Nanban trade

Edited by Shibui Swords

The Nanban trade : 南蛮貿易, nanban-bōeki, ("Southern barbarian trade") or the Nanban trade period : 南蛮貿易時代, nanban-bōeki-jidai, ("Southern barbarian trade period") in Japanese history extends from the arrival of the first Europeans to Japan in 1543, to their near-total exclusion from the archipelago in 1641, under the promulgation of the "Sakoku" Seclusion Edicts[1].


Nanban (南蛮 lit. “Southern Barbarian”) is a Japanese word which originally designated people from South Asia and South-East Asia. It followed a Chinese usage in which surrounding “barbarian” people in the four directions had each their own designation, the southern barbarians being called Nanman. In Japan, the word took on a new meaning when it came to designate Europeans, the first of whom started to arrive in Japan in 1543, first from Portugal, then Spain, and later the Netherlands (though the Dutch were more commonly known as "Kōmō", 紅毛, meaning "Red Hair") and England. The word Nanban was thought naturally appropriate for the new visitors, since they came in by ship from the South, and their manners were considered quite unsophisticated by the Japanese.

Cultural encounter

Japanese accounts of Europeans

The Japanese were first rather dismissive of the manners of the newly arrived foreigners. A contemporary Japanese account relates:

"They eat with their fingers instead of with chopsticks such as we use. They show their feelings without any self-control. They cannot understand the meaning of written characters" (from Boxer, “Christian century”).

Soon enough however, the Japanese adopted several of the technologies and cultural practices of their visitors, whether in the military area (the arquebus, European-style cuirasses, European ships), religion (Christianity), decorative art, and language (integration to Japanese of a Western vocabulary).

Many foreigners were befriended by Japanese rulers, and their ability was sometimes recognized to the point of promoting one to the rank of Samurai (William Adams), and giving him a fief in the Miura Peninsula, south of Edo.

European accounts of Japan

Renaissance Europeans were quite admiring of the country. Japan was considered as a country immensely rich in precious metals, mainly owing to Marco Polo's accounts of gilded temples and palaces, but also due to the relative abundance of surface ores characteristic of a volcanic country, before large-scale deep-mining became possible in Industrial times. Japan was to become a major exporter of copper and silver during the period.

Japan was also perceived as a sophisticated feudal society with a high culture and a strong pre-industrial technology. It was more populated and urbanized than any Western country (in the 16th century, Japan had 26 million inhabitants against 16 million for France and 4.5 million for England). It had Buddhist “universities” larger than any learning institution in the West, such as Salamanca or Coimbra. Prominent European observers of the time seemed to agree that the Japanese "excel not only all the other Oriental peoples, they surpass the Europeans as well" (Alessandro Valignano, 1584, "Historia del Principio y Progreso de la Compañía de Jesús en las Indias Orientales).

Early European visitors were amazed by the quality of Japanese craftsmanship and metalsmithing. This stems from the fact that Japan itself is rather poor in natural resources found commonly in Europe, especially iron. Thus, the Japanese were famously frugal with their consumable resources; what little they had they used with expert skill. Its copper and steel were the best in the world, its weapons the sharpest, its paper industries were unequaled: the Japanese were blowing their noses in disposable soft "tissue" papers made from washi, when most people in the western world still used their sleeves. When the samurai Hasekura Tsunenaga visited Saint-Tropez, France in 1615 he made a sensation with the sharpness of his swords and his disposable tissue papers:

"They never touch food with their fingers, but instead use two small sticks that they hold with three fingers. They blow their noses in soft silky papers the size of a hand, which they never use twice, so that they throw them on the ground after usage, and they were delighted to see our people around them precipitate themselves to pick them up. Their swords cut so well that they can cut a soft paper just by putting it on the edge and by blowing on it."
("Relations of Mme de St-Troppez", October 1615, Bibliotheque Inguimbertine, Carpentras).

