Dejima Japan: The Island that Opened Japan to the World

International Trade in Japan before the 19th Century

The isolation of Japan

Between the 16th and 19th centuries (during the Edo period) when international trade was widespread between powerful western countries and a number of oriental countries, the Japanese government entered a foreign policy known as the Kaikin.

It is said that the Tokugawa shogunate saw how powerful the western colonizers were and were afraid that they are going to invade the country just as it did with neighboring lands. The western colonizers entered the countries through trade and missionaries before creeping into the nicks and crannies of the society, influencing it and almost completely eradicating their pre-documented histories.

after Arnoldus Montanus [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

They did not welcome the idea that the Christian faith will create a significant and irreversible change to their culture and society. Because of this, the Tokugawa shogun (during the Edo period) has limited, but not entirely closed, the borders of Japan to international traders. There was a limited diplomatic relationship with Korea, China, and Netherlands at that moment. All other foreign traders are not allowed to send their merchandise to Japan, as well as selling any goods to them.

Furthermore, it was during this time when the ports of Japan are limited to local traders. Foreign traders are only allowed to enter and exit Japan through specific port areas and islands. Because of this, Japan was able to maintain a stronghold into their culture, preserving it until the modern times.

However, this does not mean that Japan did not experience any form of modernization. In fact, Japan, China, and Korea are among the most advanced civilizations of the time creating their own means of navigation, calculation, language, the system of writing, and even systems of governance. They were able to create fleets of ships and other forms of transportation without the influence of the west. The problem, however, is that the culture of these three countries are so intertwined that it was difficult to determine the origin of each. It is said that big influences came from China.

The end of Japan’s Isolation

The Japanese government tried to hold onto the isolation as long as they can and surviving centuries without full exposure to the western influences. However, there was a time that Japan had no choice but to end their isolation and enter the door towards westernization and modernization.

It was only when a US ship, then known as black ships or foreign ships, suddenly entered the borders and entered the Japanese shores. They simply demanded that Japan open its ports so that ships can dock, bring down goods, and restock to trade with other countries.

This ship was the U.S. Commodore Matthew Perry’s fleet and what the locals saw significantly impressed them causing a sudden change of heart for some powerful Japanese clans. They saw that the western technology was advanced and was leagues away from what already exists in the country. What terrified them more is the presence of long-range weapons like cannons and guns where samurai swords will be no match at war.

There was a movement to open a larger door for these western traders, however, opposition from conservatives was strong. It has led to a civil war and a significant change in government. This was when the Meiji government, the rightful heir to the Japanese Empire, overthrew the Tokugawa Shogunate through a bloody battle.

The great thing was that the Japanese society was resilient to change. They saw what happened to their superpower neighbor, China, which has been divided up by various western colonizers. They did their best to adapt to western mannerisms and culture to show these westerners that the Japanese people cannot be taken for granted and must be taken as equals rather than subjects.

What is the Sakoku?

During Japan’s period of isolation, they were only in diplomatic and mercantile relations with one western country and that is the Netherlands. However, even if they had a diplomatic relationship there still was a policy that restricted their relationship. This foreign policy is known as the Sakoku Policy – a policy that did not allow the Dutch to go out of the Dejima Island and that did not allow the Japanese to enter the island without reason.

It was through this policy that cooks, clerks, “Women of pleasure”, and carpenters were allowed to enter an island called Dejima. There are also guards who are allowed to stay long periods inside the island but had to report to the Tokugawa government of the ins and outs of the trades. It also allowed for the entrance of samurai to travel to Dejima to perform “Dutch Studies” that studied extensively their language, culture, and technologies.

Kawahara Keiga [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Dejima Japan: A Brief History

The word Dejima in Japanese

Dejima, in Japanese and Deshima in most Western documents as a small western island built off the coast of Nagasaki in the early 1600s by Japanese locals. It is a man-made island shaped like a fan to allow a restricted access to foreign traders to the Japanese islands.

It was built complete with residential areas (inns, hotels, apartments) for Portuguese and Dutch traders. There were shops and stores for their goods as well. It was led by a person known as the Opperhoofd, which is the chief position for traders for the Dutch East India Company. Their role is to pay homage to the Shogun leaders.

It was in the mid-1500s when a ship of storm-wrecked Portuguese ship docked in the shores of Japan. This is believed to be the first time the Japanese and the Europeans made direct contact. Then, half a decade later a missionary docked in Kagoshima in hopes of spreading the Christian faith to the islands.

During this time, there was an order for an artificial island to be built for these Portuguese traders – as a means of control over their influence on the Japanese culture. However, the Portuguese were soon expelled because there is an increasing tension between Christians and other faiths in some parts of Japan.

