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The Tale of the Lost Japonian Charter

December 30, 2008

By November 2008 I offered two essays on Japanese history to Japan Times, my favorite English newspaper in Japan. But it took them more than two month to come back to me and then they offered to publish only a short summary of those two essays. I declined, because it doesn’t make sense. This is why I publish them here because I think that everybody should know the whole story.

Rethinking the History of Japan I

The history of nations is generally presented as a solid chain of causes and consequences. History as a reconstruction of events as they occurred is basically an attempt to spirit away their genuine, inherent contingency. Nevertheless, sometimes we discover the account of an incident, a document, or even just a line in a historical scripture, that unquestionably opens the door to an alternative outcome, to a junction where events were close to turning in a completely different direction. This kind of potential history is great stuff for novel writers as it provides them with the freedom to choose any matter or object for the historical peripetia of their plot. What if Nazi Germany had won the war in Europe or Hitler had died in 1936? Well, we were not particularly close to either of those dramatic turns, but they still inspired quite a few authors. Let’s try another one. What if Japan had not been opened up by the threat of American military force but peacefully by British merchants? What? Can this be a serious consideration? It seems more unlikely than Saudi-Arabian democracy, healthy Japanese public finance or vegetarian sharks.

The many aggressive attempts of the British merchant navy to open Japanese ports during the late Edo period are well documented. They exasperated the Japanese government and its subjects alike. Let’s take Captain Pellew’s assault in 1808 when he entered the bay of Nagasaki with the Phaeton under the disguise of the Dutch flag. The Napoleonic wars had wiped the Netherlands from European maps and replaced it with the Batavian Republic. For more than ten years, the artificial island Dejima in the port of Nagasaki was the last and only piece of ground where the Dutch ensign was flown. First Pellew took the Dutch delegates hostage who had credulously boarded the vessel. Then he demanded the capitulation of the whole Dutch delegation and the surrender of the island. The Dutch habitants of Dejima, after years of complete isolation from their homeland, were in a terribly bad shape, but the brave Hendrik Doeff, head of the delegation and chief of the factory, firmly resisted this violation and called the Japanese authorities for help. They reacted immediately and closed off the whole bay with all available vessels, from the sampan, small and swift rowing boats, up to the huge and ponderous Chinese junks. In this situation the Phaeton could have been easily burned down. Pellew had to give up. He obtained a face-saving compromise, got his stocks of food, water and wood replenished and had to withdraw from the shore. The aftermath was a political shock for the bakufu, the military “tent government” of the Shogun in Edo, that had to face the evidence of its vulnerability. The commissioner of the port of Nagasaki and his seven subordinates had to commit suicide. A solid iron chain crossing the entire bay, just under the water surface, was secretly put in place as a precautionary measure for the next incident.

It was neither the first nor the last time that British merchants tried to break the iron grip of Tokugawa’s sakoku policy of total isolation. Altogether there were eight unsuccessful expeditions, some of them at least as nasty as the one above, until 1854, when Admiral Matthew Perry forced the bakufu to sign the Treaty of Shimoda. The Japanese authorities put this together with the available information on Britain’s colonial activities in China and India. Thus they acquired about the worst possible image of the intrusive British barbarians. Was this degeneration of British foreign policy towards Japan really necessary? It is true that Japan was a low priority for the Crown. It is also clear that the attempts to open the country to trade relations were, at best, lukewarm. However, there was an objective desire to establish a breakthrough and the serial failure of the merchant naval powers, in particular those of the East Indian Company, should, as a blow to the Empire’s pride, have inspired greater efforts.

In fact, the opening of Japan was actually close at hand and could have been achieved at a stroke. The accidental discovery of a stunning document in 1985 by Hayashi Nozomu from Tokyo Gakuen Joshi Tanki Daigaku and Izumi Tytler threw the door wide open, not only to an alternative history of foreign relations between Great Britain and Japan, but also to the opening up of Japan itself. In 1990, Derek Massarella gave a detailed account of this finding and evaluated it as “one of the most interesting archival discoveries”. What kind of document could have turned around centuries of history and the whole fate of the Japanese nation? In a narrow, long box in Oxford’s Bodleian Library, Nozomu and Tytler found a well preserved handscroll made from thick creped Japanese paper. When they read it they didn’t believe their eyes. In clear letters it stipulated the trade privileges that were to be granted by all Japanese authorities to the English East Indian Company. The document dates from 1613 and is signed in person by Tokugawa Ieyasu. His vermillion seal provided the immediate power of law. It is one of initially two originals of the shuinjô 朱印状 , the Japonian Charter regulating trade with England, which John Saris had received from Ieyasu. The privileges exceeded even those previously granted to the Dutch in 1609 – and by far those that Admiral Perry extorted from the bakufu in the Treaty of Shimoda!

Those privileges have been limited by the Japanese and then given up by the English, but they have never been revoked. How could they, having been granted by the now deified founder of the dynasty? However, the question is why the British didn’t make use of this document in their various attempts to open up Japan during the first half of the 19th century. It has been common knowledge that neither the English authorities nor the trading companies were careful in dealing with legal documents. In this case, the English East Indian Company is to blame, being careless enough to store the shuinjô in the department for Chinese documents as the librarians were unable to identify its contents as Japanese. So the answer as to why Britain didn’t resume the exercise of the privileges granted to it is simply that the Japonian Charter became lost in the libraries and was forgotten.

