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In 1609, a delegation from the Dutch East India Company traveled to Sunpu, Shizuoka Prefecture, for an audience with Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616). The company, founded in Amsterdam seven years earlier and widely known by its Dutch acronym, VOC, was keen to trade with Japan, particularly to gain access to its abundant reserves of silver. This required negotiating some form of commercial agreement, and the first step in that process was to secure the support of Ieyasu, the country’s supremo. Though then officially retired, Ieyasu was still managing foreign affairs.

The Dutch were ill-prepared. Their delegation was underwhelming — a mere five men — and they arrived almost empty-handed. To the most powerful man in the land, they had nothing better to offer than two cases of silk, some ivory and lead, along with a couple of gold cups. And even to find these, they had to dash to Nagasaki at the last minute on a shopping spree.

The Dutch East India Company in Early Modern Japan, by Michael Laver.
184 pages
BLOOMSBURY ACADEMIC

What Ieyasu privately thought of his presents has not been recorded — officially, he was “very pleased.” But it is difficult to imagine the Dutch made much of an impression. Only two years earlier, Korea had sent a grand embassy, with over 400 participants and copious gifts. The VOC could hardly compare.

Nevertheless, Ieyasu accepted the company’s demands. He did not challenge the credentials of its representatives, as might have been expected, nor question the power of their distant government. Instead, he granted the company permission to establish a trading post in Hirado, an island off the west coast of Kyushu, where the Portuguese already had a presence, and allowed them to engage in commerce anywhere in Japan.

The Dutch were lucky: They had arrived in Japan at a time when Ieyasu was actively trying to rebuild his country’s diplomatic network, which had been shattered in the 1590s by the reckless decision of Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-98) to invade Korea — not once, but twice. Between 1601 and 1614, Ieyasu dispatched 76 official letters, 48 under his name, to various potentates, from China, Champa (today’s south-central Vietnam) and Cambodia all the way to England. This openness did not last, but while it did, it offered real commercial opportunities to European traders in Japan.

Prying open the door of trade was one thing. Ensuring it remained thus was quite another. And to be successful over the long term, the Dutch would need a lot more than a few shiny trinkets: As Michael Laver, a professor of history at Rochester Institute of Technology, explains in his short monograph, gift-giving in pre-modern Japan was “an absolute necessity.” It acted as “a social lubricant that… facilitated interpersonal relationships… at every level of society.” The company would require plenty of douceurs.

Laver combed VOC records and the personal diaries of its captains to reveal the travails — and frequent exasperation — of generations of traders who, over approximately two and a half centuries, struggled to satiate the appetite of bakufu officials for exotica, from spectacles and telescopes to books, clocks, carpets and chandeliers.

During most of the 1600s, trade with Japan was highly lucrative, so indulging the whims of officials or going the extra mile to impress them was perfectly sensible. After their first round of lackluster gifts, the Dutch spared no efforts: At one time or another, onlookers at Dejima, a man-made island in the Nagasaki harbor where the VOC was ordered to relocate in 1641, witnessed the unloading of water buffaloes, cassowaries, Arabian horses and even elephants. Most of these animals were being seen in Japan for the first time, so they often caused quite an effect: When the Dutch paraded two camels on the grounds of Edo Castle in 1646, an observer later wrote that the entire place “seemed to be running wild.” The novelty of such creatures eventually wore off, but while it lasted, it boosted the prestige of the Dutch.

Alas, the shogun could also be persnickety: Laver recounts how a Persian stallion was rejected “because it was half an inch too short.” At other times, Japanese officials appeared frustratingly oblivious to the complexity of international trade in an era when any order took at least two years to fulfilll and when transport at sea was inherently risky. Many ships were lost; others arrived safely, but with damaged cargo.

Though academic, Laver’s book is refreshingly free of jargon and a breeze to navigate. It is, however, somewhat narrow in scope, i.e. a study of the procuring and offering of gifts to facilitate diplomacy rather than a full-blown study of Dutch activities in the archipelago. For the latter, one should turn to Adam Clulow’s superb “The Company and the Shogun: The Dutch Encounter with Tokugawa Japan.” Both books are worth consulting: They show how bedraggled Dutchmen were able to secure a foothold in Japan and protect that position for more than 200 years, even after all other Western nations had either quit or been expelled.

There is plenty of pluck and grit in that story. But more than anything else, there is monumental patience.

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