Dejima after dark Photo: VICKI L BEYER
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Dejima: Where traders were isolated for economic gain

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By Vicki L Beyer

In these days of global pandemic, people are remaining isolated to slow or prevent the spread of contagion. In addition to the health worry, there are also concerns that about the negative impact of isolation and limited activity on local, regional and global economies.

But there was a time when a small group of people permitted isolation to be imposed on them for the sake of economic gain. The place was Dejima, a man-made island in Nagasaki Harbor, and the time was the Edo Period (1603-1868).

Today, most of 1.5-hectare Dejima has been restored to look as it did in the early 19th century, allowing visitors to Nagasaki a taste of the lifestyle in isolation of the Dutch traders who made this their home across 21 decades. (Open daily 8:00-21:00; admission 500 yen).

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Early print of Nagasaki Harbor showing fan-shaped Dejima Photo: VICKI L BEYER

Dejima was first built in 1636 as a home for Portuguese traders docking in Nagasaki. After the Portuguese were barred from trading in Japan over their tendency to trade both guns and god, the Dutch traders were moved by the shogunate from Hirado to Nagasaki in 1641 and were set up on Dejima under strict protocols. For the rest of the Edo Period, Nagasaki became the sole port through which trade with the outside world was permitted. The Dutch traders of Dejima and a number of Chinese traders in their own Chinatown district became Japan’s window on the world.

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19th century drawing of the stone bridge to Dejima Photo: VICKI L BEYER

The Dutch were in effect isolated on their little island, which was connected to the rest of Nagasaki by a single arch stone bridge under guard. A limited number of Japanese servants lived on Dejima with the traders, who also maintained a vegetable garden and raised and butchered their own farm animals. Visits by local producers and traders were also permitted on a limited basis, as were calls by certain prostitutes designated to service the foreigners. As time went by it became known that Western scientific and technological knowledge was more advanced than that of Japan or China, Japan’s traditional source of learning. By the 18th century, young men from across Japan travelled to Nagasaki for the opportunity to acquire some of what the Japanese knew as “Dutch learning”.

Dejima is fan-shaped, curved to hug the original shoreline. A single laneway bisects it lengthwise with reconstructed period buildings on either side that are a combination of living quarters, warehouses, and work sheds. 

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Japanese print of cargo being offloaded at Dejima Photo: VICKI L BEYER

At the west end of Dejima, facing the harbor (now more than 100 meters away, thanks to landfill), was a gateway and staircase leading down to the water. Here the lighters from the Dutch ships would pull up to offload their cargo. That area that once saw so much shipping activity is now the Dejima streetcar stop.

In the early years, there were as many as seven ships a year, although the shogunate gradually reduced the number. From 1715 to 1847, only one or two ships per year were permitted. In spite of this, the Dutch endured the isolation of life on Dejima. The profits to be had, even from only one or two ships per year, must have been enormous.

The Dutch were allowed to leave Dejima only two times per year: every October for the Kunchi Festival which all residents of Nagasaki were required to attend and immediately after the last ship of the year sailed, when the trade delegation were required to travel to Edo (modern-day Tokyo) to pay their respects to the Shogun. The company’s physicians, inexplicably often German, were also allowed to leave Dejima under escort to tend to high-ranking Japanese patients.

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Reconstructed dinner table in the Kapitan’s house Photo: VICKI L BEYER

The leader of the Dutch community, known in Dutch as Opperhoof, but referred to by the Japanese as Kapitan (a word borrowed from Portuguese), occupied a house on the southwest corner of Dejima, with a delightful sun porch that once overlooked the harbor. The view today is only of a sea of cars, flanked by modern buildings. Several of the rooms of Kapitan’s House contain period furnishings and displays about the life of a Dejima Kapitan. There is a film about life on Dejima playing on a loop as well. 

The building across the lane from the Kapitan’s House was accommodation for the captain of any ship while in harbor. Nearby are daub and wattle fire-proof warehouses, one specifically for storing sugar, another for storing natural dyes.

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Scale model of Dejima in 1820 Photo: VICKI L BEYER

At the opposite end of the island, once gardens and space for animals, there is now a 1:15 scale model of 1820 Dejima, along with a couple of late 19th century Western-style buildings that are also being preserved for historical purposes.  

A visitor could spend hours poking through the reconstructed buildings, although a visit of just a couple of hours is probably more the norm. In some buildings friendly volunteer docents stand ready to explain and answer questions. Most are happy to try to speak English; all love to share their knowledge with visitors. Visitors can learn how weights and measures work, how materials were packed for shipment, what uses there were for various raw materials.

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Laneway lined with reconstructed buildings runs the length of the island Photo: VICKI L BEYER

There are two warehouses constructed of blocks of sandstone, providing better temperature and moisture control than Dejima’s wooden buildings. One of them is now a visitor center/theater, with another film about life on Dejima.

Several of the reconstructed buildings contain museum displays. One includes exhibits detailing excavations conducted at Dejima and what has been learned about the lifestyles of the Dutch traders, everything from their cuisine to their clothing to their tools. In another building there are displays on porcelains that passed through Dejima, those produced in Europe and imported into Japan as well as dishes produced in Japan for export to Europe and other parts of Asia.

Perhaps now that most people have experienced self-isolation, lockdown or sheltering in place, we can better appreciate how these Dutch traders who had seen so much of the world before reaching Japan felt to find themselves confined to such a small space, with limited entertainment and no way to escape for the duration of their assignments. We are better able to put ourselves in their shoes, wooden or otherwise.

Vicki L Beyer, a regular Japan Today contributor, is a freelance travel writer who also blogs about experiencing Japan. Follow her blog at jigsaw-japan.com.

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2 Comments
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Thanks to JT and Vicki Beyer for this article.

I visited Dejima last year, and found it fascinating. As the writer says, it is a reconstruction of original (Meiji) buildings, and a good one. Not a trace of theme park about it, quite a large site in a really great setting. I think the plan is to make the site an island once again, at the moment though you can still walk across the bridge to the enclave and get a good feel for what it was like. If you know the story of the Dutch and other traders in Dejima, and even if you don't, you'll have a great morning or afternoon there.

One thing not mentioned in the article was the practice of the traders taking a Japanese wife for the duration of the posting. Children were born, there was often real affection and even love between the couple, but once the posting was over and the trader went back to Europe, that was it. Neither the Japanese wife nor the children were allowed to leave with him.

One thing that really helped me with visualising the site when it was active was the book The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell. Set in the late 18th century, powerful story, incorporates real historical figures and events with many of the issues mentioned in the article.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

Nothing is new, japanese go to many Asian countries and takes a asian woman and after they finish work in that country comes back to Japan to their wives without even informing these asian ladies. I guessed , all men acting in this ill mannered way till this day should be educated.

-2 ( +0 / -2 )

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