Yesterday I attended a fascinating and compelling talk given by Professor Timon Screech. The talk, which was organised by the Japan Society and given in the wonderful 1920s lecture hall at the Swedenborg Society, marked the 400th anniversary of the first English diplomatic mission to Japan (400 years and one week to the very day today to be precise). The mission was a success and officially established the first bilateral trade agreement between the two nations.
Organised by the East India Company, then headed by Sir Thomas Smythe (c.1588-1625), the mission consisted of three ships – lead by The Clove – setting out in the spring of 1611. The East India Company itself had only been established around a decade before. At the time trade links had already been established as far away as ‘the spice islands’ of modern day Indonesia, but this was by far the furthest trip from England yet attempted. The Clove left its sister ships at Java and continued on alone to Japan, where it arrived in 1613. The Company was hoping to set up trade links by which it could sell England’s perhaps most prodigious commodity – wool. But there were far more interesting things on board besides wool. As the mission was the first of its kind they also took expensive gifts as well as letters of friendship from King James I (1566-1625) to the Japanese Shogun, Tokugawa Hidetada (1579-1632), and his retired father, Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616). These gifts included such innovative scientific instruments as a telescope and a ‘burning glass’ – remarkably the telescope itself had only been invented in 1608, and this is said almost certainly to have been the first telescope sent from Europe to Asia.
The mission, lead by Captain John Saris (c.1580-1643), landed in the southern islands of Japan near Kyushu and was allowed to proceed overland to meet with the Shogunate where they exchanged gifts and letters. It seems the Japanese were impressed and not a little curious about the foreign newcomers who seemed to be quite different to those whom they’d encountered before. The discussions were mediated by ‘Samurai William’ which no doubt helped their cause. ‘Samurai William,’ as he was later styled in the West, or ‘Anjin Miura’ (三浦按針 The Pilot of Miura), as he is remembered in Japan, was a British Sailor named William Adams (1564-1620), who had sailed with a Dutch vessel that eventually sank off the coast of Japan. Subsequently, rather than returning home when the opportunity arose, he chose to settle in Japan. En route to Edo, the Japanese capital (now present day Tokyo), the party from The Clove passed through Kamakura, where (as with almost all first time visitors to Kamakura even today) they visited the famous Daibutsu (大仏) – an enormous bronze statue of the Buddha, sitting in mediation. I won’t say too much here about the Daibutsu as, having visited it several times myself, I intend to write an Eccentric Parabola post about the statue at some point in the near future – but, as with most visitors today, the English party from The Clove were shown inside the hollow statue. In their accounts of the expedition the sailors tell of how they ‘scratched their names’ inside the hollow interior – this may seem like an act of desecration to us today, however, at the time this was possibly encouraged as a pious and reverent act duly undertaken at a place of sacred pilgrimage. As yet modern researchers have not found any evidence of the signatures scratched into the bronze by the English sailors from The Clove. It’s possible that they may eventually be found, but also quite likely that their signatures have been erased over the centuries by the palimpsest of subsequent graffiti.
Having met with the Shogunate, and passed on the letters from King James I, the Tokugawa’s reciprocated with wonderful gifts of their own – most notably two suits of armour and ten pairs of painted folding screens (屏風, Byōbu), but most importantly they responded with letters of friendship and granted permission for the English Company to reside and trade in Japan. These items were all duly returned to London in 1614, the mission having left a member of their party, Richard Cocks (1566-1624), in charge of a small trading post established at the southern port of Hirado. Despite the warm wishes of the Tokugawa’s letters – which famously stated that “though separated by ten thousand leagues of clouds and waves, our territories are as it were close to each other” – the English trading post was warily placed at a far distance from the centres of power in Japan at the southern end of Kyushu, much to Richard Cocks’ chagrin as the trading post ultimately could not be sustained. Despite the vast cultural differences many close parallels were found between the two nations – much was made of the fact that each country was an island nation ruled by a single, divinely appointed monarch, and significant parallels were perceived between similar events of divine favour bestowed upon each nation by the miraculous intervention of the elements which helped decide battles against Mongol and Spanish would-be invaders in the form of the ‘Kamikaze’ (神風, divine wind) in 1274 and 1281, and the gale which scattered the Spanish Armada in 1588. The East India Company sought to set up a different (and they hoped more logical and less arduous) route via the fabled ‘Northeast Passage’ over the top of Russia, setting up the necessary diplomatic agreements with the Russian Tsar, but ultimately – aside from the unrealistic navigational difficulties which opposed using such a route – it simply became easier to procure Japanese commodities in the ports of Holland and the East Indies where Dutch traders were already successfully established in sourcing such goods.
The Clove returned to London in 1614, where it was moored at Blackwall and its unusual cargo unloaded. The gifts from the Shogun were duly passed to the King, but the rest of the cargo was put up for auction – this apparently being the first recorded auction exclusively consisting of East Asian art to be held in London. Timon Screech told us how the ten original folding screens sent by the Tokugawas to James I were not all deemed appropriate or worthy gifts for his Majesty (perhaps because they’d been damaged in the course of the return voyage or their subject matter or artistic qualities were perhaps not thought fit) and so other screens collected in Japan made up the ten which were actually given to the King. Those which were deemed unsuitable, along with a number of other artworks, were then put up for auction amongst the East India Company employees. Three were purchased by Sir Thomas Smythe himself, and one, I noted, was bought by a namesake of mine – Abraham Chamberlain (presumably a ‘well-to-do’ merchant of the East India Company). The prices these artworks fetched were not inconsiderable and ranked alongside the prices then commanded by noted Western artists such as Caravaggio, indicating the quality and the esteem which such Japanese works of art were first received. Apparently the Captain, John Saris, had reserved for himself a set of erotic artworks (春画, Shunga) which caused quite a stir, prompting Smythe to compel Saris to either surrender the artworks or forfeit his position in the company. Saris chose to give the illicit artworks (presumably paintings) to Smythe who immediately threw the lot of them on the fire. Presumably some of the other artworks brought back by The Clove survive in various different collections – certainly the suits of armour given to King James remain in the royal collection housed at the Tower of London, and the original ‘vermillion seal’ letter (朱印状, Shuinjō) from Tokugawa Ieyasu granting the Company the rights to reside and trade in Japan, which at one time was thought lost, resurfaced in the collections of the Bodleian Library.
The talk was an intriguing one and certainly captivated the audience. Several very good questions were asked at the end – in which we discovered that the fate of the telescope is sadly unknown, it has been sought but is thought to have been lost in a palace fire in Japan. Timon Screech, an Art Historian who teaches at SOAS, certainly brought this little known but significant episode in the history of British and Japanese relations vividly to life (and I believe this will be the subject of a forthcoming book too). It must have been a mutually intriguing encounter between the two cultures, and one which happily seems to have succeeded in its peaceful aim – even if the links established eventually failed to hold due mainly to the extreme distance involved. Various events are being held to commemorate the several further significant dates of the 400th anniversary of the mission over the coming year both in the UK and in Japan. For more information see the Japan 400 website.