Japan’s Global Baroque: Portuguese Trade

Fall-Front Cabinet with Flowers and Birds, Japan, Momoyama period (1573–1615), late 16th century. Hinoki cypress with black lacquer, sprinkled gold lacquer, inlaid mother-of-pearl, and bronze fittings. Yale University Art Gallery, Purchased with a gift from the Japan Foundation Endowment of the Council on East Asian Studies and with the Leonard C. Hanna, Jr., Class of 1913, Fund

When two cultures encounter each other for the first time there is a danger of conflict, a clash of cultures. Whatever the result, the meeting will impact and force changes on both sides – for better or for worse. However, it can also be a time of great creativity, when new ideas are introduced and art and culture react and can move in new directions, as can be seen in the exhibition of Japan’s global Baroque.

In Japan’s case, during the great age of discovery, the contact with the two nations that first formed trading links with the country did, indeed, create new art forms as a response to these encounters and the arrival of foreigners living in Japan.

The Global Age of Discovery

The exhibition at Yale explores this age of discover in the 16th and 17th centuries and the creativity it brought, along with the influence that the burgeoning global trade produced on the development of a new visual aesthetic in Japan. Art that featured bold patterns and bright colours, and a style which paralleled the emergence of the Baroque style in Europe.

Drawn from the gallery’s collection, and supplemented by important loans from both public and private collections, the objects on view illustrate the critical role that imported goods played in Japanese culture during this momentous period. In addition to folding screens that depict the arrival of foreign ships and their crews, the exhibition also features Japanese lacquers produced for both domestic use and export, Chinese and Korean ceramics made for the Japanese market, and Persian and Indian trade textiles (some of which were refashioned into Japanese clothing).

Portugal As the Dominant Trading Nation

By the early 16th century, Portugal was a dominant trading nation exploring the coasts of Africa and Asia – and by the second half of the 16th century and the first decades of the 17th century, Portuguese ships with multi-ethnic crews travelled around Africa to ports in China, India, Japan, the Philippines, South America, and West Asia. A trading post was established in Goa, India, in 1510, they then went on to establish a base in Malacca at the tip of the Malay Peninsula. From here, they continued to explore coastal China and send embassies to the Ming court. However, it was not until the late 1550s that the Portuguese were finally able to establish a permanent diplomatic and trading post in China, when the Ming court allowed them to settle in Macau.

The Macau-Japan Axis

The Macau-Japan axis was to emerge as the fundamental pillar of Portuguese trade in Asia. Japan’s participation in this trade can be traced to 1543, when three Portuguese sailors working on a Chinese junk accidentally landed on the southern coast of Tanegashima island, near Kyushu. As the first Europeans to enter Japan, the ensuing Portuguese merchants were met with a feudal society that was too robust to be conquered (which was not the case in Spain’s contemporaneous encounter with Mexico).

Japan had a wealthy, large population that was culturally strong. The Portuguese became trading partners rather than conquerors, although, as in other established overseas posts, the Jesuits were active in their missions to ‘save souls’. It was here, in Japan, that these first encounters produced a new type of art – using the name the Japanese gave to the new arrivals – nanban (southern barbarian). Nanban-jin were so called as the Portuguese arrived from the south (Macau and India), and their personal habits and clothes were seen as uncouth, or uncivilised. Later in trading history, the Dutch were usually referred to as komo-jin (red heads) – but both came under the defensive gai-jin (intruder). Whatever they were called, the incomers profoundly challenged the Japanese understanding of the world.

Portuguese Trading Goods in Asia – Japan’s Global Baroque

The Portuguese came with an extraordinary variety of goods to trade: exotic animals, spices and other perishables, as well as raw materials such as ivory. The ships also carried books, Indian printed cottons, Chinese silks, Chinese porcelains and lacquers, as well as other luxuries, all of which were often imitated and re-purposed when they reached Japan. Chinese goods were bought in Canton and were exported via the settlement in Macau.

The Portuguese, by the mid-16th century, had a well-established trade route that started in Goa, where the ships left in April or May to head towards China, carrying fabrics from India along with a wide variety of European goods, including wine. Some of these goods would be traded in Malacca for spices and animal pelts en route for Macau. The ship would then berth in Macau for 9 or ten months to wait for the silk auctions in Canton (held from January to June).

They then sailed with the monsoon up to the island of Kyushu in Japan, a journey which averaged a month. Representations of these ships, their people and their cargos, along with other European themes are a frequent theme in Japanese nanban paintings of the period. Folding screens show the arrival of the gai-jin, in all their forms, as well as their ships and their exotic cargo being taken ashore. The reverse trip back to Macau was during the October/November monsoons, when fully laden boats brought back screens, lacquerwares, kimonos, swords and most importantly metals – silver (as currency to buy silks in Canton) and copper to make the bronze that was used in the canons that protected the Portuguese forts around Asian. All adding to the establishment of Japan’s global Baroque style.

Trade in the Early Years

Trade in the early years, during the development of Japan’s global Baroque, was carried out against an unsettled backdrop and politically tumultuous, however, the 16th and 17th centuries in Japan were also marked by a vibrancy and innovation in the visual arts created by the influx of foreigners. By the mid-16th century,  at the start of the age of discovery, Japan had suffered nearly a century of warfare between competing feudal lords (daimyo).

It was only to be reunited by rule of  three remarkable leaders: Oda Nobunaga (1534-1582), Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-1598), and Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616). Their success in re-establishing a central government during the Momoyama (1573-1615) and early Edo (1615-1868) periods was largely due to their possession of superior Western weapons, which were first introduced to Japan in the second half of the 16th century as a result of this burgeoning global trade.