Japanese military prowess was also well noted : "A Spanish royal decree of 1609 specifically directed Spanish commanders in the Pacific ‘not to risk the reputation of our arms and state against Japanese soldier’" (“Giving up the gun”, Noel Perrin). Troops of Japanese samurai were later employed in the Spice Islands in Southeast Asia by the Dutch to fight off the English.

Trade exchanges

Nanban ships arriving for trade in Japan. 16th century painting.
Nanban ships arriving for trade in Japan. 16th century painting.

Soon after the first contacts in 1543, Portuguese ships started to arrive in Japan. At that time, there was already trade exchanges between Portugal and (since around 1515), consisting in 3 to 4 carracks leaving Lisbon with silver to purchase cotton and spices in India. Out of these, only one carrack went on to China in order to purchase silk, also in exchange for Portuguese silver.

Accordingly, the cargo of the first Portuguese ships (usually about 4 smaller-sized ships every year) arriving in Japan almost entirely consisted of Chinese goods (silk, porcelain). The Japanese were very much looking forward to acquiring such goods, but had been prohibited from any contacts with by the Emperor of China, as a punishment for Wakō pirate raids. The Portuguese therefore found the opportunity to act as intermediaries in Asian trade.

From the time of the acquisition of Macao in 1557, and their formal recognition as trade partners by the Chinese, the Portuguese Crown started to regulate trade to Japan, by selling to the highest bidder the annual "Capitaincy" to Japan, in effect conferring exclusive trading rights for a single carrack bound for Japan every year. The carracks were very large ships, usually between 1000 and 1500 tons, about double or triple the size of a regular galleon or a large junk.

That trade continued with few interruptions until 1638, when it was prohibited on the ground that the ships were smuggling priests into Japan.

Portuguese trade was progressively more and more challenged by Chinese smugglers on junks, Japanese Red Seal Ships from around 1592 (about ten ships every year), Spanish ships from Manila from around 1600 (about one ship a year), the Dutch from 1609, the English from 1613 (about one ship per year).

Dutch involvement

The Dutch, who, rather than "Nanban" were called "Kōmō" (Jp:紅毛, lit. "Red Hair") by the Japanese, first arrived in Japan in 1600, onboard the Liefde. Their pilot was William Adams, the first Englishman to reach Japan.

In 1605, two of the Liefde's crew were sent to Pattani by Tokugawa Ieyasu, to invite Dutch trade to Japan. The head of the Pattani Dutch trading post, Victor Sprinckel, refused on the ground that he was too busy dealing with Portuguese opposition in Southeast Asia. In 1609 however, the Dutch Jacques Specx arrived with two ships in Hirado, and through Adams obtained trading privileges from Ieyasu.

The Dutch also engaged in piracy and naval combat to weaken Portuguese and Spanish shipping in the Pacific, and ultimately became the only westerners to be allowed access to Japan from the small enclave of Dejima after 1638 and for the next two centuries.

Japan early trade coin and the commercial trade between Vietnam and Japan in the 17th century

Historical background

There was no historical record to recite exactly when the Japanese started trading with Viet Nam. Vietnamese historians only knew that Chinese merchants traded with the Viet a couple hundred years before the Japanese. According to Professor Hasebe Gakuji and Professor Aoyagi Yogi from a recent archaeological expedition in Japan, fragments of Vietnamese ceramic were found in a northern part of Kyushu island. Among them was a wooden plate with character showing the date 1330 on it. Did the Japanese go to the Viets or the Viets sailed to Kyushu? Or perhaps the Chinese, and the Javanese acting as middle man traded these goods northward? Vietnamese history records showed that when Lord Nguyen Hoang founded Hoi An port at the beginning of the 17th century, hundreds of Japanese residents were already there.

Early Vietnamese official records documented the first contact between the Japanese and the Viets occurred in 1585. Lord Nguyen Hoang's sixth son led a squadron of more than ten ships to Cua Viet seaport where he destroyed two of the pirates' ships of Kenki, a Japanese pirate mistaken for a Westerner. Later in 1599, Kenki's ship had been wrecked in the ThuanAn seaport and captured by Lord Nguyen Hoang's general. In 1601, Lord Nguyen Hoang sent the first official letter to Tokugawa Shogunate apologizing for his attacking the ship belonging to Kenki, a Japanese merchant, and to praise for the amicable friendship between the two countries.

