Namban Period (1549-1639)

The country named Zipango by Marco Polo in the thirteenth century remained untouched by the West until 1543, when Portuguese traders landed on the Southern island of Tanegashima.(1) Both countries saw an opportunity for profit, and quickly established trade, the Portuguese sending merchandise to Japan every two years for about a decade, and yearly from 1557 onwards. (2) They also introduced Christianity to Japan. The Spanish Jesuit missionary, St. Francis Xavier, arrived in Kyushu in 1549, followed by many others. At that time, Japan was riven with territorial disputes between feudal lords, who welcomed the missionaries, less from religious fervour than as a force to rival the politically strong Buddhist monasteries. (3)
For half a century, the Portuguese enjoyed exclusive trade with Japan, until the Spaniards arrived in 1596, the Dutch in 1600 and the English in 1613.4 Portugalís dominant position was gradually eroded by the Dutch, who established the Dutch East India Company (VOC, Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie) in 1602 and started a regular supply of cargo to Japan. Additionally, the growing antipathy towards Catholicism in Japan worked against the Portuguese. Ieyasu Tokugawa, first Shogun of the Edo period (1603-1867), was initially tolerant until 1613, when he promulgated an anti-Christian (particularly Catholic) edict. Thereupon, the missionaries were ordered to leave Japan; Japanese believers were severely persecuted; the Catholic Spanish and Portuguese were expelled from Japan in 1624 and 1639 respectively. Japan, then, entered a 200 year period of seclusion (sakoku), retaining the Dutch as the sole Western trading agent.
The above is a brief history of the period when Catholicism and the Portuguese prospered in Japan. Apart from Japanese chronological eras, this time is often referred to as the Christian (till 1613) or Namban (Southern Barbarians, till 1639) period, which features, if briefly, the very first Westernization and the fusion of Japan and the West.
Moving on to the content of the Portuguese trades, their transactions in European goods accounted for only about one-third or one-quarter of their turnover. They carried a huge quantity of Chinese raw silk and fabrics to Japan,(5) where they bought silver cheaper than elsewhere. Thence they returned to China and other Asian ports to purchase silk fabrics and spices for eventual sale in Europe.(6) In the course of this trade, various Western products were introduced to the Japanese. A few of the novelties included Western clothes, mirrors, carpets, glasses, foods, and wine. Naturally, such commodities appeared extremely exotic to the Japanese and a fad for things Portuguese was soon established. The powerful lords like Nobunaga Oda received numerous Western gifts not only from the Portuguese but also from other feudal lords currying Nobunagaís favour. The Jesuit Father Louis Frois visited Nobunaga in 1569 and was amazed by the foreign treasures accumulated in his castle:
Cordoba leather skins, hourglasses and sundials, candlesticks and tapers . . . the finest glassware . . . All this in such abundance that he has twelve or fifteen chests, like those of Portugal, fitted with these things . . .(7)

