Japan’s isolation didn’t stop the West lending its colors

by Matthew Larking

Special To The Japan Times

A common misperception of sakoku, Japan’s closed-door isolation policy gradually enacted from 1633 by Tokugawa Iemitsu and his successors, is that Japan forsook the outside world.

The country was closed to Portuguese ships in 1639 until 1853. But trade was still carried out with the Dutch and Chinese on the Nagasaki island of Dejima, and relations were established with Korea via the Tsushima region and with China again through the Ryukyu Kingdom (today’s Okinawa). Relations with the Ainu of Northern Japan, meanwhile, went through the Matsumae domain in Hokkaido. These were all windows onto the world, and the Miho Museum’s exhibition “Edo Kaleidoscope: Sarasa, Biidoro, Oranda” seeks to show the ways in which cultural homogeneity did not readily prevail in the Edo Period (1603-1868).

European contact was made when the Portuguese arrived in Kagoshima in 1543 and again when the Jesuit Francis Xavier arrived in Japan in 1549. The Dutch ship De Liefde arrived on the northern side of Kyushu in 1600. The Portuguese and Spanish were called the “Southern Barbarians,” the Dutch the “Red Hairs.”

The Netherlands was the first European country to establish proper trade relations with Japan and to be issued a shuinjō (a shogunal license for trade) by Tokugawa Ieyasu (1609). Japan also gave permission to the Dutch to build a trade headquarters. Why the Dutch? Trade and diplomacy were acceptable whereas the spread of Christianity by the Portuguese and Spanish was not. Christianity was banned from 1616 to 1844. In 1641, the Dutch East India Company became the sole Western diplomatic tie to the outside world — first at Hirado, then on the island of Dejima.

“Edo Kaleidoscope” is primarily concerned with the importation of three types of objects: Indian sarasa chintz fabric; European glassware, which became known as bīdoro, a transliteration from the Portuguese word “vidro“; and oranda, meaning “Holland,” which includes ceramic wares from Delft but encompasses nearly all European ceramic imports.

Sarasa — a geometrically patterned and colorful, often reddish, fabric — was sewn into Japanese clothing and accessories. It was largely the antithesis of the brown, black and indigo garments common to Edo Period folk. It became a major trade item, with the first official record of it entering Japan in 1613; though, ostensibly it had been introduced earlier via the Ryukyu islands, perhaps a century earlier.

Kyoto’s Gion Festival in July still boasts floats displaying tapestries from Belgium (then a part of the Netherlands) and Persian carpets as decorations, all mixed in with sarasa fabrics. Sarasa also featured in Edo Period paintings and was prized for use in the creation of tea-caddy bags, wrapping cloths, and pouches for tea utensils, replacing in part a previous preference for Chinese silk.

The tea ceramics of the daimyo and famous tea master Furuta Oribe are also said to be influenced by a taste for exotic sarasa-type designs. His collection of tea-ceremony ceramics shows similar lattice-work configurations. But foreign influences on the supposedly hermetic tea ceremony are more diverse and engaging. Furuta, for instance, commissioned a candle stand in the shape of a foreign priest.

The city of Sakai in Osaka also became a trading center at which European items were funneled into tea culture. A gold necklace owned by a priest known as Ekei became a prized tea-ceremony decoration and the most famous tea practitioner, Sen no Rikyu, possessed a plain black lacquer box that when opened, revealed a painting of a woman with a cupid surrounded by foliage. Given the ban on Christianity, his family, the house of Omotosenke, kept it secret for fear of retribution from the authorities.

The tea aficionado Kobori Enshu also introduced a tobacco smoking set to the tea ceremony, while walking canes wrapped in leather from the Netherlands became another exotic tea decoration, along with foreign foods such as “sagobei” starch from Southeast Asia. Pottery brought from the Netherlands, such as ointment jars, were used as water vessels, though these were often made in England. Rather than the so-called “rustic simplicity” said to characterize tea ceremony in the 15th and 16th centuries, the exhibition illustrates a harmonization of Korean folk wares and the long-held veneration for Chinese culture within this “Japanese” tradition, to which Western objects were all too obviously integrated.

European glassware inspired Japanese artisans to study and hone their own glassmaking crafts, while ceramics, which originally emulated Chinese blue-and-white porcelain, turned to an Asian-European look that inspired new artistic conceptions. Potter Ogata Kenzan, for example, took stylistic inspiration from imported Dutch ceramics.

The industrial revolution of the 19th century brought much of an end to this with mass-produced wares. Sarasa was overtaken by chemical dyes and textile printing machines, hand-painted Delft-wares shared a similar fate and cut-glass replaced blown glass. New products filled the market. In 1859, five other ports in Japan were opened to trade with five Western countries. The Edo Kaleidoscope subsequently became evermore refracted.

“Edo Kaleidoscope: Sarasa, Biidoro, Oranda” at the Miho Museum runs till June 8; open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. ¥1,100. Closed Mon. www.miho.or.jp