Tracing back through history, there were good explanations for the Japanese wanting to trade with the Viets. Since the Tang dynasty in the 8th century, Chinese merchants had already crossed the open ocean to Japan, Champa, and Java for commercial trade. And in the 12th century, the Japanese merchants began sailing to China with the same purpose. During the Ming dynasty in the 16th century, trade friction between Japan and China mounted as Japanese pirates attacked many Chinese seaports. The Ming banned its citizens from trading abroad with foreigners, especially the Japanese regardless of whether they are honest Japanese merchants or pirates and applied the embargo policy towards Japanese ships. During that period, Japan desperately needed high-quality Chinese raw silk for their royal Court and war materials for their army. Therefore when direct trade with China was becoming increasingly difficult, the Japanese merchants alternatively turned south towards Vietnamese ports, neutral trading sites with Chinese merchants. That may explain why Hoi An in Cochin-china and Pho Hien, Ke Cho in Tonkin became prosperous for several decades during the 17th century.

The Shuinsen policy of Tokugawa Shogunate

In 1600, Tokugawa Ieyasu defeated the Hideyori loyalists in the battle of Sekigahara. Three years later, Ieyasu was appointed Shogun by the emperor. It marked the beginning of the Edo era and the Tokugawa Shogunate ruled Japan for over 250 years. The Shogun often exchanged correspondence with Lord Nguyen Hoang. The commercial trade between the two countries prospered during this period.

According to Professor Kawamoto Kuniye, in the Gaiban Tsuuho - a collection of official diplomatic documents of trade between Japan and other countries from 1599 to 1764, in a reply to Lord Nguyen Hoang in the 10th month of the year 1601 Ieyasu stated that 'In the future, ships visiting your country from our country are to be certified by the seal shown on this letter, and ships not carrying the seal should not be deemed lawful'. Hence the Shuinsen (Vermillion Seal) policy came into effect. Any Japanese merchant ship carrying the red seal of Tokugawa must be considered as the Shogun's representative to trade with foreign countries. The powerful Shuinsen trade license, by the authority of the Shogun, was issued only to the noble families in Japan such as Chaya, Araki Store, Phuramoto, Suminnokura.

Professor Iwao Seichi has traced the number of Japanese red-seal ships clearing for the Great Viet and found that at least 124 ships visited both Tonkin and Cochinchina in the period from 1604 to 1635, besides the number of ships which did not have license or arrived before 1604. The Viet rulers successfully achieved commercial trade with Japan in the 17th century.

Number of ships in year Tonkin Cochinchina
1604-1605 5 9
1606-1610 2 9
1611-1615 3 26
1616-1620 9 22
1621-1625 6 7
1626-1630 3 5
1631-1635 9 9

Every year, during the month of January through March, when the favorable NorthEast wind for sailing South was blowing, Japanese ships with heavy loads of silver and copper arrived at the Viets river-ports. In Hoi An, to handle the large influx of Japanese, the local authority set up a Japanese town quarter, Nihomachi. And the Chinese merchants had a nearby town quarter as well. They exchanged goods with each other or with the locals in open market fair. The Japanese preferred Chinese or Vietnamese raw silk, sugar, spices, sandalwood. In the early 17th century, Christoforo Borri who lived in Hoi An noted about the profit from the trade 'This Calamba (sandal wood) where it is gathered, is valued 5 ducats the pound; yet at the Port of Cochin-china it yields more; and scarcely to be had under 16 ducats the pound: and being transported to Japan, it is valued at 200 ducats the pound...with a piece of such greatness that a man lay his head on it, as on a pillow, the Japanese will give 300 or 400 ducats the pound'. When the SouthEast trade wind blew during July, August, the fleet of merchant ships began to leave the Great Viets heading home. In the Inner Region, Chaya Shirojiro was the most famous merchant who bought fine silk, sandalwood, calamba and sold copper coins, silver, bronze to Nguyen Lord.

