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Most Exquisite Curiosities of Nature and Art: The Dutch East India Company, Objets d'Art and Gift Giving in Early Modern Japan

Michael Laver


     In July 1654, the president of the Dutch factory on the island of Deshima noted in his diary that the Governor of Nagasaki was pleased with the presents that were liberally bestowed upon him by the Dutch East India Company (VOC) for that year. He continued on, in what can plausibly be construed as a piece of advice for his successors who would no doubt look back at the diary, stating, "You can see how one could capture and retain favors here with trifles."1 In a similar piece of advice offered a few years earlier, the chief merchant on Deshima noted in a tone of political calculation, "I think that this stratagem should be pursued in future, for it only costs the company a handful of spectacles, some telescopes, butter, tent wine, almonds, cheese, and other such trifles."2 The chief merchant might have included in this list a number of other luxury goods that were used as gifts for the influential ruling elite in Tokugawa Japan, some indeed mere trifles, but others anything but. Throughout the centuries, company servants recorded the shipment to Japan of such large animals as elephants, camels, Persian horses, and water buffalo, surely no mean logistical feat. Martha Chaiklin, in an earlier essay appearing in World History Connected, details this company trade in what she calls the "live animal trade."3 Other goods were less bulky (and certainly less odorous), yet just as valuable. Included in this group are objects that could broadly be defined as art, items such as gilt timepieces, decorative globes with luxurious stands made of such material as ebony and silver, jewelry cases, mirrors, metal "lanterns," telescopes with elaborately crafted tubes, a variety of carpets, and more conventional art such as paintings and engravings. There is no doubt that these objects were given as gifts simply because they were exotic, but their value lay also in the fact that they were examples of the finest European craftsmanship of the time, characteristics that helped the Dutch to "capture and retain favor" with the ruling elite of early modern Japan.

     Since 1609 the Dutch East India Company had been trading in western Japan, and from 1640 they were the only Europeans allowed to live and work in the country, albeit separated from the great majority of Japanese by their forced removal to the man made island of Deshima, separated from the city of Nagasaki by a bridge that was constantly guarded by a contingent of guards whose sole duty it was to ensure that the Dutch remained relatively isolated.4 The only Japanese allowed access to the island other than officials and merchants were prostitutes who were euphemistically referred to as "house keepers," and whom Englebert Kaempfer referred to uncharitably as "none of the best and handsomest."5 VOC trade was particularly profitable in Japan throughout the middle decades of the seventeenth century, largely because in return for silk and other Asian luxury goods, the company was able to procure exceedingly large amounts of precious metals: silver at first, and later gold and copper when silver exports were banned. In this context, it became important for company servants to maintain cordial relations with a whole host of officials, both in Nagasaki and at the shogun's court in Edo. The bestowal of lavish gifts on Japanese officialdom was a prime method of maintaining a good working relationship as well as currying favor with influential members of the shogunal government. This was all the more so in that gift giving played a central role in early modern Japanese culture, as indeed it does in contemporary Japan.

     The giving of gifts to the rulers of the country began from the very beginning of the Dutch presence in Japan. T. Volker, in his seminal study of the Dutch East India Company and porcelain, states that as early as 1608, Jacques Specx, the first president of the Dutch factory, presented the shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu with a gift including, among other things, porcelain from Southeast Asia.6 The English as well, when they paid their respects to Ieyasu in 1613 in a petition to be allowed trade with Japan, offered gifts, including a "Turkish carpet." John Saris, who represented the English at the shogun's court at Suruga, was given in return ten folding screens "to hang a chamber with" and a suit of armor which today stands in the Tower of London.7 Initially these gifts were meant to express gratification for permission to trade, as well as an expression of good will in hopes of a continuance of such trade. Very soon, however, they became a required step in the complex dance of diplomacy that involved an elaborate bestowal of gifts on not simply the shogun but several of the shogun's officials, both at Edo and in Hirado and Nagasaki.

     The gift giving began at Nagasaki when VOC officials were obliged to present the local shogunal officials, often referred to as governors, with gifts. The main venue for gift giving, however, was the yearly journey to the shogunal capital of Edo, what the Dutch called the hofreis, or "court journey." The journey itself took several months to complete and involved official stops at several cities, including Osaka and Kyoto. At both of these cities the Dutch were expected to present gifts to bakufu officials, usually either relations of the shogun or close hereditary allies, and hence influential men in the realm. The main gifts, however, were reserved for the shogun and the shogun's councilors at court. The gifts themselves were carefully catalogued beforehand to ensure their appropriateness, and their appropriate value, before being sent ahead of the main party on special barges, and finally ostentatiously displayed in the shogunal castle on specially constructed trays. Gifts for the shogun almost always included exotic European and Asian goods, and occasionally included such oddities as large animals, exotic birds, and, as we will see below, works of superb craftsmanship. The gifts for the shogun and his officials quickly became a closely regulated affair in which specific items were ordered ahead of time and in which the total value was assiduously recorded to ensure that the VOC was displaying a proper appreciation of the shogun's beneficence.

