The Deshima Diaries

By Cynthia Viallé

By the end of the eighteenth century, the trade between The Netherlands and Japan had reached a low ebb and the relations between the Dutch representatives and the Japanese were rather strained. Isaac Titsingh, the chief of the Dutch factory on Deshima, in need of some forceful arguments to counter the Japanese restrictions which were being placed on the trade, wrote in his official dagregister in 1782: "I also found a letter from the High Government in Batavia to Opperhoofd Johan van Elseracq, dated 2 August 1641, that, if he did not see any improvement in the trade, he should make thoroughly clear to the Nagasaki Regents, the resolution of the Indian Government which read: "That we do not come to Japan to serve her and to obey her strict laws, but to enjoy the profits from the tra- de." (See The Deshima Dagregisters, Vol. IX, Leiden 1996)
That Titsingh could quote from the original letter (and we from the original diary) was due to the fact that the Dutch on Deshima had always carefully looked after their chests with documents concerning their trade with Japan. This was one of their chief concerns in a country where behaviour and policies were based on precedent. The dagregisters, the official diaries in which the events of the day were recorded along with whatever news the Dutch were told by the Japanese interpreters, formed the backbone of this hoard of information. These were the source the opperhoofden consulted when they needed information on Japanese decision making on foreign trade and related matters. In conjunction with other documents, such as letters and trade ledgers, the diaries also served to inform the higher authorities in Batavia and The Netherlands of the Dutch dealings in Japan.

Court journey
The composition of the diaries follows the annual routine of a year in office of an opperhoofd. It starts when he is installed as the chief on the departure of his predecessor, in October or November. In the first few months his main occupations are the preparations for the journey to the Court in Edo to present gifts to the Shogun and high Japanese officials. The court journey train, with the chief, the physician, and a clerk as the Dutch representatives, sets out on the fifteenth day after the Japanese New Year. The journey to Edo and back took, on average, about three months. Depending on the keeper of the diary, and of course the circumstances, the entries made during the trip, even though sometimes brief, often make for some interesting reading. For example, in 1780 Titsingh regretfully records the death of one of the most famous Rangakusha (scholars of Western learning), Hiraga Gennai, who poisoned himself in an Edo prison to avoid the humiliation of a public execution for having slain one of his pupils. "... He is pitied by everyone as having been a man who had trained himself in several sciences through research and observation and, having been a great friend to the Dutchmen, his mediation could have been fruitful in time." (See The Deshima Dagregisters Vol VIII)
Having friends in high places was of prime importance to the Dutch for the promotion of their trade. They did their best to be kept informed of all the changes in government and the effects the men in power had on their interests. They also refer to the politics of the time, for instance, to "the hated and feared" Councillor Matsudaira Sadanobu, whose "despotic government" is the cause that "since time immemorial life has never been so bad in Edo." (See The Deshima Dagregisters, Vol. IX)
During the absence of the opperhoofd on the court journey, the factory on Deshima was under the command of the deputy. His entries are usually the dullest part of the whole diary. More often than not recording "nothing noteworthy happened". Of one particular year, however, we not only have the official record of the deputy, but also his private notes and those of an assistant. They make an interesting comparison, especially because of the mention of the Japanese women companions of the Dutch, who are rarely if ever mentioned in the official diaries, and the constant bickering between the Japanese interpreters and the Dutch about who should take precedence over the other.
The interpreters and the Dutch were not always on the best of terms. Lack of language ability was part of the problem. When one of the senior interpreters, who had been an interpreter for 54 years, died, the opperhoofd commented: "This is no loss, for he was completely unsuitable for his task and a useless piece of furniture." After the opperhoofd's return from Edo in May-June, everything on Deshima was prepared for the arrival of the ships from Batavia, which were expected in July-August. During these months, daily mentions are made of whether the winds are blowing from a favourable quarter or not and one can sense the longing the Dutch must have felt for the arrival of the ships, their only link with the outside world. The relief felt, not only by the Dutch but also by the Japanese, when the ships did arrive, is evident. The trading season, which lasted till the fixed day of departure for the ships in October or November, was the busiest time of the year with the unloading of the ships, the negotiations for the sale of the goods, and the loading of the ships with the return cargo. This is probably the part which has given rise to the diaries often being referred to as being merely concerned with business calculations.
Reading through the tens of thousands of folios of the diaries (which vary in length from a few score pages to almost five hundred and which cover over two centuries) one of the things we learn is that, being confined for most of the year on a small island, battling against the tedium and the "intransigent" Japanese, the one trait that each Westerner who had any dealings with a Japanese should possess, is patience. The circumstances have changed, but the lesson still holds.

Dagregisters
So-far eight so-called working paper editions of The Deshima Dagregisters have been published in IGEER's Intercontinenta series, covering the 1680-1780 period. These publications are available at IGEER, Department of History, Leiden University, P.O. Box 9515, 2300 RA Leiden, The Netherlands A hard cover edition J.L. Blussé and W.G.J. Remmelink eds., Paul van der Velde and Rudolf Bachofner, The Deshima Diaries Marginalia 1700-1740 has been published in 1992 by the Japan-Netherlands Institute in Tokyo. In due time all working paper editions will be published in Tokyo hard cover editions.

Cynthia Viallé is the co-editor of the Deshima Diaries Working papers series


| IIAS Homepage | IIAS Newsletter | IIASN-8 | East Asia |