Amicable friendship between Japan and Great Viet

The friendship between two countries developed quickly at both national and local level. Nguyen Lord and Tokugawa exchanged letters and gifts annually through Japanese merchants. In 1604, Lord Nguyen Hoang even took the initiative to adopt Hunamoto Yabeiji, a Japanese merchant. Later on, Lord Nguyen Phuc Nguyen, Lord Nguyen Hoang's son, tried to improve upon relationship even further. According to Phan Khoang in Viet Su, Xu Dang Trong (Vietnamese history, the Inner region), Lord Nguyen Phuc Nguyen married his daughter, Princess Ngoc Khoa, to Araki Shutaro, another Japanese merchant. Lord Nguyen even permitted Araki to have a royal Vietnamese name as Nguyen Taro, called Hien Hung. Nguyen Lord also wrote to some other Japanese merchants, Honda Kouzukenosuke and Chaya Shiro Jiro encouraging them to pursue trading in the Inner Region.

Meanwhile the relationship between Japan and the Outer Region did not improved much. Before 1635, fewer Japanese ships arrived in Tonkin and Japanese merchants set up trade office in Pho Hien and Thang Long. The most famous Japanese merchant in the Outer Region was Suminokura Kyoi who sold copper coins, arms and silver to Lord Trinh and bought fine silk. Until Tokugawa promulgated the close-door policies, sakoku, in 1635 and Japanese merchants were banned to go abroad, a number of Japanese merchants decided to stay and moved to the Outer Region to settle definitely. The Dutch as their best intermediaries to contact with the Vietnamese merchants hired those who were familiar to Vietnamese customs, experienced in trade and spoke the local language fluently. Because the relationship between the Dutch and Nguyen Lord was poor, the Dutch maintained more frequent contacts with Trinh Lord. According to Dumoutier, some Japanese had close relationship with the Court. He mentioned about a Japanese lady, Ouroussan became a beloved concubine of King Le Than Tong.

Japanese merchants were at ease with the natives in the region. They mixed with Vietnamese people and adopted local customs gradually. A great number of Japanese merchants married the local people and donated money to repair or to build Buddhist pagodas and bridges. In the ancient town of HoiAn, the Japanese bridge, namely the Bridge-shaped Pagoda also, connecting Tran Phu street and Nguyen thi Minh Khai street was the best symbol of the Japanese-Vietnamese friendship.

Imported Japanese coin trade in the 17th century

To understand why Japanese merchants brought copper coins to the Viets for trade in the 17th century, one should review the monetary history of Japan. Japan was originally rich in natural resources of precious metals such as silver, gold and copper. As early as the beginning of the 8th century, gold, silver and copper coins not only existed but also were minted in Japan. These coins were made for reward more than for use as a means of exchange. In those days, Japan was still in the stage of barter economy. From the 12th century to 1587, Japan stopped minting and sent goods to China to exchange for Chinese copper coins, as demand for coins gradually increased. In the 15th century Ashikaga Shogunate sent request to the Ming dynasty in China many times for a supply of copper coins. Therefore the Toraisen, an imported coin from China, and such as Jia Ding Tung Pao (Katei Tsuho) of the Sung, Hong Wu Tung Pao (Kobu tsuho) and Yung Lo Tung Pao (Eiraku Tsuho) of the Ming circulated throughout Japan. Meanwhile the supply of Toraisen was still not enough to fulfil the demand for money due to the expansion of commercial trades. The nobles to fill the gap minted Shichusen, privately minted Japanese coin. In the 16th century, cracked or worn out Toraisen and poor quality Shichusen were called Bitasen, a poor quality coin. People began to select coins and to refuse the face value of Bitasen. In the Tokugawa period, the exchange ratio between the Toraisen and Bitasen was 4 to 1. The Shogun wanted to resolve the monetary disorder, to monopolize the authority of minting coins and to standardize Japanese currency. In 1608, Tokugawa prohibited the circulation of Bitasen, including the imported Chinese coins. He promoted the production of gold, silver and copper mines and the application of sophisticated Chinese technology to refine the metal. Gold and silver coin and bar as well as the Tensho Tsuho, Genna Tsuho and Kanei Tsuho began to replace the old coins.

