IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 22 | Theme 400 years of Dutch-Japanese Relations


A World of Difference
The VOC and Japan's economic policy, 1640-1715

Although much research in this field since the 1670s has been based on Japanese documents, foreign relations of Tokugawa Japan (1603-1867) have never been thoroughly examined from the perspective of Dutch trade reports. The purpose of the dissertation by Kayoko Fujita is to investigate the foreign and economic policies of Japan between 1640 and 1715, as observed by the Dutch East India Company (VOC).


My study is based on the entries concerning the Dutch factory in Nagasaki found both in the Generale Missiven, namely, the series of official reports from the VOC in Batavia to its headquarters in the Dutch Republic, and in the response information flow known as the Patriasche Missiven. A comparison of these two types of documents reveal how Dutch authorities in the East Indies and in Europe thought of the transformation of Japan, and how they tried to deal with it. Presently, I am preparing the Dutch transcription as well as a Japanese translation of these archive documents for publication.

In addition to the commercial presence of the Chinese, the expulsion of the Roman Catholic Portuguese in 1639 left the Protestant Dutch as the only Europeans permitted to trade in Japan. This unique position allowed the Dutch to observe the entire process through which Japan gradually tightened its foreign trade policy in order to secure itself against the outflow of currencies, and how the economy of Japan assumed a semi-autarkic posture in the early nineteenth century, a view called 'sakoku' (literally: a 'closed country') by contemporary Japanese. Furthermore, owing to the rich silver supply from Japan, the Dutch gained an advantage over other Europeans in the intra-Asian trade during the formative period of the modern world-system. A comparison of sources reveals three new insights.

Firstly, the findings refute the assumption of previous studies that, until the loss of Taiwan in 1662, the VOC in Japan engaged in the traditional medieval East Asian pattern of trading mainly Chinese silk for Japanese silver. In truth, the Dutch merchants altered the established trade customs in order to cope with the changing political and economic situations in Asia and to maximize their profits. By the late 1630s they had already succeeded in connecting the two separated maritime zones, namely the East China Sea and the Indian Ocean, through the shipment of Japanese and Chinese precious metals and Bengali silk. This insight suggests the importance of making a strict distinction between trade patterns of local traders and Dutch merchants.

Secondly, in pursuing maximum individual profit, company servants also engaged in various supplementary commercial transactions such as private trade or smuggling. Being of central importance where the East Indies was concerned, Dutch colonial society in Batavia was founded upon a tight web of human relations formed through marriage, social intercourse, and business. In fact, Dutch sources reveal that the High Government in Batavia began to flaunt its relative independence from the Dutch Republic in the second half of the century. Therefore, the information on such private commercial activities was often hidden from the company directors back in the Republic. As Michel Foucault suggests, we should regard the margin of tolerated illegality of each social stratum under the ancien régime as a background circumstance of this 'corruption.'

The third insight emerges out of a comparison between Dutch and Japanese sources. Dutch sources reveal that the VOC regarded either the fear for the spread of the Christian faith (Roman Catholicism) or the protection of the profits gained by the central government authorities as the prime motive of the Tokugawa government for imposing restrictions on foreign trade in the seventeenth century. However, Japanese sources show that the Tokugawa government actually imposed the trade restrictions in order to protect domestic commercial activities. Generally speaking, the Dutch tended to focus on the Christian 'threat' as an explanation for what seemed to be incomprehensible measures taken by the Japanese government. This can be regarded as an example of how Westerners applied their own familiar cognitive models, such as the exclusiveness of religion, for new, unusual, or incomprehensible encounters during their expansion to Asia and the New Continent. *

Fujita Kayoko is a PhD candidate at the Institute for the History of European Expansion (IGEER), in association with the Research School CNWS, Leiden.
E-mail: k.fujita@let.leidenuniv.nl

   IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 22 | Theme 400 years of Dutch-Japanese Relations