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History is littered with grand projects and dashed expectations that are no less intriguing than its moments of triumph and heroism. A large portrait in oils of a splendidly attired, mid-ranking samurai posing regally in a Roman palace in the early 1600s bears witness to one such episode.

In 1613, the same year that the British East India Company’s ship, the Clove, arrived in south-western Japan, a galleon carrying an embassy of Japanese left from the northeast in the opposite direction. This was not the first delegation sent from Japan to Europe; in 1582, four teenage boys were sent by three Christian daimyo of Kyushu to pay their respects to the Spanish king and the pope.

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