Japanese merchants got a bright idea of buying these devalued and banned coins with a low price in Japan and selling them to the foreign merchants, then to other countries, making huge profits. In that period, Nguyen Lords had conflict with Trinh Lords. The southern Nguyen ruler needed copper to cast canon for the war. And in 1651, Prince Yung Ming in China required Nagasaki to provide copper coins as well. The local authority in Nagasaki began to cast the Yung Li Tung Pao (Eiryaku Tsuho) for the Ming. Near the end of the 17th century, Lord Nghia (Nguyen Phuc Tran) asked Tokugawa to provide copper coins on his behalf. Japanese coin export was so profitable for the merchants and the Shogunate. However, after the local government following repeated rejections made several requests by the Shogunate, finally Tokugawa permitted Nagasaki to cast coins only for trade from the 2nd year of Manji (1659) to the 2nd year of Jokyo (1685). According to Kristof Glamann in the Dutch Asiatic trade 1620 - 1740, the VOC vessels also shipped the Nagasaki coins to Europe, Netherlands on their way back home.

In Tonkin, the Japanese trade coins were circulated or were melted to make utensils as well. Alexandre de Rhodes, the French priest lived in the Outer Region in 1627, recited in his book that the current coin in Tonkin consisted of large copper coin brought in from Japan and small coin minted locally. Large coins were circulated everywhere, but small coins were used only in the capital and four surrounding districts. The value of the local coin varied depending on the quantities of great cash brought in each year but was normally priced at 10 small cash to 6 large cash.

Date Some details in the Register of the British East India Company showed the busy activity of coin trade in Pho Hien, Tonkin
August 22, 1672 3 Dutch ships arrived from Batavia bringing 6 millions Japanese cash and 1000 tael of silver
April 7, 1675 1 Chinese junk arrived from Japan with copper cash and silver
June 17, 1675 1 Dutch ship arrived from Batavia with 80 chests of Japanese cash
February 23, 1676 2 Chinese junks arrived from Japan to bring silver and cash

Meanwhile Cochinchina did not have natural resources for casting coin and Nguyen Lord desperately needed copper during the wartime. Source of copper of the region mainly came from Japan, and then China and Batavia. Even later, the fighting between Trinh Nguyen was over, the southern Nguyen ruler's need for copper for trading became increasingly important. The VOC Registers provided some details about the coin trade business. From 1633 to 1637, VOC imported 105,834 strings of cash coin, each string had about 960 coins. The total of imported coins to Cochin-china was 101600640 coins for the five year period. Dr. A van Aelst gave more details: 1,250,000 Yung Lo Tung Pao coin and 1,000,000,00 Kanei Tsuho coins. When the Japanese closed-door policy came into effect, Japanese merchants transferred their stock of 200 tons of cash coins to the Dutch to ensure a continuous supply.

Was the amount of imported copper coins into Cochin-china tremendous? That was the reason why Le Quy Don complained in his book Phu Bien Tap Luc that 'The Nguyen wasted lot of copper. They even used copper to make nails, door hinges.'.

Tracing back to the Register Record of the VOC, we could see the profit margin of the coin trade in the 17th century. During 1635 - 1636, one string of cash coins valued 1 liang of silver in Japan could be priced at 10.5 liang in the Great Viet.

Nagasaki coins

Without mentioning about the Bitasen coins like Eiraku Tsuho that the Japanese brought in the Great Viet, there were three kinds of Nagasaki coins:

The Nagasaki YungLi coins were copied from the Chinese Yung Li coin and used in Taiwan island. Yung Li was the reign title of Prince Yung Ming who was enthroned in Kwang Tung after the Ching already captured PeKing. The Prince sent order to Nagasaki for copper coins. The Nagasaki Five Elements coins were cast to wish good luck to Teiseiko who defected to Taiwan. There were five types of this coin: Four Metal (Kin Sen), Four Wood (Moku Sen), Four Water (Sui Sen), Four Fire (Ka Sen) and Four Earth (Do Sen).

