Nanban trade, The Cultural encounter

The Nanban trade, Southern barbarian trade or the Nanban trade period, Southern barbarian trade period in the history of Japan extends from the arrival of the first Europeans – Portuguese explorers, missionaries and merchants – to Japan in 1543, to their near-total exclusion from the archipelago in 1614, under the promulgation of the “Sakoku” Seclusion Edicts.

First Westerners in Japan, byHokusai, 1817. Caption: “On August 25, 1543, these foreigners were cast upon the island of Tanegashima, Okuma Province”, followed by the two namesMurashukusha (unknown) andKirishitamōta (i.e. António da Mota, also known as Christopher).

Nanban (南蛮?, “southern barbarian”) is a Sino-Japanese word, Chinese Nánmán, originally referring to the peoples of South Asia and Southeast Asia. In Japan, the word took on a new meaning when it came to designate the Portuguese, who first arrived in 1543, and later other Europeans.

Japanese accounts of Europeans

Following contact with the Portuguese on Tanegashima in 1543, the Japanese were at first rather wary of the newly arrived foreigners. The culture shockwas quite strong, especially due to the fact that Europeans were not able to understand the Japanese writing system nor accustomed to using chopsticks.

They eat with their fingers instead of with chopsticks such as we use. They show their feelings without any self-control. They cannot understand the meaning of written characters. (from Boxer, Christian Century).

The Japanese were introduced to several new technologies and cultural practices (so were the Europeans to Japanese, see Japonism), whether in the military area (the arquebus, European-style cuirasses, European ships), religion (Christianity), decorative art, language (integration to Japanese of aWestern vocabulary) and culinary: the Portuguese introduced the tempura and above all the valuable refined sugar, creating nanbangashi, “southern barbarian confectionery”, with confectioneries like castella, konpeitō, aruheitō, karumera, keiran sōmen, bōro and bisukauto.

Many foreigners were befriended by Japanese rulers, and their ability was sometimes recognized to the point of promoting one to the rank of samurai(William Adams), and giving him a fief in the Miura Peninsula, south of Edo.

European accounts of Japan

Renaissance Europeans were quite fond of Japan’s immense richness in precious metals, mainly owing to Marco Polo’s accounts of gilded temples and palaces, but also due to the relative abundance of surface ores characteristic of a volcanic country, before large-scale deep-mining became possible in Industrial times. Japan was to become a major exporter of copper and silver during the period.

Japan was also noted for being much more populated and urbanized than any Western country (in the 16th century, Japan had 26 million inhabitants against 16 million for France and 4.5 million for England). Buddhist schools in Japan were also larger than universities in the West such as Salamanca or Coimbra. At the time, some Europeans became quite fascinated with Japan, Alessandro Valignano even writing that the Japanese “excel not only all the other Oriental peoples, they surpass the Europeans as well”.

Early European visitors noted the quality of Japanese craftsmanship and metalsmithing. This stems from the fact that Japan itself is rather poor in natural resources found commonly in Europe, especially iron. Thus, the Japanese were famously frugal with their consumable resources; what little they had they used with expert skill though because of this, they had not reached European levels.

Japanese military prowess was also well noted. “A Spanish royal decree of 1609 specifically directed Spanish commanders in the Pacific ‘not to risk the reputation of our arms and state against Japanese soldier.'” (Giving Up the Gun, Noel Perrin). Troops of Japanese samurai were later employed in the Maluku Islands in Southeast Asia by the Dutch to fight off the English.

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