Southern Barbarians and Red-Hairs in Feudal Japan

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C.R. Boxer, History Today Volume: 31 Issue: 10 1981

Nagasaki is often immediately associated with the American atomic attack on August 9th, 1945. However, it was also, for over two centuries, the only place in Japan open to foreigners. How were Europeans received there?

“This government of Japan may well be accounted the greatest and most powerful Tyranny, that ever was heard of in the world; for all the rest [of the people] are as slaves to the Emperor (or great commander as they call him), who upon the least suspicion (or jealousy) or being angry with any man (be he never so great a man) will cause him upon the receipt of his letter to cut his belly, which if he refuse to do, not only he, but all the rest of their race shall feel the smart thereof.'
(Richard Cocks, chief of the English 'Factory' or trading-agency at Hirado, to the Earl of Salisbury, December 10th, 1614).”

The rightful Emperor of Japan was an ostensibly highly venerated but powerless ruler at Kyoto, who claimed unbroken descent from the Sun Goddess. He was called by foreigners the Dairi , or Mikado , and was sometimes described as a 'Pope' or spiritual monarch. The real power rested with the Shogun, or Generalissimo (originally, sei-i-tai-shogun , or 'barbarian-subduing generalissimo'). This title of 'great commander' as Cocks termed it, was hereditary in the House of Tokugawa, since the unification of the island-empire, after centuries of internecine warfare, by Tokugawa Ieyasu in 1600. Europeans who had resided for any length of time in Japan knew the true state of affairs; but they invariably referred to the incumbent Shogun as the Emperor, since he was the supreme executive ruler, and styled himself as such in correspondence with foreigners. The 'bellycutting' mentioned by Cocks was the long-established Japanese custom of ritual suicide by seppuku , or hara-kiri , as it is more commonly termed in Europe.

All the Europeans who visited feudal Japan were impressed by the readiness with which capital punishment was inflicted on all and sundry for the most trifling offences. The celebrated English pilot, Will Adams, who lived in Japan from 1600 until his death in 1620, wrote that the Japanese were 'in justice very severe, having no respect of persons.... No thief for the most part put in prison, but presently executed'. Another contemporary, the Spaniard, Bernardino de Avila Gir6n, observed: 'Name a Japanese and you name an executioner; and yet they say it is cruel to punish children' – a contrast which significantly illustrates the difference between Japanese and European attitudes. Richard Cocks, after passing the mutilated corpses of criminals on a roadside journey in 1616, commented, 'If it were not for this strict justice, it were no living among them, they are so villainous desperate.'

Westerners who came to Japan from the time of its 'discovery' by three Portuguese castaways in 1543 until the expulsion of all foreigners save the Dutch and the Chinese -in 1639, can be divided into two main categories. Those who visited the country briefly or for long periods, but who did not marry and settle down there; and those who became 'naturalised Japanners'. This latter category included the English pilot, Will Adams, with his homes at Hirado and Yokosuka, the Portuguese pilot, Balthazar de Sousa, 'who had a fine house with spacious and pleasant grounds' at Nagasaki in 1626, and the Dutch shipmates of Will Adams, Melchior van Sandvoort and Jan Joosten.

Before their official expulsion from the country in 1613-14, some of the missionaries, both Jesuits and friars, had lived in Japan for many years and acquired an excellent knowledge of the people, the language, and the country. The most remarkable among them was Padre Joao Rodrigues circa 1562-1633, nicknamed Tcuzzu , or 'the Interpreter'. He lived in Japan from 1577 to 1610, acting as a confidential interpreter to the Taiko , Toyotomi Hideyoshi 1536-1598, who first unified Japan, and later to the Shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu, 1542-1616, until he fell out of favour, was banished to Macao, and was replaced by Will Adams. His membership of the Church Militant prevented Rodrigues from giving objective accounts of Buddhism and Shinto. But his appreciation of Japanese art and literature in all their forms, his expert knowledge of the tea-ceremony and of many other distinctive aspects of Japanese culture, were not to be attained by any other Westerner in Japan until Von Siebold, B. H. Chamberlain and E. M. Satow in the nineteenth century.

