In 1542, a Chinese pirate ship was swept by a typhoon towards the island of Tanegashima in Japan. On the ship were a few Portuguese sailors, the first Europeans to land on Japan, who returned to Europe with stories of a united nation with people who had treated them well. Soon Portugal sent its first trading ship, and for the next hundred years the Portuguese had a virtual monopoly on European trade with Japan.
Faith followed trade. The Jesuits, who accompanied the merchants, had reasonable success in Japan. Rapid conversions to Christianity alarmed the Buddhists who demanded expulsion of the missionaries, but the Jesuits were protected by the Shogunate. By 1582, around 150,000 Japanese were estimated to have converted. The situation changed in 1587, when a sudden reversal in attitude towards Christians forced the expulsion of foreigners and drove Christianity underground. Missionaries were arrested, imprisoned, crucified. The reasons were political – the Japanese linked religious fervour with expansionist designs of the Portuguese – and by 1639 Japan had closed its doors to the world: no foreigners were allowed into Japan, and no Japanese was allowed to travel abroad, a policy of isolation that would last over two hundred years.
The door, though, had a tiny opening, a small artificial island called Dejima in Nagasaki bay. From 1641 to 1853, Dejima was Japan’s only link to the outside world. On the island a handful of Dutch were allowed to stay and conduct commerce. (The Dutch, under the aegis of the Dutch East Indies Company, had arrived in Japan in the early 17th century, and had continued to gain trust of the natives by showing little interest in missionary activities.)
The arrangement in Dejima was highly restrictive and tightly controlled: the dozen Dutchmen on the island – which measured 15,000 square meters – were always accompanied by “spies”; any form of religious worship – including possession of religious artifacts – was prohibited; entry to the mainland was possible under special circumstances, and never alone; interpreters mediated all Dutch-Japanese interactions, and no Dutchman was allowed to learn the Japanese language. Each year a few ships would arrive from Batavia – on the Indonesian island of Java, where the headquarters of the Dutch East Indies Company was situated – carrying raw silk (from Bengal), velvet, sugar, glass and books, and taking back silver, copper, camphor, porcelain.
On one such ship, late in the summer of 1799, Jacob De Zoet, a Dutch clerk from the province of Zeeland, arrived in Dejima. To learn what happens next, pick up David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet.