It was 1984, I was 12, and Shōgun was the TV-series all the kids were talking about. The violence! The nudity! The subtle aesthetics of Japanese art and crafts! Well, maybe not so much the last, or if so only subliminally, but this TV-series did actually spark a much deeper interest in the history and art of Japan. I simply devoured the book by James Clavell that inspired the TV-series!
But I was of course not the first Westerner to become fascinated by Japan. Already Marco Polo wrote, but never visited, the island of Cipangu. Portuguese traders were to become the first Westerners, in 1543, to visit Japan and after them came a stream of other merchant adventurers one of whom was William Adams, the English sailor who inspired the book that inspired the TV-series Shogun! We do of course have the adventures of William in Europeana. Now, while William was an Englishman, he arrived to Japan on a Dutch ship (the Liefde) and it was to be the Dutch who would ultimately be the only Westerners allowed to trade in Japan from the 1630s. The Dutch were confined to the artificial island of Deshima, in the harbour of Nagasaki, and were only allowed to travel in the country to regularly pay tribute to the Shogun in Edo. Even so, Deshima was for 2oo years the place through which Japanese arts and crafts were exported Europe and European silver and science entered Japan.
Finally, the other European powers and the USA, could take it no longer. Desiring access to the Japanese market Commodore Matthew Perry of the US Navy sailed four ships into Edo Bay in 1853 to open the country at literal gun point! Fearing subjugation the Japanese transformed their society as part of the Meiji Restoration and adopted Western technologies at a rapid rate! But the opening of Japan also led to an increased flow of art and artefacts to the West. Western artists were inspired by Japanese art and Western collectors were, like the 12-year old me, fascinated by the subtle aesthetics of Japanese art and crafts!
The trade that trickled through Deshima and then flowed from 1854 onwards has of course led to large collections of Japanese arts and artefacts being present in museums across Europe. I will be following up on this blog post with a series of posts showing off some of those collections of Japanese prints and paintings, swords and armour, clothing and clothing details, porcelain and other ceramics.