The Nagasaki trade coins, as well as silver and gold bar and raw copper were used for trade between the Japanese and the Great Viet in the 17th century. According to Kristof Glamann in 'Dutch Asiatic trade 1620-1740', in 1621 ,the Japanese copper coins were shipped to Netherland for testing in Amsterdam. The result did not come up to expectations.

The most common Nagasaki trade coins were found with the inscription Yuan Feng Tung Pao, namely Genho Tsuho in Japanese. There were about 40 versions of GenHo Tsuho Nagasaki coins. Some had the character Feng smaller than the others. Some were written in orthodox style, or grass style (Gyo Sho Genho), seal script style (Cho Kan Ho Genho).

The inscriptions of Nagasaki trade coins were copied from the Sung dynasty's reign title. The diameter of Nagasaki trade coins was about 24 mm. However there were special characteristics between Sung's coins and Nagasaki coins to differentiate them. The prominent feature of Nagasaki coins was the large square hole with the side about 7mm to 8mm, the rim of the hole were very straight and neat. The second important feature was the simplicity of characters on the coin. Sometimes the stroke was so simple making the coin unique, for example the character Feng of Genho Tsuho in grass styles. The rust of oxidized copper on Nagasaki coins sometimes looked different in color than Chinese coin. Perhaps the combination of alloy in Japanese coin played an important role for this feature.

The Xian Fu Yuan Pao, namely Shofu Genho in Japanese, were commonly used as the Genho Tsuho. Its characters were on the clockwise direction. Other Japanese trade coins written in orthodox style as Jia You Tung Pao (Kayu Tsuho), Xi Ning Yuan Pao (Kinei Genho), Tian Sheng Yuan Pao (Tensei Genho) and Huang Sung Tung Pao were found in Vietnam territory.

According to Ta Chi Dai Truong in 'Nhung Bai Da Su Viet' (The Vietnamese unofficial history), the Tai Ping Tong Pao, namely Taisei Tsuho in Japanese, with either the character 'bun' (Van in Vietnamese) or the dot and crescent on the reverse side was considered as Nagasaki trade coin.

Several Japanese trade coins were written in seal script style such as Zhi Ping Yuan Pao (Jihei Genho), Shao Sheng Yuan Pao (Shosei Genho) and Xi Ning Yuan Pao (Kinei Genho).

According to Mr. Le Hoan Hung in Saigon and Mr. Francois Thierry in France, there were Vietnamese copied versions of Nagasaki trade coins. With several years of collecting Vietnam cash coin, Hung cited that the most common Vietnamese copied version was Genho Tsuho and that the calligraphy of character Feng of the copied version was poor. Other copied versions were small and thin. Francois recently informed me about his study in alloy of Nagasaki trade coins and coins mentioned in Phu Bien Tap Luc (Miscellaneous Records of pacification in the Border Area). His research would be published in 1999.


Since 1633, even as Tokugawa Shogunate banned Japanese traders from going abroad, the trade between Japan and other Asian countries still flourished. After the closure of Japan, the Dutch ships and the Chinese junks from Southeast Asian ports were still permitted to visit Nagasaki. The main Japanese supplier turned over his stock of copper coins for Cochin-china to the Dutch East India company. The Japanese sakoku policy was not primarily a policy of economic isolation. However until 1685, when the regulations of restricting silver export and then copper export in 1715 were strictly applied, the trade was in decline. Silver and copper acted as stimulus to the trade in Asia at that time. When the export of these metals were restricted, the copper coin trade declined rapidly and trading overseas in Asia was in a deep slump.

