On this Saint George’s Day, those in England may want to check out the current exhibition on ‘Japan: Courts and Culture‘ at the Queen’s Gallery in Buckingham Palace. The website states that the ‘exhibition includes rare pieces of porcelain and lacquer, samurai armour, embroidered screens and diplomatic gifts from the reigns of James I’ all the way to the present. How did Japan and Britain come to establish relations in the early 17th century, involving an exchange of courtly samu-rites and rituals?
As Ian Bottomley wrote in regard to a similar exhibition in 2005, such gifts originated with the rise of the Tokugawa Shogunate (1603-1868). Tokugawa rule succeeded centuries of civil war in Japan known as the Sengoku period. Feudal lords known as daimyo warred with each other, employing their samurai armies in battle. No single daimyo was able to establish countrywide dominion. What tipped the balance was the use of Portuguese-manufactured and -supplied guns from 1543: farmers and other commoners were trained as soldiers with firearms against the medieval weaponry–swords, spears, and bows–of the samurai. After a series of savvy alliances and conflicts, Tokugawa Ieyasu (pictured above) was finally victorious over his rivals at the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600. The emperor in Kyoto designated Tokugawa Ieyasu as military ruler, or Shogun. Given the use of firearms, Tokugawa’s supremacy was thus achieved because he could show his guns.
The Tokugawa era was one of peace, prosperity, and cultural flourishing. The capital was moved to Edo, present-day Tokyo, and so this is also called the Edo Period. Ieyasu displaced potentially disloyal daimyo, and undermined the power of the samurai in favour of peacetime administrators and bureaucrats. The samurai retained their traditional honorary status, but had little to do as warriors. The Tokugawa regime, having co-opted or defeated its rivals within, sought to build relationships overseas. The Shogun and his successors wanted to situate a united Japan in a Tokuga-wider world.
The Dutch took over from the Portuguese as Japan’s chief European trading partner. Unlike Portuguese missionary zeal, it was said of the Dutch that ‘Jesus Christ is good but business is better’, given their emphasis on commerce rather than conversion. William Adams, an Englishman, was the pilot of a Dutch East India ship which landed on Japan’s shores just before the Battle of Sekigahara. Adams managed to win the Shogun’s favour and stayed in Japan as a trusted intermediary: he transmitted details of European affairs and learning, while learning Japanese and marrying a local woman. He thus acted as interpreter when Captain John Saris of the English East India Company was sent to establish relations with Japan in 1613. Gifts were exchanged as a trading treaty was negotiated. Ironically, armour was presented to the English just as the samurai entered a period of gradual obsolescence; the new treaty between the Tokugawa and Stuart regimes was symbolised by a gift of now ceremonial armour. The samu-rise was in freefall; the military culture of medieval Japan was going Tokug-away in the form of a memento ar-mori.
Till next time,
Early Modern Samu-rights and freedoms Studies Program