Deshima op Keiga scherm

Blogpost 005: Deshima, the Dutch trading post in Nagasaki

Deshima, the Dutch trading post in Nagasaki

An important location that is depicted on Keiga’s folding screen is Deshima: the artificial, fan-shaped island and location of the Dutch trading post.

The Dutch trade in Nagasaki was an important part of the city and unique within Japan, as described in blogpost 004. Deshima is a prominent eye-catcher, positioned in the centre of the painting on the folding screen. However, in reality the trading post should have been positioned under a different angle and slightly more to the left of the bay. The trading post is placed in the centre of the composition as the result of Keiga playing with perspective, probably in an effort to emphasize the island for a (likely) Dutch commissioner of the screen.      

Kamerscherm Keiga
Deshima as depicted on the folding screen by Kawahara Keiga, c. 1836 (RV-7141-1).  ​

The creation of the Dutch trading post in Nagasaki

Deshima is primarily known for the Dutch trading post that was situated on the island from 1641 until 1859. Yet, the artificial island was not originally built for the Dutch. When the first Dutch ship arrived in Japan in the year 1600, the crewmen on board were not the first Europeans to set foot in Japan. The Portuguese were already present in Japan since 1543 and were primarily active in and around Nagasaki.* In 1609, the Tokugawa government granted the Dutch the privilege to trade in Japan in the town of Hirado (also in southern Japan). 

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, The Netherlands and Portugal were at odds with each other to gain as much power as possible in Asia. Therefore, both countries were also eager to gain a monopoly in Japan, at the expense of the other. The result was that the Dutch and Portuguese regularly tried to discredit one another in communications with the Tokugawa government, but most of this had little effect. The Tokugawa government had only recently (in 1600) risen to power after more than a hundred years of internal conflicts in Japan. Eventually, the new Tokugawa hegemony turned out to be beneficial to the Dutch. Because the new rulers had not yet consolidated their power base in the early seventeenth century, they feared for the loyalty of the many warlords in Japan. Especially those who were recently converted to Christianity (specifically Catholicism) by Portuguese missionaries were a potential risk, as their loyalties could lay with foreign powers. The Dutch on the other hand primarily focused on trade. The spread of Catholicism came to be mainly associated with the Portuguese presence in Japan. Eventually, the fears of the Tokugawa became reality; a massive, partly Christian motivated, rebellion broke out in Shimabara (near Nagasaki) in 1637. As a reaction, the Tokugawa government cracked down hard on (Catholic) Christianity in Japan: missionaries were sentenced to death, Christian Japanese subjects were persecuted, and the Portuguese traders were banished in 1639. The Dutch were the only Europeans allowed to remain, but on the condition that they moved to the newly built walled compound on the island of Deshima, to prevent any unwanted spread of European influences in Japan.  

Nanban schip
A ‘black ship’ of the Portugese in Japanese waters. In Japan the Portugese were known as ‘Nanban’, literally meaning ‘Southern Barbarians’. Dutch, on the other hand, were known as ‘Kōmō’, literally ‘Redhaired (barbarians)’. (Woodblock print, RV-4581-1). 

The Dutch trade in Japan

The Dutch trading post was manned year-round by only a small group of inhabitants. The most important figures in the trading post were the opperhoofd (literally, chieftain – the highest official), the warehouse manager, the secretary and the doctor. Besides these four officials, roughly twelve other Dutchmen and a group of Southeast-Asian enslaved servants lived on the island. The only change of pace for the inhabitants came in the form of the few Dutch trading ships (between one and four per year) that visited the trading post between June and November. The most important inhabitants of Deshima also had to partake in the so-called ‘court journey’ to the capital of Edo (now Tokyo) where they paid tribute to the shogun and his government.**

In Japan, the Dutch mostly bought copper, silver, Japanese lacquerware, porcelain, soy, sake and camphor oil for their trade. Japanese copper and silver were of vital importance to the Dutch Asian trade, since they were used as currency in other Asian countries. To the Japanese, the Dutch mostly sold (Chinese) silk, cotton, sugar, and various kinds of wood. Additionally, the Dutch imported many (European and Chinese) books and various scientific objects. These objects were important to Japanese scientists. In fact, a scientific field had been developed that was literally called ‘Dutch learning’ (Jp. rangaku). In this field, the Japanese studied a wide selection of Western scientific and academic texts. Especially medicine and other natural sciences were popular. But for study materials, they were dependent on whatever the Dutch could supply.     

The end of the Dutch monopoly in Japan came in 1854, when the American Commodore Perry forced Japan to open its ports to other foreign countries. The Dutch trade in Nagasaki persisted for a while after 1854, but changes had been set in motion. Between 1855 and 1859, the Dutch still played an important part in Nagasaki as they helped the Japanese by teaching various courses at the newly founded Nagasaki Naval Training Centre that opened nearby Deshima. But as the competition from other foreign countries in Japan grew, and international power of the Dutch had waned since the seventeenth century, Deshima neared its end as trading post. Deshima was officially closed in 1859 and most of the Dutch officials were moved to Yokohama (near Tokyo) and to other parts of Nagasaki. In the following century, the island of Deshima was completely swallowed by the various city expansions of Nagasaki. In the 1980s, a major project was launched by the Nagasaki municipality to restore Deshima to its former glory. Since the start of the project, many buildings have been reconstructed to resemble the originals standing there in the 1820s. In 2017, Nagasaki, with a big ceremony, opened a new bridge that - for the first time in more than 130 years - once again connects the city with the ‘island’ of Deshima.    

Dejima Omotemon brug
Deshima, Nagasaki, late 2017. The municipality of Nagasaki is making enormous efforts to reconstruct Deshima as it once was in the 1820s. The newly constructed bridge to the ‘main gate’ (seen in this picture) is of a modern design and was opened in 2017. The plan is to restore Deshima as a proper island, but to do this, many buildings and roads would need to be demolished or relocated. Therefore, the project will still take many years to realize. (Photo Houjyou-Minori on [last visited 09-10-2019]).  

[*] This paragraph is based on our own research and on G.K. Goodman (2000), Japan and the Dutch 1600 – 1853 (Richmond, Curzon Press) pp. 9 - 18.

[**] The court journey was initially undertaken first yearly, but after 1790 once every four years. This paragraph is based on our own research and on D. Palmer (2016), ‘Nagasaki’s Districts: Western Contact with Japan through the History of a City’s Space’, Journal of Urban History, 42(3), pp. 477 - 505.

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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