At the beginning of the 18th century, Englishmen and Spaniard merchants seldom visited the Great Viet because they realized that the profit was not significant as it was in the past. Englishmen found that the cotton market in India was more promising. The Malayan peninsula and West Java lost its monopoly on spices market because these products could be found in Africa and South America as well. The overseas trade in the Great Viet was reduced significantly. The declining period of Pho Hien, Hoi An ports and Cachao came into existence. Both the Inner Region and the Outer region of the Great Viet saw unpleasant economic hardship. A series of famine, natural disaster and epidemic lead to the collapse of both Trinh Nguyen regimes before the rise of the great Tay Son.

Technological and cultural exchanges

Tanegashima (種子島(銃))

Tanegashima gun
Tanegashima gun
Japanese arquebus of the Edo era(Tanegasima).
Japanese arquebus of the Edo era(Tanegasima).

One of many things the Japanese were interested in were Portuguese guns. The first three Europeans to reach Japan were Portuguese (Fernão Mendes Pinto), arriving on a Chinese ship at the southern island of Tanegashima where they introduced their weapons to the peoples they met. Since the gun was introduced into Tanegashima, the arquebus was ultimately called Tanegashima in Japan. At that time, Japan was in the middle of a civil war called the Sengoku period (Period of the country at war). Strictly speaking, the Japanese were already familiar with gunpowder (invented by, and transmitted from China), and had been using basic Chinese guns and cannon tubes called Teppō (鉄砲 Lit.”Iron cannon”) for around 270 years before the arrival of the Portuguese. The Portuguese guns however were light, had a matchlock firing mechanism and were easy to aim with.

The Famous Daimyo who virtually unified Japan, Oda Nobunaga, made extensive use of guns (arquebus) playing a key role in the Battle of Nagashino, dramatised in Akira Kurosawa's 1980 film Kagemusha (Shadow Warrior).

Within a year, Japanese swordsmiths and ironsmiths managed to reproduce the mechanism and mass-produce the guns. Barely fifty years later, "by the end of the 16th century, guns were almost certainly more common in Japan than in any other country in the world", its armies equipped with a number of guns dwarfing any contemporary army in Europe (Perrin).

The guns were strongly instrumental in the unification of Japan under Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu, as well as in the invasion of Korea in 1592 and 1597.

Shuinsen (朱印船)

A 1634 Japanese Red seal ship(朱印船), incorporating Western-style square and lateen sails, rudder and aft designs. The ships were typically armed with 6 to 8 cannons. Tokyo Naval Science Museum.
A 1634 Japanese Red seal ship(朱印船), incorporating Western-style square and lateen sails, rudder and aft designs. The ships were typically armed with 6 to 8 cannons. Tokyo Naval Science Museum.
The Japanese-built 1613 galleon San Juan Bautista, in Ishinomaki, Japan (replica).
The Japanese-built 1613 galleon San Juan Bautista, in Ishinomaki, Japan (replica).

The European ships (galleons) were also quite influential on the Japanese shipbuilding industry, and actually stimulated many Japanese ventures abroad.

The Bakufu established a system of commercial ventures on licensed ships called Red seal ships(朱印船), which sailed throughout Eastern and South East Asia for trade. These ships incorporated many elements of galleon designs, such as sails, rudder, and gun disposition. They brought many Japanese traders and adventurers to South-East Asian ports, who sometimes became quite influential in local affairs, such as the adventurer Yamada Nagamasa in Siam, or later became Japanese popular icons such as Tenjiku Tokubei.

By the beginning of the 17th century, the Bakufu built several ships of purely Nanban design, usually with the help of foreign experts, such as the galleon San Juan Bautista, which crossed the Pacific two times on embassies to Nueva España (Mexico).

Catholicism in Japan

With the arrival of the leading Jesuit Francis Xavier in 1549, Catholicism progressively developed as a major religious force in Japan. Although the tolerance of Western "padres" was initially linked to trade, Catholics could claim around 200,000 converts by the end of the 16th century, mainly located in the southern island of Kyūshū. The Jesuit managed to obtain jurisdiction on the trading city of Nagasaki.

A Japanese votive altar, Nanban style. End of 16th century. Guimet Museum.
A Japanese votive altar, Nanban style. End of 16th century. Guimet Museum.