     One of the articles often listed among the presents for the shogun is what the Dutch referred to as an alcatief, or in plural, alcatieven. These were Persian carpets, usually made of silk, but possibly also wool, that seem to have been much in demand in Japan. In October 1668, for example, shogunal officials specifically requested that the next year's gifts include a number of these carpets.8 A reference to one of these carpets is found in the Tokugawa Jikki, in which it is stated that the Dutch embassy for that year brought a number of gifts for the shogun, including what the chronicle calls a "flower patterned carpet."9 References to alcatieven run fairly consistently throughout the diaries of the president of the Dutch factory, including several requests by shogunal officials, and, as we have had occasion to note above, Saris brought a present of a "Turkish" carpet to Ieyasu in 1613, and as this was the very first visit of the English to the shogun, one can imagine that the gifts on this occasion would have been selected judiciously and specifically to impress. It is perhaps not surprising that Persian carpets should have been viewed as luxury goods and exemplars of superior artistry as even today fine Persian carpets are considered a mark of cultural refinement, especially if the Persian carpet in question were to be made of silk.

     Although not often thought of as "art" as such, globes and maps were imported into Japan largely because of their value as fine specimens of European craftsmanship. While it is true that the Japanese were curious about Dutch knowledge of the world, and routinely questioned the Dutch closely about various aspects of global geography, the Dutch took special pains in their diaries to highlight the artistic aspects of the globes that were intended as gifts. In November 1647, for example, the president of the Dutch factory noted that a large globe was intended for the shogun that year. He goes on to state that the globe stood on an ebony stand with marbled pillars.10 Ten years later, in 1657, Zacarias Wagener, head of the Dutch factory, was told that the shogun had requested that two globes be included in the presents for next year: a terrestrial globe and a celestial one.11 Indeed, we read in a diary entry for January 1659 that two globes arrived in Japan with detailed instructions on how to use them.12 Given that gifts generally took about two years to arrive in Japan from the time of request, it is logical to assume that these two globes were the ones requested in 1657, although the diary entry for 1659 does not contain a specific reference to this fact, nor does the entry describe the nature of the two globes.

     Another common type of artistic object imported into Japan specifically for gift giving was what we might call ornamental cases, sometimes specified in the diaries as jewelry cases, but not always. The most unusual of these was mentioned in June 1643 and described as an "oval case with twenty-three different female faces." The object was given as a gift to a high ranking official, who then requested that the Dutch add the nationality of each costumed figure, which would imply that the designer of the case was attempting to illustrate various of the ethnicities with whom the Dutch came into contact, although that must necessarily remain in the realm of speculation.13

     In February of 1656 we read that the Dutch were in possession of a small, embroidered jewelry "coffer," and because it was rare, they thought that it would make a particularly suitable present for the shogun that year. This year offers us a glimpse into the entire process of gift giving in Edo as the diary for 1656 contains detailed entries about the elaborate rituals surrounding the audience with the shogun and the process of giving gifts to all and sundry and receiving what were called "return gifts."14 First of all, as soon as the Dutch arrived at court in early February, they immediately had a list of all the presents for the shogun translated into Japanese and given to the official responsible for overseeing the Dutch, a long time patron of the company named Inoue Chikugo no Kami Masashige.15 Next, the "rarities," as they were generally called, were sent to Chikugo no Kami for his inspection. This was not simply so that his curiosity might be sated, but we know from several entries in the Dutch diaries that Chikugo no Kami advised the Dutch which presents to set aside for the shogun and whether the gifts should be increased or decreased for that year. In the meantime, a steady stream of shogunal officials and their retinues came to the Dutch lodgings to have a look at the rarities and to be entertained liberally with wine. For this particular year, the diary notes that on February 6, the officials left "full of gratitude," which might have been a kind way of saying that they left "full of wine."

