers from flooding the Japanese market with various goods, restrictions were put in place to limit the number of foreign ships that could visit Japan each year. Apart from the limit on foreign ships, it was forbidden for Japanese subjects to leave the country. This law was actively enforced. Rules were even put in place to limit the sturdiness of ships to make them unsuitable for traversing rougher seas and oceans. Japanese that travelled to the shores of other countries, even by accident, were not allowed to return to Japan. The exports of important resources for their internal economy (like copper and silver) were also restricted by law, to prevent the country being drained by foreign powers. 

To counteract the spread of Christianity, the inhabitants of Nagasaki and surrounding lands had to step on a depiction of Jesus and/or the holy virgin Mary every year at New Year, to prove that they were not Christian. These ‘trampling images’, usually cast in bronze, were called “fumi-e”. (RV-2984-5)

The few countries that were permitted to trade with Japan

The result of these isolation policies was that only four countries were officially allowed to maintain contact with Japan: Korea, the Ryūkyū kingdom (the Okinawa-islands, now a province of Japan), China, and the Netherlands. Korea was the only country with which Japan maintained official diplomatic relations. These two countries regularly exchanged delegations and embassies. The trade with Korea was the exclusive prerogative of the lord of the Japanese island of Tsushima, situated between Japan and Korea. The Ryūkyū kingdom was in the unique circumstance of being vassal to both China and Japan. That made it possible for Japan to conduct indirect trade via Ryūkyū with a number of Asian countries, China in particular. 
For China and The Netherlands, the trade situation within Nagasaki was somewhat similar. Both countries had, officially, no diplomatic contact with Japan. The contact with China was maintained through the contact with Chinese traders, the contact with the Dutch was maintained through the Dutch East India Company (V.O.C.). In the city of Nagasaki, both counties were confined to their respective trading posts. For the Chinese, this was the district Tōjin yashiki (to the far left on the screen) and for the Dutch it was Deshima. Because of this measure Dutch and Chinese traders were almost perpetually locked up in their respective trading posts. A difference between both countries was that, per year, many more Chinese than Dutch ships were allowed to trade in Nagasaki. 
Despite the major differences between the trade situation for the aforementioned countries, they had one thing in common; All contact between Japan and each of these four countries took place far away from the three major cities of Edo, Kyoto and Osaka. So even though Japan was not completely isolated during this time period, the contact with the rest of the world took place far away from the centre of power. The relatively small city of Nagasaki therefore had a unique position as location for various international exchanges. The result of this was that, despite all the regulatory policies, a certain degree of intercultural blending took place in the city. Japanese, Chinese and European art styles, literature and science were exchanged, studied, and adopted in and around Nagasaki. Such direct intercultural exchanges were unique in Japan until the opening of Japan in 1854. The Japanese folding screen that Keiga painted using Western perspective could essentially not have existed if it wasn’t for the extraordinary situation in Nagasaki during the Edo-period.

Buitenlanders in Nagasaki
A ‘Nagasaki print’ from the early 19th century, depicting five foreigners. From right to left you can see a Chinese man of the Qing dynasty, a Korean man, a Dutchman, an inhabitant of the Ryūkyūs, and a Russian. Japan had no direct trade relations with Russia, but Russians regularly made attempts to negotiate with Japan from the 19th century onwards. (RV-5824-11)


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Curator East Asia Daan Kok and Research Associate RCMC/Japan Davey Verhoeven write about the restoration and the results of their research of the folding screen every month. Those blog posts can be found on this overview page