Could such a document really have influenced the course of history? Massarella is more than sceptical. He reminds us that after the departure of the English from Japan in 1623 due to commercial failure a new English expedition was sent in 1671. Its directors hoped to convince the bakufu with a translated and shortened transcript of the original shuinjô. The Japanese authorities were of course unimpressed. “Yet even had the English brought the original shuinjô with them […] they would still not have been readmitted to trade in Japan.”(The Japonian Charters. The English and Dutch Shuinjô, Monumenta Nipponica 2/1990, Vol. 45, p. 197) Massarella argues that the Dutch, alarmed at the prospect of English competition, informed the Japanese that Charles II, king of England, was married to the Portuguese princess Catherine of Braganza, offspring of Japan’s archenemy in Europe. A little further, he mentions another move of the Dutch in an attempt to heal the souring relations with the Japanese, the forced displacement from Hirado to Dejima in 1641 and the tough restrictions that governed the delegation’s life on the island. To this end they presented their original shuinjô. “The Dutch hoped that a document bearing the revered Ieyasu’s seal would command the same respect and obedience as if it were  his voice speaking from beyond the grave.” The attempt failed. Japanese officials “were genuinely impressed with the care that the Dutch had shown in preserving such a hallowed document […] but, while listening, they turned a deaf ear to the Dutch demands.”

Would it really have been the case that this unique document of a former living god would be condemned to total powerlessness and insignificance in the face of history? I believe this assessment is profoundly wrong. Massarella supported his argument with reference to the earliest period of the Tokugawa’s reign. The first shoguns of this dynasty were absolute monarchs, each one of them being an extremely strong personality who would have had no problem, coming almost naturally to them, in challenging the written will of Ieyasu. How different in the late Edo period! It is quite unthinkable that the bakufu under Ienari (1786-1837) or Ieyoshi (1837-1853) would had treated an original shuinjô from Ieyasu the way their early predecessors did. But how to prove this conjecture which stands in complete opposition to Massarella’s conclusion? With an eye witness account from somebody whose expertise in this field is unquestionable. Who could that be? Nobody less than Philipp Franz von Siebold, the German physician, explorer and certainly one of the fathers of Japanese modernity. During his stay in Dejima between 1823 and 1830 in the service of the Dutch Ministry of Colonies he built a small university and taught a wide variety of state of the art western sciences to his Japanese students. Many of these approximately fifty people later laid the foundations for Japan’s modernization. Back in Europe, Siebold introduced Japan to European societies in many ways. Being fully aware of the plans of several Western nations to open Japan by military force, he fought tirelessly for a peaceful opening of Japan. It was in this political atmosphere, in 1851, that the librarian Thomas Rundall showed him a facsimile of the translation of the shuinjô dating from 1616, housed in the British Museum library. Remembering well Britain’s aggressive attempts to open Japan so far, he was simply furious to see the golden opportunity, so clearly documented, which England had missed. In a solitary und totally overlooked document of a mere 34 pages, written in German and published 1854 at the author’s expense under a terribly uncatchy title, Siebold expressed his utter frustration with the American and especially English aggressions towards Japan. After enumerating the fruitless intrusions and tentative invasions of England in Japan and then pointing out the existence of an old Japonian Charter, the original of which must be somewhere in England, he clearly stated:

“The Japanese government has become more distrustful than it has ever been. For England this dubious behaviour is all the more detrimental as its subjects, which have carried out trade with Japan in the years between 1613 and 1618, had been favoured with similar privileges as the Dutch by the same Shogun, the deified Ieyasu whose laws and edicts are irrevocable. Such antique charters would leave a deeper impression on the Japanese government and pave the way to a friendlier admission than a certain letter of recommendation in the Morning Chronicle (Oct. 20th, 1846) which tried to convince Japans hearts and minds by highlighting the English preponderance on the balance of global domination.”(Authentic Account of the Efforts of the Netherlands and Russia towards the Opening of Japan for Navigation and Trade for all Nations p. 28) 

Siebold was deeply convinced that everything had gone completely wrong with the way Japan had been forced to end its seclusion. And he was right. The arrival of the Black Ships marked the beginning of a tragic and disastrous aberration in Japanese history which consequently led to a complete militarization of society and a fatal imitation of the colonialist patterns learned from Europe and America. From his early years in Nagasaki up until his death, Siebold worked for the alternative solution, a progressive opening of the country through fair trade on equal terms and an exchange of culture and sciences. He failed dramatically in his time, but today we should give him credit for having been beyond reproach with his liberal beliefs and cosmopolitan ideals.

© Reginald Grünenberg is an author and publisher in Berlin/Germany. He attended the European Commission’s ETP Executive Training Programme in 2008 at Waseda University ( His historical novel Shiboruto about Philipp Franz von Siebold will be published in 2009 in Germany.


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