     The night before the Dutch were to have their anticipated audience with the shogun, it was important that they bathe according to the Japanese custom. The head merchant noted, in relating this particular detail, that, "nothing is left wanting for our procession to court." On the day of the audience, February 10, the chief merchant states that the shogun was seated on a dais dressed all in black. Although in the very first years of the Dutch presence in Japan it was not out of the ordinary for the Dutch to have personal dealings with the shoguns, by the later seventeenth century, these audiences were highly ritualized affairs in which the Dutch would be granted only a fleeting glimpse of the shogun before being hurriedly escorted out of the audience chamber.

     Once the gifts were presented to the shogun, the annual round of gift giving to all of the shogun's major officials commenced in which the Dutch would call at each official's house and leave the gifts with their secretaries. The days after the audience would also be filled with various Japanese coming to the Dutch lodgings to request a whole host of Dutch goods. On February 12, for example, the chief merchant states that, "Till late in the evening people came for tent wine, butter, or such." The Dutch made sure to have on hand a rather large supply of western goods such as reading glasses, spyglasses, and mirrors, not to mention the edible goods mentioned above. On this particular occasion, we are told that the mirrors were given to the children of the shogunal officials, along with the observation that "[these] trivial thing[s] are now a novelty and more appreciated than something large or costly."

     The final act in this drama of gift giving was the presentation to the Dutch of the shogun's "return gifts." This was a yearly event in which the same ritual gift was presented year after year: thirty silk kimono, or what the Dutch called "gowns." These kimono themselves were most likely works of art as the Japanese skill in weaving fine silks was quite well known. For the Dutch, the receipt of the kimono was, in the chief merchant's words, "a token that the shogun is pleased with the gifts." Almost immediately the other nobles also presented their return gifts to the Dutch, usually a much smaller number of silk gowns. Once this elaborate exchange of gifts was completed, the Dutch simply had to wait for permission to leave Edo to return to the island of Deshima which, on this occasion, happened in the first week of March.

     While most of the objects of art discussed hitherto have been works of fine craftsmanship, there were numerous instances of paintings, engravings and tapestries given as gifts. In January of 1664, for example, the Dutch brought to Japan two large paintings, one depicting the Battle of Flanders and the other a picture of a naval battle between the English and the Dutch.16 These two paintings in particular make an extended appearance in the diaries because after affirming that the shogun would be pleased with the gifts, the governor of Nagasaki, clearly enamored of the paintings, suddenly declared that they would be inappropriate for the shogun. The chief merchant, although not explicit in the diary, certainly seems to suggest that the governor had an ulterior motive in the verdict, namely his own interest in the gifts. He wrote that the governor's excuses were "feeble" and noted that these very paintings had been ordered six years ago for the shogun. He continues on to say that the company "owed the shogun a great debt of gratitude for his favors, which can only be paid back with an open and generous hand, for which purpose we thought the paintings would have come in very handy."

     On a similar martial theme, Charles Boxer relates that in 1635 two copper engravings were presented to the Hosokawa family, a powerful family with whom the Dutch had frequent contact. One of the engravings was the Siege of Hertzogenbosch and the other depicted the Defeat of the English off Isle de Ré.17 Christopher Duffy states that in the seventeenth century, "there was a passing fashion for English and Dutch engravings and maps."18 On that note, an entry in the Dutch diary for February 27, 1658 notes that Chikugo no Kami requested a beautiful map of the world along with pictures of battles on land and at sea, noting that the shogun's other maps and pictures had been destroyed in a fire.19

     Nicholas Couckebacker, chief merchant at Hirado in the 1630s, noted for 1633 that paintings were given not only to the shogun, but also to several of his officials. The paintings designated for the shogun were specifically described as paintings of ships. Two years later he also noted that paintings of ships were given to the daimyo of Hirado, the official in whose domain the original Dutch factory was established in 1609.20 Earlier, we learn from Richard Cocks, the head of the English factory in Japan from 1613 to 1623, that the company presented the wife of the celebrated Englishman Will Adams a picture of King Solomon. We know nothing else about this particular picture, whether, for example, it was a painting, a drawing, or an engraving, but we do know that the English happened to have a picture of Solomon to hand and that for whatever reason, Cocks thought that Adams' family would enjoy it!

     Another item that was imported into Japan as gifts, at least in limited numbers, was tapestries. In November of 1633, the Dutch diaries at Hirado list a number of goods that were reserved as presents for the shogun. Among the list was an item referred to as a "Dutch tapestry showing the History of Rebecca."21 This is interesting in that this was at a time in which Christianity was being zealously persecuted in Japan, to the point that the English were forced to not display the English flag because of the Cross of St. George. One can only imagine, therefore, that this particular tapestry was not presented to the shogun as a religious item of Judeo-Christian provenance, but purely as a work of art.