When the Portuguese were expelled, the economy of Nagasaki started to decline and people started to feel their economic suffering. Soon, the Portuguese were replaced by the Dutch East India Company and they have maintained a clear, working trade relationship for the next two hundred years.

Mercantilism in Dejima Island, Nagasaki Japan

Traded Goods

During this time the Portuguese had a monopoly on the silk trade with China. Seeing this as a valuable product, other western countries needed to look for an alternative means of gaining access to silk. It was during this time when Silk production in Japan became quite popular.

Other than silk, the Dutch also traded cotton and sugar. They have also traded deerskin and shark fins. Mineral ore and metals were also a popular good, they traded copper and silver. They even bring with them porcelain and lacquerware. Soon, they also started trading goods for rice. They started to transport books, instruments, scientific data, and more from Asia to Europe and vice versa.

Trading Ships

In total, there are about 600 ships that docked and arrived in Japan through their two-hundred-year settlement. Since the access is restricted, there are only a specific number of ships that route around Japan and Netherlands every year. In the first period, there were about seven Dutch ships every year. The number of ships declined to five in the next period and to only two in the early 1700s.

The Dutch Influences in Japan

There had been a number of influences that the Dutch brought to the shores of Japan and these were mainly hobbies and pass times. For instance, sports such as billiards and badminton was first introduced to Japan. Billiards was a popular activity in Dejima and was called “Ball Striking Table” while badminton was a popular Indian game that was transported to Japan.

By Fg2 (Self-photographed) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Dutch also brought influences such as photography to the Japanese. Food and beverages were also a popular influence in Japan, they brought with them beer and beer brewing methods to Japan. They also introduced the wonders of chocolate to this beautiful country. Vegetables such as cabbages and tomatoes were also grown locally in Japan and was only introduced in the 17th century.

The Reclamation of Dejima Japan in the 17th and 19th century

Dejima Island was built in the early 1600s and was owned by a total of 25 local Japanese families. The Dutch paid rent to these families annually, as they were not allowed to own lands at the time. At this time, it was a small island of only 120 by 75 meters but then it was enlarged and connected to the mainland by digging canals through the peninsula and reclaiming the land forming a small bridge. Its area was increased to 13,000 square meters.

Dejima Japan Guide: Dejima in Nagasaki Japan today

Siebold Memorial Museum

This place was built in 1989 in Nagasaki city to honor a man named Philipp Franz von Siebold and his contribution to the development of scientific research in Japan. He fathered a daughter with his Japanese girlfriend who then became the first female Japanese doctor.

Reconstruction of Dejima

It was in 1922 when Dejima was turned into a national historical site, citing its uniqueness in western influenced architecture as its primary highlight. Restoration work started in the 1950s however, the progress was slow and the budget was not readily available. It was only in the late 1990s that the project was in full-blast. However, up until today, it remains as a work in progress.

Many of the buildings in Dejima had been preserved but there is still a great number which was destroyed by a variety of elements. This is why in the year 1996, there was an ambitious project of a wide restoration of the Dejima island. This is to turn it into a popular tourist destination and educate those who travel to this place about its history and importance in culture.

There are a number of plans of how the Dejima island will be redeveloped. It is said that the access to the mainland will be removed and water will be surrounding the island on each side, however, this is still in the far future.

How to get to Dejima

Dejima in Japan can be accessed through different towns in Nagasaki (like Hirado) via Trams. Tram number 1 must be taken to the Dejima Tram Stop which is five minutes from the Nagasaki Station. This tramline is the only line which directly travels to Dejima.

This tram line can be accessed in many parts of Nagasaki like the Peace Park, the A-bomb museum, and more. Tram line 1 and Tram line 3 coincide with each other before separating in Nagasaki station. Tramline 3 will travel to Sakura-machi and Tramline 1 will travel directly to Dejima.

What to see in Dejima

The first Protestant seminary in Japan which was built in the 19th century was then turned into the Nagasaki Dejima Museum of History. It exhibits photos, paintings, and works of the time. It also featured a historical record of how the Dutch has influenced the Japanese culture.

By Anonymous [Public domain, Public domain or CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

Up until today, the place is still a bustling city which is home to a China town at the southeastern side of Dejima. There are stores that sell Chinese goods, restaurants, and more. People come to Dejima to enjoy a superb and one-of-a-kind travel experience which cannot be seen in other parts of Japan.

For those who are unaware of the history of Dejima in Japan and Japan’s historical isolation from the west, it will be difficult to appreciate what can be seen in Dejima. It provides a good mix of east and west, how two very different cultures found a common ground. It is an interesting twist of how a conservative and stable culture like Japan opened its borders to the aggressive and dominant cultures of the west.

Most of the buildings from these centuries have been destroyed by variety of elements but have been reconstructed as it might have looked in ancient times.