The first reaction from the kampaku Hideyoshi came in 1587, when he promulgated the interdiction of Christianity, and ordered the departure of all "padres". This resolution was not followed upon however (only 3 out of 130 Jesuits left Japan), and the Jesuits were essentially able to pursue their activities. Hideyoshi had written that:

"1. Japan is a country of the Gods, and for the padres to come hither and preach a devilish law, is a reprehensible and devilish thing...
2. For the padres to come to Japan and convert people to their creed, destroying Shinto and Buddhist temples to this end, is a hitherto unseen and unheard-of thing... to stir the canaille to commit outrages of this sort is something deserving of severe punishment." (From Boxer, "The Christian century in Japan")

Hideyoshi's reaction to Christianity proved stronger when a shipwrecked Spanish galleon brought Franciscans to Japan in 1597. Twenty-six Christians (6 Franciscans, 17 of their Japanese neophytes, and 3 Japanese Jesuit lay brothers - included by mistake-) were crucified in Nagasaki on February 5, 1597. It seems Hideyoshi's decision was taken following encouragements by the Jesuit to eliminate the rival order, the Spanish's bragging that military conquest usually followed Catholic proselytism, and by his own desire to take over the cargoe of the ship. Although close to a hundred churches were destroyed, most of the Jesuits remained in Japan.

The final blow came with Tokugawa Ieyasu's firm interdiction of Christianity in 1614, which led to underground activities by the Jesuits, and to their participation to Hideyori's revolt in the Siege of Osaka (1614-15). Repression of Catholicism became virulent after Tokugawa's death in 1616, leading to the torturing and killing of around 2,000 Christians (70 westerners, and the rest Japanese), and the apostasy of the remaining 200-300,000. The last major reaction of the Christians in Japan was the Shimabara rebellion in 1637. Thereafter, Catholicism in Japan was driven underground as the so-called "Hidden Christians".

Other Nanban influences

Nanbandō, a western-style cuirass, 16th century.
Nanbandō, a western-style cuirass, 16th century.

The Nanban also had some other various influences:

The decline of Nanban exchanges

After the country was pacified and unified by Tokugawa Ieyasu in 1603 however, Japan progressively closed itself to the southern barbarians, mainly because of the growing threat of Christianization.

By 1650, except for the trade outpost of Dejima in Nagasaki, for the Netherlands, and some trade with China, foreigners were subject to the death penalty, and Christian converts were persecuted. Guns were almost completely eradicated to revert to the more "civilized" sword. Travel abroad and the building of large ships was also prohibited. Thence started a period of seclusion, peace, prosperity and mild progress known as the Edo period.

The "barbarians" would come back 250 years later strengthened by industrialization, and end Japan's isolation, with the forcible opening of Japan to trade by an American military fleet under the commandement of Commodore Matthew Perry in 1854.

Usages of the word "Nanban"

Japanese inro depicting Nanban foreigners, 17th century.
Japanese inro depicting Nanban foreigners, 17th century.

The term Nanban did not disappear from common usage until the Meiji restoration, when Japan decided to Westernize radically in order to better resist the West, and essentially stopped considering the West as fundamentally uncivilized. Words like Yofu (洋風), lit. ocean style, and Obeifu (欧米風), lit. European American style replaced Nanban in most usages.

Still, the exact principle of westernization was Wakon-Yōsai (和魂洋才 Lit. Japanese spirit Western talent), which tends to imply that, although technology might be acquired from the West, Japanese spirit is still superior to Western spirit, but probably not to a point overtly justifying the usage of the word “barbarian” anymore...

Today the word Nanban is only used in a historical context, and is essentially felt as picturesque and affectionate. It can sometimes be used jokingly to refer to Western people or civilization in a cultured manner.

There is an area where Nanban is used exclusively to refer to a certain style. It is cooking and in names of dishes. These Nanban dishes are not American or European dishes but an odd collection of dishes not using soy sauce or miso but using curry powder and vinegar as its flavoring. Some of these dishes resemble Southeast Asian cuisines but are so heavily changed to fit Japanese tastes like ramen that they should be considered separate dishes.

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