     The final category of artistry that was used as gifts in Japan is what the Dutch called "lanterns," or "chandeliers," although a more appropriate name might be candelabras. The two major instances in which these items were given as gifts are particularly noteworthy because in both cases the gifts had repercussions that dramatically affected the company's fortunes in Japan; one positive and one negative. The first instance in which a candelabrum was given as a gift to the shogun was in the 1630s when a "copper chandelier" was brought to Japan as a gift for the shogun Iemitsu. This gift was especially acceptable to Iemitsu who had it placed at the newly built temple complex at Nikkō, designed as a lavish memorial to the shogun's grandfather and the founder of the shogunate, Tokugawa Ieyasu. The Dutch record in July 1636 that the shogun was so pleased by this ostentatious gift that he granted the release of Pieter Nuijts, a Dutch merchant who had been imprisoned for several years because of an altercation with Japanese merchants on Taiwan.22 Dutch trade had also been suspended during this time, so the effect of this particular gift had far reaching consequences for the VOC: trade was restored, the good will of Iemitsu was achieved, and Pieter Nuijts was freed from his captivity.

     The other instance in which a copper candelabrum had far reaching consequences for the company was during the court journey for 1665. That year the Dutch had brought two candelabra to Edo for the shogun, although what the Dutch did not realize at the time was that a powerful and high ranking official, Inaba Mino-no-Kami Masanori, had requested the candelabra for himself and was exceedingly angry that they ended up going to the shogun, even though we know from the Dutch diaries that the shogun was pleased with the gift. This seemingly trifling affair would come to have grave consequences for the Dutch as the next several years were spent trying to placate this one official. As Engelbert Kaempfer, a German physician in the employ of the VOC at the time notes:

Mino, disappointed in his expectation, thought himself offended to the highest degree, and from that moment took such a hatred to the whole Dutch nation, as without a fatal and sufficient revenge he knew would be pursued, even after his, by his descendants and relations. The Japanese in general, when once they throw a hatred on a person, know how to conceal it for a long while, till a favorable opportunity offers to take revenge for the insults and affronts they have, or fancy to have received. In like manner, Mino watched the opportunity to put the revenge he mediated to take of us in execution, and it offer'd no sooner but he gladly embraced it and chastis'd us most severely.23

     This episode illustrates very nicely the importance of maintaining smooth working relationships with the powerful officials in the shogun's government. The Dutch themselves recognized this fact as can be seen in the many entries in their diaries year after year, decade after decade that spell out quite explicitly that even though it was often an onus for the company, Japanese officials had to be constantly placated with a bewildering array of gifts, from the mundane, everyday gifts such as butter and wine, to the lavishly exotic gifts, such as fine works of art and exotic animals.

     As we can see from the relatively limited examples above, the importation of objects of beauty and artistry played a large role in ensuring that the Dutch relationship with the Japanese remained cordial. Their annual use as gifts both for the shogun and for the myriad shogunal officials with whom the Dutch came into contact illustrates what Cynthia Klekar describes as "A cross-cultural language of gift-exchange, reciprocity, and obligation that informed early modern conceptions of international trade and diplomacy."24 The personal ties forged in the complex ritual of gift giving cannot be trivialized in the more than two centuries in which the Dutch were the only Europeans allowed access to Japan. The Dutch realized very early that in order to maintain these personal ties, the Dutch must make every effort to use the "most exquisite curiosities of nature and art as presents."25

     Educators who would like to reference other works on this topic would do well to consult the following articles: Martha Chaiklin, "The Merchant's Ark: Live Animal Gifts in Early Modern Dutch-Japanese Relations," World History Connected 9:1(Feb. 2012): and Marc Gilbert, "Paper Trails: Deshima Island: A Stepping Stone between Civilizations," World History Connected 3:3 (July, 2006): Feeme Gaastra's The Dutch East India Company: expansion and decline. Zutphen: Walburg Pers, 2003 is an excellent print-based resource about the Dutch East India Company in general, and Grant Goodman's Japan and the Dutch, 1600–1853. London: Routledge, 2000 is a comprehensive study of the Dutch in Japan.

Michael Laver is associate professor of history at the Rochester Institute of Technology where he teaches courses on the history of East Asia as well as on European-Asian interactions. He is the author most recently of The Sakoku Edicts and the Politics of Tokugawa Hegemony (New York: Cambria Press, 2011) and has also written on the Dutch presence in early modern Japan. He is currently working on a book that will examine the VOC's practice of gift-giving in Japan.


