Exhibition: The Dutch in Dejima

A peep into Tokugawa Japan

During the almost two and a half centuries when Japan shunned the rest of the World, the one Western country that remained on nodding terms was the Netherlands. This year the two countries celebrate 400 years of continuous contact in what must be one of the strangest international relationships ever. The current exhibition at the Edo Tokyo Museum focuses on this connection through documents, artwork and items collected and prized by the Dutch traders, offering a miscellaneous time capsule view of Japan during its hermit stage.

Japan in this period is often portrayed as a country under the heel of a paranoid regime of xenophobic Luddites, stifling every innovation with ruthless efficiency, however, the Tokugawas retained a keen interest in the outside world. One of the exhibits is "News of the World Reported by the Dutch" (1797) one of a regular series of documents compiled to keep the Tokugawas up to date with World events. Also, throughout this period, there was a growing enthusiasm among the learned classes for "Rangaku" or "Dutch knowledge" as the quickly developing Western sciences were known.

The reason for the nation's isolation was clearly not hatred of foreigners. Following the victory of the Tokugawas, Japan was controlled by a delicately balanced feudal system of clans affiliated with the Tokugawa family counterbalanced by those that only owed token allegiance, a system that could easily be toppled by foreign intervention. It was because of these factors that foreigners were distrusted.

One of the exhibits is a wood carving of the Dutch humanist philosopher Erasmus that decorated the De Liefde, the first Dutch ship to reach Japanese shores. The rationalist, humanist attitude symbolized by this relic, as well as the restrained, businesslike demeanor of the Dutch, was obviously more to the taste of the Japanese than the Catholic fanaticism of the Spanish and Portuguese or the piratical enterprise of the English.

First contact was made on the 19th of April, 1600, when the De Liefde, piloted by the Englishman, William Adams, ran aground in Kyushu. A few years later, the Dutch set up a trading station on the island of Hirado and were still there when other Westerners were expelled from Japan. A few years later, in 1641 they were asked to relocate to a tiny man-made, fan-shaped island in the bay of Nagasaki, about the size of a soccer field. Here, under the rule of their Kapitans, the Hollanders traded European wool, and sugar, spices, sharkskin, and sappanwood from Southeast Asia, for Japanese precious metals, camphor, ceramics and lacquerware, many of which are on display along with more exotic items designed to impress the local potentates, like the "Unicorn's horn" from a narwhal.

Many of the items in the exhibition show good taste, however, it must be remembered that the bottom line was profit. The great cabinet covered in ray skins and gold lacquer, and the intricate mother-of-pearl inlaid desk with a flower and bird motif are clearly items of great beauty, showing touches of the rococo style which excelled at presenting exotic foreign influences to European taste. Nevertheless, both pieces are practical and seem intended to serve as show items, displaying the high quality of Japanese craftsmanship to the customers back home.

This prosaicness of the Dutch is nowhere more evident than in the great amount of artwork commissioned by the Kapitans, in particular, the hundreds of works on display by the extremely gifted Japanese artist, Keiga Kawahara. Although an artist capable of great delicacy – see his picture of a lady visiting an icebound well – he was instructed by the Kapitans who employed him to depict a wide variety of scenes employing accuracy of perspective and clarity of line more common to a European draftsman than a Japanese artist.

So numerous and detailed are Kawahara's paintings, that he was obviously playing the role of a human camera. There are detailed representations of Nagasaki Bay, delineations of the various capes and headlands around the coast, and zoological pictures of Japanese sea life and wildlife. But perhaps his most interesting pictures are his precise color views of everyday life focusing on various economic activities, such as tea picking, and noodle making. He shows craftsmen at work, making tatami mats or cutting tobacco using techniques and tools that had disappeared before they could be recorded by camera. Although beautiful and charming, the beauty of these pictures is quite incidental with the focus being firmly on the economic aspects, as the Kapitans, sensing the country's immense economic potential, strove to gather commercially useful information.

With such an unerring eye for detail and prodigious output it is no wonder that Kawahara was accused by the Shogunate in 1828 of being a spy and forbidden further contact with the Dutch. The influence of European perspective was not lost on such bright and impressionable artists, however, also leaving a mark in the work of Kawahara's contemporary, Katsushika Hokusai.

The Dutch, apart from showing an interest in anything that smelled of money, such as lacquerware or porcelain, also had a keen interest in the grotesque. Jan Cock Blomhoff, Kapitan from 1817 to 1823, seemed to rejoice in his exotic posting by collecting all manner of oddities such as the heads of 'ogres' and mummified 'mermaids' constructed by charlatans out of fish skin, animal bones, and washi paper.

One of the items that he collected is a 'peeping box' through which pictures could be viewed through a small aperture. This is exactly what Dejima was for over 200 years - a peeping box through which the outside World watched Japan and Japan kept its eye on the outside World.

The Kapitan (the Dutch Chief) Collection runs until Dec. 3, 2000, at Edo Tokyo Museum

The Japan Times
18th November, 2000
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