The 400th Anniversary of the English East India Company in Japan – 1613 – 2013: A Forgotten Episode in Cultural History

A few weeks ago I attended a free public lecture at the University of Bristol. The ‘George Hare Leonard Memorial Lecture’ was entitled ‘The 400th Anniversary of the English East India Company in Japan – 1613 – 2013: A Forgotten Episode in Cultural History’ and the speaker was the wonderful Timon Screech, Professor of the History of Art at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. As soon as I saw the name of the speaker I knew I had to be there. Timon Screech is someone I simply find fascinating – he knows so much, and yet he’s humble and speaks simply to his audience. If I could choose a professor to study with it would definitely be someone like him.

Here’s how the lecture was introduced:

2013 marked the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the English East India Company in Japan, in a single ship, the Clove, which arrived in the summer of 1613, bearing presents from King James VI & I to the shogun and retired shogun, and bringing home in exchange gifts, some of which survive. The leading merchant brought many Japanese artifacts, including lacquer, paintings and (for his own amusement) erotica. The lacquer was sold in London in December 1614, and therefore constitutes England’s first ever auction of art objects of any kind; the paintings were auctioned the next spring; while the erotica had been confiscated by the Company and destroyed. King James received his presents which were armour (extant) and paintings (at least some were sold off by Cromwell, and all are now lost). Later sailings from London would take out to Japan cultural objects (not necessarily English) such as paintings, ceramics and prints. It will be argued in this lecture that the movement of such goods, in both directions, had a much larger artistic and intellectual impact than is normally allowed.

The lecture was as interesting as I hoped it would be, and I was really glad I went along. I’m quite fascinated by this period in history, when men were setting off on long voyages searching for new things, never quite sure what they would find or if they’d even make it back. It must have been incredibly exciting, and somewhat terrifying. I do feel a lot of the adventure has been taken out of travel now because we know so much about the world and can ‘visit’ places by simply looking them up on the Internet. I think I would have liked to have lived at a time when discoveries were yet to be made, although I suppose as a woman I would have had a hard time trying to get involved in adventuring.

The East India Company, co-founded by English merchant and politician Thomas Smythe in the 16th Century, was initially concerned with obtaining spices thought to have medicinal purposes. In April 1611 three ships (the Clove, the Thomas and the Hector) were sent on a mission to Yemen, India and, if there was enough time, Japan. In March 1613, the Clove captained by John Saris continued alone to Japan, arriving in Hirado (平戸) in June 1613. There’s a fantastic animated map showing the voyage of the Clove here, if you’re interested.

There is no known images of the Clove, but it would have been a typical merchantman of this early 17th-century type.

There is no known images of the Clove, but it would have been a typical merchantman of this early 17th-century type.

(Image source)

Screech noted in his lecture that the East India Company made three big errors when planning their mission:

1) They thought Japan was going to be much bigger than it actually was, due to poorly made maps.

2) They thought they would be able to buy spices in Japan, and planned to trade wool. They thought wool would be popular in Japan because, when the first Japanese men came to England in 1588 (Christopher and Cosmas) they apparently wore English clothes.

3) They thought the best way to get to Japan would be to go over Russia via the Northeast Passage but it couldn’t be done.

Still, despite these errors, the Clove arrived in Japan ready to trade. The Clove was the first British ship to sail to Japan, but Saris was not the first Englishman to arrive there. William Adams, known as ‘Anjin Miura’ (三浦按針), had arrived in Japan on a Dutch ship (the Liefde) in April 1600 and had been living there ever since. When Saris arrived and met Adams it seems he wasn’t too impressed by the way he had made Japan his home, commenting that he persisted in giving “admirable and affectionated commendations of Japan. It is generally thought amongst us that he is a naturalized Japaner.” (Wikipedia)

William Adams

William Adams

(Image source)

Japan wasn’t the number one destination on the Clove’s list – it was somewhere they were meant to go only after the other destinations and only if they had time, so it’s not known if any of the gifts on board the ship that were later given to the Shogun were actually meant for him. It’s more likely that the gifts had no specific recipient at the time the ship was loaded. Nevertheless, Adams took Saris to Edo (Tokyo) and Sunpu (Shizuoka) to meet the retired Shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu (徳川 家康). Here’s a great map showing Saris’ journey and also giving more information about what he did in Japan. On behalf of King James I, Saris gave the Shogun a telescope – the first ever to have left Europe and thought to be the first ever made as a presentation piece – as well as other gifts. In return, the Shogan gave Saris two suits of armour to give to the King, one of which is still on display in the Tower of London and the other is on display in St. James’ Palace.

One of the two Japanese suits of armour offered by Tokugawa Hidetada to John Saris for King James I in 1613, now in the Tower of London

One of the two Japanese suits of armour offered by Tokugawa Hidetada to John Saris for King James I in 1613, now in the Tower of London

(Image source)

The Shogun also wrote a letter to the King giving official permission for trade between the two countries.

Shuinjo. The original vermillion-seal document of Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu, granting trade privileges in Japan to the English East India Company in 1613.

Shuinjo. The original vermillion-seal document of Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu, granting trade privileges in Japan to the English East India Company in 1613.

(Image source)

As there were no spices to be brought back from Japan, Saris decided to bring back art. There was no porcelain at that time, but there were painted screens and lacquer, which Saris knew would sell for a good price. In fact, after returning to England the art was sold at the first ever art auction in England in December 1614.

As well as painted screens and lacquer, Saris got his hands on some erotic art (shunga / 春画), although it is thought this was just for his own amusement and he did not intend to sell it. Screech mentioned in the lecture that on the outbound journey Saris had taken with him a Venus and Cupid painting to keep himself ‘occupied’ on the long voyage, and it’s quite possible he exchanged this for some shunga. Sadly the erotic art was thought to be scandalous by those who saw it in England, Saris was reprimanded for smuggling, and the art was destroyed.

An example of early shunga by Hishikawa Moronobu (菱川 師宣), early 1680s

An example of early shunga by Hishikawa Moronobu (菱川 師宣), early 1680s

(Image source)

Still, despite the bad reception for shunga, it can certainly be said that the Clove’s mission was a success. On the Japan 400 website it says, “It is known that King James treasured his presents, though he could never quite believe what he heard about Japan, fearing it was “the loudest lies”.” Even today, I think it could be true to say that there are certain aspects of Japanese culture that have to be seen to be believed, and that you can’t really know Japan until you’ve been there. This cultural exchange and the beginning of trade between England and Japan in 1613 is incredibly important and had a massive impact on the way we see and interact with Japan today. I wonder if it might even be possible to trace the role of Japanese art in the West back to Saris’s simple exchange of erotic art? Could he be responsible for our modern love of manga? I doubt it, but it would be an interesting study to make!

There have been a large number of Japan 400 events over the last year, and they haven’t finished yet. One particular event I am now looking forward to, although I don’t know much about it yet, will be the anniversary of the Clove’s arrival back into Plymouth on 28th September 1614. Screech mentioned in his lecture that there would be an event in Plymouth this year to mark that anniversary. All I know at this stage is that there is going to be some kind of festival on the weekend of 28th September (slightly annoyingly clashing with the Japan Matsuri in London), under the label of  ‘Japan400Plymouth’. Watch this space for more information!

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