Another long-time resident of Japan with an excellent knowledge of the language, the culture, and the people, was the Italian Jesuit priest, Organtino Gnecchi-Soldi, 1533-1609. Within thirty years of his death, he entered into Japanese folklore in an anonymous chapbook entitledKirishitan Monogatari (Tale of Christianity ). He was described as being 'somewhat similar in shape to a human being, but more like a long-nosed goblin, seven feet high, with a black skin, large protruding red nose shaped like a conch-shell and with teeth longer than those of a horse'. Under the name of Urugan Bateren (Padre Organtino), he figures in modern Japanese literature, including Akutagawa Ryunosuke's short story 'When the Gods Smile'. After being proscribed on pain of death for centuries, the Jesuits and their religion are now in high favour in contemporary Japan. Many streets in Nagasaki have been given names evocative of 'the Christian Century', and Kirishitan souvenirs are mass-produced for the tourist market.

The Japanese authorities at first showed themselves strangely reluctant to proceed to extremes against the European missionaries who had clearly and deliberately flouted the laws, manners, and customs of the 'Land of the Gods'. After the Shogun's proscription of Christianity and banishment of the missionaries in 1614, many of the Jesuits and friars thought that theBakufu ('curtain government') would not enforce the death-sentence against such European missionaries as they found in hiding, but would merely deport them to Manila or to Macao. Even unconverted Japanese had often told them that Hideyoshi had been criticised by many of the daimyo (feudal lords) for crucifying some Spanish Franciscan missionary friars in 1597. These critics had included Tokugawa Ieyasu; so it was widely assumed that the death-penalty would not be enforced against those who were caught in hiding. No missionary was in fact executed in Ieyasu's lifetime; but after his death, his son and successor, Hidetada, ordered the execution of four European missionary-priests in 1617. This marked an intensification of the persecution, which became yearly more wide-ranging, thorough, and severe. The problem of Christianity in Japan was no longer one of acceptance by the 'blind heathen', but the necessity for clandestine and underground adaptation and survival.

During the years when the Portuguese were established at Nagasaki and the trade with Macao was maintained by an annual 'Great Ship' (Nao in Portuguese; carrack in English), Japanese painters of the Kano School produced richly decorated byobu , or folding-screens. These screens made a 'most delightful show', as an English traveller noted in 1637; and many of them were exported to Macao and to Goa, whence a few reached Europe. They depicted the Nambanjin (literally 'Southern Barbarians'), arriving in their huge Kurofune ('Black Ship'), and disembarking at Nagasaki. The Portuguese traders from Macao were depicted in their exotic costumes of richly embroidered Chinese silks, tailored after the Indo-Portuguese fashions prevailing at Goa. The black African slaves, servants and sailors were also richly dressed, but went barefoot as a mark of their servile status. They are shown performing acrobatic feats in the shrouds and rigging, holding sunshades over their masters ashore, or leading exotic animals for presentation to Japanese dignitaries. Portuguese Jesuits and Spanish friars also figure in these screens, accompanied by their Japanese acolytes, but it is the black slaves who steal the show. The Japanese were clearly fascinated by these tall, jet-black Negroes, mostly from Mozambique.

Black slaves were even able to buy – or otherwise acquire – Japanese girls to take back with them to Macao; much to the disgust of the Jesuit missionaries, who strongly denounced but failed to stop the practice. These girls were mostly sold into servitude for a trifling sum by their own parents. Many of them came from the Shimabara Peninsula near Nagasaki, where the peasantry lived on the barest subsistence-line or below it. The Italian merchant-adventurer, Francesco Carletti, who visited Japan in 1597/98, was (or professed to be) horrified by this 'most shameless immorality' of the Portuguese. They hired the girls by the day, or the week, or the month, or for years on end, as they felt inclined, 'and in some cases married them themselves'. The Dutch and English who traded at Hirado from 1609 onwards, behaved in the same way. The Diary of Richard Cocks, 1611-1623, is replete with references to these women.

The English voluntarily left Hirado in 3623, since they could not cover their expenses. The Portuguese were expelled from Japan in 1639, on pain of death if they tried to return. They did return next year, and they were all executed save for thirteen of the lowest members of the crew, who were spared to take back to Macao the news of the execution of sixty-one members of the Embassy in August 1640. In 1641 the Dutch were removed from Hirado to Beshima, a small artificial fan-shaped islet joined by a bridge to the town of Nagasaki, which had been built for the confinement of the Portuguese in 1635. Here they remained until after the opening of the country to foreigners in 1853-68.

