For centuries, Japan survived outside invasions due to its geographical isolation and xenophobic culture. During the early 17th century, the Japanese government realized that it had to balance its fear of the outside world with the need for trade and technological improvements. Consequently, the government created Dejima, a port which allowed trade with the outside world. Dejima, which literally translates to “exit island,” was a success: Japan modernized relatively quickly, and stood strong as one by one its neighbors fell to Western colonial powers.
Arrival of Europeans in Japan
In 1543, a storm blew a Portuguese merchant ship to Japan. For the first time since Marco Polo, Europeans set foot on Japanese soil. This event would mark the intertwining of Japan’s and Europe’s history.
This wasn’t Japan’s first contact with Europeans. Several decades earlier, the Portuguese had established trading outposts in India and routinely sailed to China in search of Silk. There were numerous encounters between Japanese and Chinese traders in various ports. For example, a year earlier in 1542, Portuguese sailors visited Tanegashima, a small island south of Japan.
The Edo Period
When trade with Europe began, Japan was in the midst of the Edo period, a golden age of culture, consolidation, and economic growth.
For centuries, Japan had been nominally centralized under an imperial government. However, the government had very few powers in practice. Civil wars, secession, and power conflicts were constant prior to the Edo Period. The Shogun, a powerful general, nominally ruled over Japan. In the late 16th century, the Samurai military faction gained influence and were able to take control of the central government and consolidate power. They overthrew the Shogunate and systematically destroyed all of their opposition. 250 years of stability and prosperity followed.
Trade and Tensions in Nagasaki
Direct trade with the Europeans would take several more decades to materialize. Commerce started with a yearly voyage of 3 or 4 Portuguese merchant ships which would come to trade silk, porcelain, and other Chinese goods.
In the 1570s, Portuguese missionaries helped build the Nagasaki port to facilitate trade with Japan. Portuguese products such as tobacco, bread, and textiles began spreading from Nagasaki to the rest of the country.
Problems began when Christian missionaries began using the port of Nagasaki as a base to convert Japanese peasants. Concerned about cultural dilution, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a powerful bureaucrat who helped unify Japan, expelled all of the Christian missionaries in 1587.
The Portuguese didn’t help alleviate tensions and took numerous Japanese as slaves. Women were sold as concubines to crew members, and boys were taken to Macau as gifts to the Chinese. Finally, in 1571, Portugal banned the purchase of Asian slaves, although it was too little too late.
In 1596, Japanese and European tensions peaked when Hideyoshi crucified 26 Christian missionaries out of fear of a Spanish invasion.
Expulsion and Exit
The Japanese elite were conflicted about trading with the Europeans. They benefited greatly from gains of productivity due to trade. The trade, however, came at the cost of slavery and Christian cultural promulgation in Japan.
Shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu came to a compromise. In 1634 he constructed an artificial island called Dejima, which translates to “Exit Island” in the bay of Nagasaki. Soon after, he began slowly expelling the Portuguese, confining them to Dejima. By 1639, the last remaining Portuguese traders had been expelled from Japan.
Various other European nations soon started trading with Japan such as the Spanish, the British, and most importantly, the Dutch.
Unlike the Portuguese and Spanish, who wanted to convert the Japanese to Christianity, the Dutch were purely interested in trade. For that reason, by the 1640s, only the Dutch were allowed to continue trading on Dejima while other Europeans were expelled.
Life on Dejima
By 1641, Dejima was the only port open to European traders, and only to the Dutch. Life on Dejima took on a unique character, with both Japanese and European cultural influences.
Dejima itself is a tiny island, only 9 square kilometers. The island contained 20 homes for Dutch merchants, several warehouses, and buildings for Japanese officials. The Japanese provided numerous services to the Dutch such as catering, 150 interpreters, and security. In exchange, the Dutch would pay a small amount of rent to the local Nagasaki families who owned the island.
Due to bad experiences with the Portuguese in earlier decades, the Japanese took many precautions. The island was home to a Japanese supervisor and 50 staffers who served him. Only two ships were allowed to dock on the island at once. All new arrivals were inspected, and religious texts and weapons were confiscated upon arrival. The Japanese officials would then take the ship’s sails, which they wouldn’t return until their departure. The Dutch maintained officials on the island to deal with the Japanese government.
The Japanese maintained a strict policy of “sakoku” which prohibited Europeans from crossing into Nagasaki and Japanese from crossing into Dejima. Cooks, prostitutes, interpreters, carpenters, shipwrights, and officials were exempted. Over the centuries, the sakoku slowly loosened, and more and more Europeans were allowed to visit the mainland.
The Japanese were particularly interested in European weaponry, especially handheld firearms.
Although the Japanese were already familiar with Chinese gunpowder based weaponry, their technological limitations prevented the weapons from seeing widespread usage. In 1453, when the Portuguese arrived, they brought numerous modern European rifles with them. The Japanese were fascinated, and quickly began purchasing large quantities of European weapons.
By the 1600s, the Japanese began manufacturing their own guns based off European designs, the Tanegashima matchlock rifles. The new rifles immediately saw widespread use, and became the weapon of choice of the Edo period. In 1854, when Japan fully opened up to the outside world, their army was already using numerous Japanese-manufactured firearms.
Starting in 1592, the Japanese began constructing galleons based off European designs known as “Red Seal Ships.”
The name “Red Seal” comes from the permits which the Japanese government required captains to obtain which were sealed with red ink. The ships often weighed between 500 and 750 tons, and could carry up to 200 crew members. They were often armed with cannons, and could easily compete with their European counterparts. Most of the ships were built on the mainland port of Nagasaki.
Numerous goods were introduced through Dejima to Japan such as cabbage, tomatoes, beer, coffee, and chocolate spread across Japan. Technologies ranging from photography to pianos began appearing across Japan.
The exchanges between Japan and Europe were not only commercial. They created Nanban art, an entire genre with combined European and Japanese themes. Badminton and billiards became fashionable with the Japanese elite. Numerous Japanese officials and citizens converted to Catholicism. Many Europeans became Japanophiles, and imitated Japanese arts and styles upon returning to Europe.
The Dejima trade lasted for over 200 years, and over 600 Dutch ships were serviced on the island. In 1854, American gunboats arrived in Japan and forcefully opened the country up to foreign traders. After that, Dejima became obsolete.
However, Dejima was a successful compromise. The Japanese were able to benefit from trade with Europe without sacrificing their cultural uniqueness.