TITIA: The First Western Woman in Japan, by Rene P. Bersma. Amsterdam: Hotei Publishing, 2002, 140 pp. with 37 plates, $17.50 (paper)

One August afternoon in 1817, a Dutch ship entered Nagasaki and anchored in the bay. Waiting for clearance was Jan Cock Blomhoff, the new director of the Dutch trading mission on the little man-made island of Deshima, his wife, Titia, and their young child.

On shore there was consternation. The Japanese officials had received word from Batavia that there were a woman and a baby on board, that they expected to land and live on Deshima. This was in direct contradiction to the shogunate’s policy of seclusion.

When Blomhoff had been earlier stationed at the island, he had sired a child by a local woman of pleasure, a member of the group periodically herded into the place for the relief of the Dutch. This infant had been allowed to remain until it expired half a year later. In this case the mother was Japanese and the child contained at least as much Japanese as Dutch blood. There was absolutely no precedent, however, for allowing in a foreign woman with her foreign child.

Titia, a perfectly respectable Dutch housewife, had little notion of what awaited her. As she waited for permission to go ashore, she looked at the new land, “the black rocky shore and the green Japanese pine trees of Kyushu . . . Her heart pounded as she stared straight ahead over the bow of the ship. This was her date with history.”

If she so thought (and there is no evidence that she did, other than the heightened imagination of the author of this little biography), it was because she realized that she was to become the first Western woman to enter Japan and attached some importance to the fact.

There’s more. “Tears of excitement rolled down Titia’s cheeks. It was one of the most profoundly happy moments of her life when she spotted the Dutch tricolor high on the flagpole slightly to the left of the island’s center. It was the only Dutch flag in the world that had braved the period of French occupation and [her husband] had been an integral part of its history.”

Both excitement and happiness were short lived, though. Word came that she could not land at Deshima. Then, after protest, this refusal was altered. She could go ashore, but she could not stay. Just how long she could remain would be determined by the shogunate in Edo itself.

In the meantime, there was excitement among the citizens of Nagasaki. Word got around that a strange phenomenon had occurred on Deshima. A wonderful creature, a komojin, or red-haired Hollander, had been glimpsed walking about with her welp. People gathered daily by the land-gate hoping to glimpse the creature, artists drew their renditions, replicas were sold — indeed, are still sold, as one of the many kinds of koga ningyo (traditional clay dolls) produced in Nagasaki.

Titia spent three months on Deshima waiting for her visa. It never arrived. Instead there was a complete refusal and an order for deportation. She took matters into her own hand, and wrote a letter to be delivered to the shogunate stressing the cruelty of separating wife from husband, pleading the cause of the child as well.

This backfired in the most spectacular manner. Japanese officialdom much disliked the direct approach. It embarrassed dignity, and consequently such petitions sometimes resulted in the death of those offering them. Killing Titia was not an option, but the deportation was correspondingly advanced.

No one wanted this to be a political issue, least of all the Dutch. Titia’s beloved husband told her that “irreversible decisions had been made and her letter had only made things worse. He loved her very much, but she was single-handedly destroying international relations between two countries.”

The Japanese solved the issue by sending back the letter, and excusing its writer because she was “only a woman.” Everyone was satisfied with this solution except Titia herself, but by now “only a pitiful, sickly shadow remained of the proud, young, healthy woman who walked so self-assuredly through the sea-gate of Deshima.”

And though Blomhoff “loved her dearly,” he also had his career to think about, and, as it turned out, the mother of his deceased illegitimate child was still around, still available. He fathered yet another little bastard in the years after Titia was ordered out of the country. The two never met again, she having died before he finally returned from his all-important job at Deshima.

Thus the sad tale of the “first Western woman in Japan.” Of his account the author says that it “is not a history, nor is it a novel or an official biography.” Yet, he makes full use of all the available historical sources, and the book comes with genealogical tables, illustrations, maps, notes and a bibliography. At the same time, as the excerpts quoted above indicate, it is also something of a romance.

Rene Bersma, himself a distant relative of the unhappy lady, calls his work a “tribute,” and so it is. Consequently, perhaps, emotional appeals sprinkle the pages and history scrunches over to accommodate feeling. If, however, one disregards the novelistic touches and concentrates on what actually happened, then one may enjoy an interesting reconstruction of one of the earliest encounters between West and East.

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