Diplomacy in Japan

The Japanese warlords tolerated the Portuguese so they could buy their firearms and defeat their enemies. Diplomacy was also at work, when the Jesuits, who were in great need of money to expand their mission and to build more seminaries, were gifted the port, harbour and fortress of Nagasaki in 1580. Father Vilela had converted the local daimyo Omura Sumitada, the controller of the port area, to Christianity. This gave the Jesuits complete control over taxation of imported goods and more importantly a role in the Japanese silver trade – this income allowed them to grow Nagasaki into a city that rivalled Goa.

Japan’s Global Baroque and Nanban Goods

Other nanban goods were made in Japan for foreigners who had settled and traded there – mainly  missionaries and merchants. European traders wanted luxury goods for the European trade – items that would appeal and feel familiar at home, yet would have an exotic edge that created a fascination with the Orient and a desire to own such luxurious objects. Examples of these goods are found in the Yale exhibition that explores Japan’s own Baroque period.

A good example of a pair of Japan’s global Baroque is a pair of nanban screens in the exhibition, The Arrival of the Europeans, from the early 17th century, which depict the kurofone (black ships) with their traders and multi-racial crews. These tar-coated ships resonated with the existing Japanese myth of the treasure ship takarabune that is piloted through the heavens by the seven lucky gods during the first three days of the new year. One screen shows these foreign ships arriving in Nagasaki harbour, with the priests waiting to welcome them onshore, the other shows the traders and their retinue parading through the town.

Catholic Missionaries During the Momoyama Period

During the Momoyama period (1573–1615), the Catholic missionaries and traders arriving in Japan were captivated by the exquisite lacquerwares they found.  They commissioned pieces for the church and for general export to Europe. These export lacquerwares often had intricate surface patterns created in the hiramakie technique (makie patterns made by sprinkling gold and other metallic powders into wet lacquer) with mother-of-pearl inlay.

The Taste for Mother-of-Pearl

It was the Portuguese that introduced a taste for objects inlaid with mother-of-pearl – a technique that was common practice in India, especially in Gujarat – and would have been seen by the traders in Goa and along the coromandel coast. In Japan, when this technique was imported and used in combination with makie, it was called raden, which sold for high prices in the luxury good markets in the West. However, the Japanese craftsmen also continued to use their own decorative motifs, using themes such as the four seasons and included flowers, plants, and trees in the surface decoration.

This type of nanban lacquerware, so desirable in the West, was made for a period of about 50 years during Japan’s Momoyama period (1573-1615), up until the beginning of the Tokugawa shogunate. In the exhibition, the portable shrine of Madonna and Child by the school of Giovanni Nicolo, circa 1597, is a wonderful example of this technique. The Italian Jesuit painter, Giovanni Nicolo (1560-1626), founded an art school in Macau and subsequently in Nagasaki in 1603, but had to return to Macau in 1614 after the expulsion of the Jesuits by Tokugawa Ieysu in 1614.

Changing Tastes in the Edo Period

Later on, in the Edo period (1615–1868), when Japan had already closed itself off from almost all foreign commerce (the main exception was the presence Dutch traders, who were allowed to trade under highly restrictive conditions).  It was then that new styles in lacquerware were created for these komo-jin. Tastes had changed and buyers were more attracted to high-relief takamakie patterns on black lacquered backgrounds.

It was not only lacquerware that was in demand in Japan, there was also great interest in ceramics from other East Asian countries. Included in the exhibition are a small selection of  imported Korean and Chinese porcelains that appealed to the aesthetic tastes and a desire for exotic ceramics for the Japanese market, especially linked to the tea ceremony.

Chinese Export Ceramics

China had been a long-standing source of these pieces, but from the 16th century, through trade with the Portuguese the market widened and ceramics from Korea, Southeast Asia, and Europe were also tradedAn example of this trade is the Korean tea bowl with kintsugi or kintsukuroi (golden joinery/repair) from the Joseon dynasty (1392-1910) dating to the 16th century. An example of a Chinese export ceramic in the Japanese taste is a water jar decorated with images of horses from the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) that dates to the 17th-century Chongzhen period and comes from the famous Jingdezhen kilns.

The Jesuits’ influence on the Portuguese-Japanese trade would be short, as the religion would not be tolerated by other later daimyos. Christianity was first banned in 1587 under the shogunate of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, but the fear of Catholicism (and an awareness of Spain’s colonial ambitions) led Tokugawa Ieyasu to bring in the Sakoku (Seclusion Edicts) to ban the Jesuits from Japan.

Tokugawa Ieyasu

Under Tokugawa Ieyasu’s rule, Japan was again sealed off from the outside world. It was against this background, that the Dutch traders, as mentioned earlier, managed to become the only nation permitted to trade with Japan. The first Dutch ship, The Liefde, sailed into Usuki Bay in Kyushu in 1600, where they traded through Hirado and later from Deshima, an artificial island, in Nagasaki harbour. The Dutch seemed to be tolerated as their mission had only been about trade, rather than saving souls. This was the beginning of the trade monopoly in Japan by the Dutch East India Company (VOC).

The British Traders

Later came, the British traders who had opened a trading post in Hirado in 1613, with the arrival of The Clove, an East India Company ship and a delegation was dispatched to seek permission to trade from the Japanese shogun. However, the British could not compete with the Dutch and finally closed their factory in 1623. Dutch dominance lasted until 1854, when Captain Perry forced Japan to enter negotiations with the US on trade. International routes expanded and a global trade had truly began.

Japan’s Global Baroque, until 21 May, at Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, artgallery.yale.edu

Matsura Historical Museum explores Japan’s early trade with Europe, 12 Kagamigawa, Hirado, Nagasaki, matsura.or.jp