Dejima, a man-made island off Nagasaki that was the site of a Dutch trading post during the Tokugawa shogunate.

(Posted on February 8, 2023)

                           Dejima is depicted in the foreground.


It is a well-known historical fact that the Tokugawa shogunate adopted the national seclusion policy to prohibit Christianity in Japan for more than two centuries from the 17th to 19th Centuries. However, the Japanese rulers kept open a slim window for trading with certain countries, namely Holland and China. For Holland, their trading post was located at Dejima, Nagasaki. One wonders why Holland was permitted even though it is a Christian country itself? Let’s find out why. 


Unlike Portugal, who spearheaded trade and missionary practices with Japan in the 16th Century, the Dutch traders made a firm commitment to the Tokugawa shogunate that they wouldn’t carry out any missionary practices. This led to the Japanese rulers’ final say regarding their choice of trading partners. It’s understandable that China, being a non-Christian country, retained its trading relations with Japan. Next, we would like to look into Dejima more closely.


In order to regulate foreign trade and to prohibit missionary practices, the trading post was restricted to Dejima only. The construction of Dejima island was completed in 1636 covering an area of more than 15,000 square meters. At first Portugal’s trading post was transferred there. The Dutch trading post soon replaced it in 1641. The Dutch trading post operated there for more than two centuries until 1859. Did you know that the staff at the Dutch trading post was not allowed to go outside of Dejima? In the same token, the Japanese were not allowed to go inside the island, with the exception of officials and female entertainers. Usually, the Dutch trading post, operated by the Dutch East India Co. or VOC, was manned by a captain (opperhooft in Dutch), medical doctor, assistant(s), clerks, staff, carpenters, cooks, altogether 10~15 people. 


What goods were traded at Dejima. From Holland, first and foremost Chinese raw silk and silk fabric, followed by sugar, fragrant woods, medicine among others. From Japan, gold (later prohibited), silver, copper, camphor, porcelain, lacquer ware, tea and so on.


The Dutch ships sailed from Batavia (now Jakarta, Indonesia) usually in August/September to catch the seasonal wind to reach Japan. Records showed more than 700 ships came to Dejima during the two centuries of trade. On arrival of the Dutch ship, it was mandatory for the Dutch trading post to submit a report to the Japanese authorities mainly about the activities of European powers and missionary practices in east Asia. The Dutch captain visited Edo (now Tokyo) every four years to meet the Shogun.


It is noteworthy that through the Dutch trade post, the scientific knowledge and culture of Europe was gradually permeated to Japan. Firstly, there were a group of Japanese translators in Nagasaki in cooperation with Dejima physicians, who helped facilitate the knowledge of Dutch language and managed to introduce European scientific knowledge, especially medical science to their Japanese counterparts.


Fast forward to the 18th Century, Sugita Genpaku (1733-1817), who was already a practicing surgeon, participated in a dissection of an executed criminal with his doctor friends and was startled by the accuracy of the Dutch medical book, “Ontleedkundige Tafelen”(actually, it was a Dutch translation of the original German text, “Anatomische Tafellen”.) This had a profound impact on Sugita, so he decided to embark on the translation of the Dutch text with two other physicians; it took three and a half years of hard work before their effort was finally realized in publishing the Japanese translation in 1774.


                          Sugita Genpaku and the Japanese translation


Now, let me come to the so-called three pundits of Dejima; all of them physicians (two Germans and one Swedish) attached to the trading post. First, Engellert Kampfer (1651-1716), a German physician and naturalist, stayed in Dejima from 1690-1692. His book “History of Japan” was published in 1827. Next comes Carl Thunberg (1743-1828), a Swedish physician and naturalist, stayed in Dejima from 1775-1776. Being a physician, he was allowed to go out of Dejima and managed to teach medical practices to the Japanese and managed to collect flora and fauna species. His books “Flora Japonica” in 1784 and “Fauna Japonica” in 1833 were published. Then comes Franz von Siebold (1796-1866), a German physician and naturalist who also stayed in Dejima from 1823 to 1829. By this time, physicians attached to the trading post were almost free to go outside Dejima so Siebold taught western medical practices as well as botanical science to the Japanese. Siebold is almost a household name in Japan, because he was the father of the first female physician in Japan. Siebold published books on Japan, especially its flora and fauna.


                         Siebold and one of his books


Japan opened its door to the West when the Treaty of Kanagawa was signed between the Tokugawa Shogunate and the US in 1854. Subsequently, Dejima ceased its operation and became part of the reclaimed land in line with the expansion of Nagasaki. There is now a project, which started in 1951 to restore Dejima as an island. You might be interested to know that there is a theme park in Sasebo city, Nagasaki prefecture called “Huis Ten Bosch.” It’s the largest theme park in Japan as large as Monaco and you can enjoy the life of a traditional-looking Dutch city. 










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