LONDON – A yearlong series of cultural events has been launched in Britain to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the establishment of relations with Japan.
The so-called Japan400 cultural festival will see some 100 events explore the adventurous spirit behind the first exchanges between the two countries, and the subsequent development in the areas of art, science, trade, enterprise, technology and lifestyle through the present day.
Highlights will include “Anjin,” a play to be performed at Sadler’s Wells Theatre in London based on William Adams, the maritime pilot believed to be the first Englishman to reach Japan. Adams, who arrived on Japan’s shores in 1600 aboard the Dutch ship Liefde, helped set up the first trading post for the East India Company and acted as an adviser to Japan’s shogunate.
In October, a major exhibition of 170 “shunga” erotic woodblock prints and paintings will be staged at the British Museum in London. The prints were a source of fascination for the first English visitors to Japan, who also took several shunga paintings back to England.
Former Tokyo-based journalist William Horsley, who helped kick off the festival Monday in London, described Britain’s foundation of relations with Japan as “a story of adventure and discovery.” He said Japan400 consists of “exciting events to celebrate the links between people who live as far apart as possible.”
Timon Screech, cochair of Japan400, said, “Across the 400 years, there have been vast numbers of people . . . who have had completely life-changing experiences as (a) result of experiencing each other’s cultures.”
Several events will be staged in both Japan and Britain to fete the life of Adams, as well as lectures and displays exploring the bilateral historical links.
The first English vessel to travel to Japan, the Clove, arrived at Hirado, in present-day Nagasaki Prefecture, in June 1613. That September, the ship’s commander, John Saris, accompanied by Adams, delivered official letters and presents from King James I to Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first Tokugawa shogun, who had handed over power to his son.
Among other items, Ieyasu was gifted a telescope — the first to be shipped overseas from Europe.
His son and ruling shogun, Tokugawa Hidetada, received a precious cup and cover. In return, Hidetada presented Saris with two suits of armor for the British king, while Ieyasu sent over 10 painted gold-leaf screens and a letter granting English nationals permission to live and trade throughout Japan.
Saris left Japan in late 1613 and it is documented that King James took great pleasure in the gifts. Some of these artifacts still survive and organizers hope to put them on display this year.
In a letter to King James, Ieyasu said, “Though separated by 10,000 leagues of clouds and waves, our territories are, as it were, close to each other.”
The English went on to set up several trading posts in Japan.
Former British Ambassador to Japan David Warren said it is “great we are celebrating the small beginnings of the relationship.”