1 Leonard Blussé and Cynthia Viallé, eds, The Deshima Dagregisters, Volumes XII (Leiden, The Netherlands: Institute for the History of European Expansion, 2001), 157: July 19, 1654.

2 Leonard Blussé and Cynthia Viallé, eds, The Deshima Dagregisters, Volumes XI, 269: January 11, 1647.

3 Martha Chaiklin, "The Merchant's Ark: Live Animal Gifts in Early Modern Dutch-Japanese Relations," World History Connected 9:1(Feb. 2012):

4 For a god overview of the Dutch on Deshima, see Marc Gilbert, "Paper Trails: Deshima Island: A Stepping Stone between Civilizations," World History Connected 3:3 (July, 2006):

5 Engelbert Kaempfer, The History of Japan, Together with a Description of the Kingdom of Siam, Volume 1, translated by J.G. Scheuchzer (Glasgow, Scotland: James MacLehose and Sons, 1906), 185.

6 T. Volker, Porcelain and the Dutch East India Company, as recorded in the Dagh-Registers of Batavia Castle, those of Hirado and Deshima, and other Contemporary papers, 1602–1682 (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1971), 117.

7 Ernest Satow (ed), the Voyage of Captain John Saris (London: Hakluyt Society, Second Series, 1967): Sept. 14, 1613.

8 Blussé and Viallé, eds, The Deshima Dagregisters, Volumes XIII, 277: October 7, 1668.

9 Narushima Motonao, Kokushi Taikei: Tokugawa Jikki, vol. 41, edited by Kuroita Katsumi (Tokyo: Yoshikawa Kōbunkan, 1982), Vol. 41, 135.

10 Blussé and Viallé, eds, The Deshima Dagregisters, Volumes XI: 308: November 30, 1647.

11 Alexandra Curvelo, "Nagasaki/Deshima after the Portuguese in Dutch accounts of the Seventeenth Century," Bulletin of Portuguese/Japanese Studies 6 (June, 2003), 152.

12 Blussé and Viallé, eds, The Deshima Dagregisters, Volumes XII: 376: January 10, 1659.

13 Blussé and Viallé, eds, The Deshima Dagregisters, Volumes XI: 103: June 29, 1643.

14 The following details can be found in Blussé and Viallé, eds, The Deshima Dagregisters, Volumes XII: 239248: February and March, 1656.

15 For a good overview of the career of Inoue and his relationship with the Dutch, see Leonard Blussé, "The Grand Inquisitor Inoue Chikugo no Kami Masashige: Spin Doctor of the Tokugawa Bakufu," Bulletin of Portuguese/Japanese Studies 7 (Dec. 2003), 2343.

16 Blussé and Viallé, eds, The Deshima Dagregisters, Volumes XIII, 9398: January 6February 11.

17 Charles Boxer, Jan Compagnie in Japan, 1600–1850: An Essay on the Cultural Artistic and Scientific Influence Exercised by the Hollanders in Japan from the Seventeenth to the Nineteenth Centuries (Den Haag, Martinus Nijhoff, 1950), 3.

18 Christopher Duffy, Siege Warfare: The Fortress in the Early modern World, 1494–1660 (London: Routledge, 1996), 242.

19 Blussé and Viallé, eds, The Deshima Dagregisters, Volumes XII: 343: February 27, 1658.

20 Shiryō Hensanjō, Nihon Kankei Kaigai Shiryō: Dagregisters Gehouden bij de Opperhoofden van het Nederlandsche Factorij in Japan (Tokyo: Tokyo Daigaku Shiryō Hensanjō, 1974), 3437; 116.

21 Shiryō Hensanjō, Nihon Kankei Kaigai Shiryō: Dagregisters, Volume 1, 34: November 11, 1633.

22 Shiryō Hensanjō, Nihon Kankei Kaigai Shiryō: Dagregisters, Volume 2, 82: July 5, 1636.

23 Engelbert Kaempfer, The History of Japan, Together with a Description of the Kingdom of Siam, Volume II, translated by J.G. Scheuchzer (Glasgow, Scotland: James MacLehose and Sons, 1906), 224.

24 Cynthia Klekar, "Prisoners in Silken Bonds: Obligation, Trade, and Diplomacy in English Voyages to Japan and China," Journal of Early Modern Cultural Studies 6:1 (Spring, 2006), 84.

25 Kaempfer, The History of Japan, volume 2, 171.


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