The Dutch on Deshima have often been criticised for their real or alleged indifference to the rich cultural panorama of Tokugawa Japan, and for concentrating on balance-sheets rather than on artistic and intellectual interests. But what else could have been expected from the representatives of a monopolistic commercial company which confessedly had 'trade as its compass and profit as its lodestar'? Moreover, not all of the Dutch on Deshima were merely dollar-grubbing and dollar-grinding merchants, whose only diversions were the pipe and the bottle. Many of them were just that. But there was also a fair number of intelligent men, who took some interest in Japanese culture. They made the best of their very restricted opportunities, which were compounded by the fact that they were strictly forbidden to learn the language.

Engelbert Kaempfer, a German physician who was in the country in 1690-92, produced a remarkably accurate description of Japan, which was published posthumously in English in 1728, under the rather misleading title of A History of Japan . A Japanese author, writing in 1804, commented: 'The existence of this Holland Factory at Deshima has called into being books like Kaempfer's, which depicts our country’s situation so well, that I, never having been in the Kwanto, still know what that district is like, because I have read this Dutch book. And so the Europeans know. Is this not terrible?' Nowadays, Japanese historians avidly study the records of the Dutch East India Company from Hirado and Deshima, still preserved in the archives at the Hague, in order to glean information about social and other conditions in Tokugawa Japan, which the more percipient Dutch observers noted, but which are not available in Japanese sources since they were taken for granted by indigenous contemporaries.

The Japanese showed themselves to be as complaisant about providing the Dutch on Deshima with women, as they had originally been with the Portuguese. Kaempfer took a rather jaundiced view of the system as operated by the Nagasaki officials, although he did not object so much to the immorality involved as to the prices charged. 'They also take care to furnish our people on demand with whores; and truly our young sailors unacquainted as they commonly are with the virtues of temperance, are not ashamed to spend five or six dollars for one night's pleasure, and with such wenches too, whom a native of Nagasaki could have for two or three mas [small silver coin], they being none of the best and handsomest'. As the average Dutch sailor's basic pay was then the equivalent of five or six dollars a month, this was certainly not a cheap night's 'rest and recreation' for Jan Maat (Jack Tar).

Needless to say, it was not only young sailors who patronized these prostitutes; their clients included respectable middle-aged Dutch merchants, as no foreign women were allowed on Deshima. The Swedish botanist and traveller, C. P. Thunberg noted that in his time (1775-76), 'One of these female companions cannot be kept for less than three days, but she may be kept as long as one pleases, a year, or even several years together.' Most of the daily fee was paid to the brothel-keeper; but the girls sometimes got rich presents from their Dutch lovers, whom they in turn obliged by smuggling expensive goods, such as watches, into the town for sale at high prices. Children were seldom born of these unions. When they did produce offspring, the fathers were allowed to provide for the education of their children, but could not take them out of Japan. Thunberg adds in this connection: 'During my stay in this country, I saw a girl of about six years of age, who very much resembled her father, a European, and remained with him on our small island, the whole year through.' These romances were sometimes continued by correspondence, long after the lovers had parted with no hope of seeing each other again. Some of these letters from Japanese prostitutes to their former Dutch lovers are still preserved in the Netherlands.

The Dutch did not employ Negro slaves, but they did have Indonesian slaves and servants on Deshima. These likewise intrigued the Japanese, and are often depicted in colour-prints of the so-called Nagasaki-e , a form of Pop-Art produced for sale to Japanese tourists. These Indonesians were also allowed to have the services of prostitutes if they could afford to pay them. On one occasion, these ladies smuggled out some of their patrons, disguised in women's clothes, and took them to the brothel-quarter of Maruyama, where a good time was had by all until they were discovered and severely disciplined. One of the questions most commonly asked of Western men in Japan is "What do you think of Japanese women?" There has never been any doubt about the answer since the first Southern Barbarian to land at Tanegashima in 1543 asked for and received the local swordsmith's daughter in exchange for his own arquebus.

Further reading: 

  • C. R. Boxer, The Christian Century in Japan, 1549-1650 (University of California Press, 1951, 1981)
  • Jan Compagnie in War and Peace, 1602-1799 (Heinemann (Asia), Hong Kong, 1979)
  • Michael Cooper, S. J., They came to Japan. An Anthology of European Reports on Japan, 1543-1640 (Thames and Hudson, and University of California Press, 1965)
  • C. R. Boxer is Professor Emeritus of Portuguese at London University, and Professor Emeritus of History at Yale University.

Southern Barbarians and Red-Hairs in Feudal Japan | History Today

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