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Tokugawa diplomacy: Foundering in the waters of distrust

by Florian Coulmas

PRISONERS FROM NAMBU: Reality and Make-Believe in 17th-Century Japanese Diplomacy, by Reinier H. Hesselink. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2001, 215 pp., $47.00 (cloth), $24.95 (paper)

The Dutch presence in Japan during the Edo Period is one of the most intriguing episodes of Europe’s global expansion. In contradistinction to other Europeans in Asia, the Dutch in Japan weren’t there to physically or spiritually subdue the natives by spreading their religion or building an empire. They came as traders and, therefore, were tolerated by the shogunate.

As the only Europeans permitted in the land, the Dutch played a very important role during those 2 1/2 centuries, but Dutch-Japanese relations weren’t always easy. Distrust and the perennial concern on the part of the Japanese government to keep the “southern barbarians” at a distance and in their place overshadowed regular business ties on many occasions. “Prisoners From Nambu” deals with an incident that troubled both the Japanese and the Dutch for years.

In the summer of 1643, 10 crew members of the Dutch yacht Breskens went ashore at Nambu in northern Japan, where they were taken prisoner. Brought to Edo (modern-day Tokyo) for questioning, they were held there for four months. After many interrogations they were released and eventually reunited with their ship.

For the Dutch East India Company — at the time the wealthiest trading company in the world, with power to rival many a government’s — this was a costly affair. They had to cover all expenses, and that was only the beginning. The Japanese forced the Dutch to send an official embassy in recognition of the Japanese rescue efforts for the Dutch “castaways,” hoping thus to establish their version of the story as fact.

The Dutch, however, responded in kind. In the autumn of 1649, they did send an embassy, though from Batavia, not from Holland, as requested. It was a complete charade, and everybody knew it. The “special envoy” was a moribund school teacher for whom the hardship of the voyage proved too much and who thus arrived dead on the scene, as planned. A dead ambassador couldn’t spill the beans and divulge on whose behalf he was traveling. As a substitute envoy, the head of the trading post in Nagasaki traveled to Edo carrying precious gifts for shogun Iemitsu Tokugawa. He was accompanied by an entourage of 23 Dutch and 64 Japanese, the largest Dutch embassy ever to go to Edo during the Tokugawa Period.

Because of the dead bogus ambassador and in spite of the cherished gifts, the shogun felt insulted, but did not openly challenge the Dutch. Seriously jeopardizing the profitable and politically useful relations with them wasn’t worth it. Instead, the Japanese government punished them in a time-tested and most effective manner: They procrastinated, keeping the embassy waiting to be received at the shogun’s court for more than three months.

Hesselink tells a fascinating tale offering many insights into the working of the Japanese government, East-West relations, international diplomacy and cultural contact. His book makes for good reading for reasons, however, that not every student of history will appreciate.

With his narrative he intends “to give the reader an idea of what it felt like to be an ordinary Westerner suddenly forced to participate in the world of the samurai.” But how realistic is such a purpose? To be sure, we learn quite a few things about Tokugawa Japan. Yet, our author’s view is that of a 20th-century Western historian, not that of a 17th-century “ordinary Westerner.” What the Dutch captives thought and felt, how they viewed the “world of the samurai” and compared it to the world they knew, is not really revealed to us.

Hesselink has a tendency to highlight the things that he is most interested in; therefore, his presentation sometimes smacks of sensationalism. He is a friend of strong language. Occasionally the reader gets the impression that he wants to make the story as juicy as possible. Sex and crime just have to be part of it.

He deals at length with homosexuality as an avenue to power in Japan’s top bureaucracy. The torture endured by Portuguese missionaries who were in Edo at the time of the Nambu incident is another subject that captures his attention. In both cases he doesn’t spare the graphic detail.

Hesselink is also prone to psychologizing. He likes Freudian interpretations, speaking, for example, of Iemitsu’s “obsession,” “compulsive behavior” and “private war on Christ,” although he notes a few pages further on that “fear of the Pope’s powers crops up regularly in Japanese sources.”

As many other historians have shown, the Japanese had good reasons not to lower their guard. Yet, Hesselink writes as if Christian subversion wasn’t a real threat at the time. His own attitude toward Christianity is hardly neutral. For example, he calls the apostate Cristavao Ferreira, alias Sawano Chuan, “one of history’s first examples of successful brainwashing.” The wisdom of such anachronistic terminology might well be questioned, for all Chuan did to deserve this characterization was to liberate himself from the ideological bondage of the Jesuit order. Saving one’s skin by quitting the order was the result of brainwashing, joining it was not: This is the conclusion intimated by Hesselink’s choice of words.

Notwithstanding these misgivings, “Prisoners From Nambu” is a book worth reading. Examining a wealth of Japanese and Dutch sources, it demonstrates how difficult it is to sort out reality and make-believe in 17th-century Japanese history where lies, deception and the reinterpretation of facts were the order of the day. To all this, Hesselink adds his own version of the story.