Frois also recorded that Nobunaga had a wine colour velvet chair with gilt decoration.(8) It is difficult to speculate about its design, but, at the date, it is likely to have been in Renaissance style.(9)
Another item of furniture brought by the Portuguese was a Chinese folding chair called kyokuroku in Japanese.(10) The Portuguese took these easily portable chairs to Japan for their own use (Fig. 2(a)), and some paintings testify that not only Japanese feudal lords but also even kabuki theatres used them to create an exotic air. Although production centres have not been identified, it is believed that some of them were produced in Japan.(11)
Turning to Japanese exports, besides silver, another item which attracted the Portuguese was lacquer. Japan was producing elaborate lacquer wares already in the early Heian period (794-1192), separating from the originatorís (Chinese) design towards the end of that era. Maki-e (sprinkled picture) is a Japanese original technique, where gold and silver powders are sprinkled on a wet lacquer surface to make decorative designs. Lacquer became commonly used for the furnishings of the aristocracy and in objects for religious ceremonies. In the Kamakura era (1185-1333), Japan even started exporting lacquer to China.(12)
The type of lacquer which the Portuguese encountered in Japan was Kodaiji maki-e (Fig. 3). It is a hiramaki-e (flat sprinkled picture), where motifs are painted on the flat ground. Compared to the relief takamaki-e, hiramaki-e is a time-saving and inexpensive technique. The gold plant motifs reserved against a black background diagonally juxtaposed with unrelated designs are characteristic of Kodaiji maki-e. As found in this example, autumn flowers were particularly favoured.(13) The Portuguese, who found Japanese lacquers noble and exotic, started to order objects of Western shape embellished with Kodaiji maki-e to produce what we call Namban style.
Namban lacquer wares divide into the religious and secular. It was the Portuguese missionaries who first ordered lacquer. Due to the rapid increase of Japanese converts, there was an urgent need for ritual objects (lecterns, shrines, and sacrament boxes) (Fig. 4). Some of them, originally intended for churches in Japan, were brought back to Portugal by missionaries. It is suggested that this production coincided with the first sacred images to be painted in Japan around 1563.(14) It continued until the persecution of Christians started in 1612. Consequently, churches and monasteries were destroyed, with their lacquer, which has rarely survived in Japan.
Following missionaries, the Portuguese merchants started to order domestic furniture such as a drop-front cabinet and a domed coffer (Fig. 5). These are the two commonest items of Namban furniture. It is not certain when the production of these items started. The earliest record of such furniture which survives today in Europe is the cabinet at Schloss Ambras near Innsbruck in Austria: it was inventorised in 1596.(15) Scholars speculated that the chests Louis Frois saw at Nobunagaís castle in 1569 may have been Namban export chests, which would make production earlier.(16)
When we compare Namban lacquers to Kodaiji maki-e wares, it is obvious that the Portuguese had created a very new lacquer aesthetic. First, they required mother-of-pearl inlay decoration, and then combined animals and birds with conventional plant motifs. Lastly, the spacious black background was entirely filled with either geometric or scrolling foliage motifs. It is clear that Japanese craftsmen strove to adapt to a taste different to that in Japan.
It is known that Namban lacquer wares were produced in Kyoto though workshops have not been positively identified as yet. Setting aside very early pieces, it is suggested that a single workshop was involved in the production on the evidence of basic decoration and uniformity of hinges.(17) William Adams, (18) an English pilot, wrote to Richard Wickham in November 1617:
I have sent by this bearer seventeen sundry parcels of contores and scrittores marked with R.W. . . . I have been at Meaco [i.e. Kyoto] and talked with the makeman [i.e. maki-e craftsman] who hath promised that in short time he will have done. He hath fifty men that worketh day and night; that, so far as I see, he doth his endeavour. Your candlesticks when I was in Meaco were not done, but promised me in two or three days after to send them. [sic] (19)

The mention of ìfifty craftsmenî implies a large workshop, perhaps that of the Koami family, prominent lacquer workers since the fifteenth century, given the similarity of the design of Namban wares to Kodaiji maki-e. (20)
To summarise, it can be said that the cultural interchange between Japan and Portugal during the Namban period was fairly limited. It is undeniable that the Portuguese presence was strongly felt in Japan, but without obvious influence on decorative arts, especially furniture. The objects featuring exotic subjects and motifs produced for the home market were confined to small crafts such as dishes,(21) and furniture of Western-origin like a bed and a chair had never found a firm place in Japanese culture.(22) The contrary, Japanese influence on European culture, was negligible. This may be attributed to the Portuguese attitude towards lacquer wares: assuming that Namban furniture would not be popular in Europe, they did not export it beyond Portugal.(23 )

Komo Period (c.1639- c.1854)

The Dutch traded with Japan as the sole European agent at the tiny artificial island called Dejima in Nagasaki until the end of the sakoku period, 1854. This period is sometimes referred to as the Komo (red hair) era after the nickname the Japanese gave to the Dutch.(24)
The Dutch sent a regular supply of cargo to Nagasaki.(25) Most Dutch cargoes were similar to the Portuguese, predominantly Chinese raw silk and fabrics at least until the end of the seventeenth century.(26) Besides, the Dutch brought diversified foreign products including wood, ivory and ray skins which were used for the embellishment of Japanese lacquer artefacts. As for the Dutch purchases, the majority and the most lucrative items were copper, silver and gold, which were superior to and cheaper than European metals. They continued to buy lacquer and added porcelain to their list.(27) These decorative art objects were an insignificant part of the entire Dutch business with Japan, whilst their impact on European arts was vigorous.
The Dutch VOC recorded that lacquer wares were already being made in 1607,(28) and a Japanese cargo containing nine lacquer chests arrived in Holland in 1610.(29) The English East India Company also purchased lacquers before their withdrawal from the Japanese market in 1623. On 21 September 1614, Clove arrived in London with Japanese wares, as ritch Scritores (a writing desk), Trunckes, Beoubes (a screen), Cupps and Dishes of all sorts, and of a most excellent varnish. [sic] (30)
It seems that lacquer became a more important item in Dutch trade around the 1630s: separate registrations started to appear in the VOC ledger from 1634, when 127 items are listed with a simple description,(31) followed by 416 lacquers in 1635.(32) Thence, the number of export lacquers carried to Amsterdam continued to increase,(33) however, the quantity of large-size furniture gradually declined and the VOC eventually ceased to import it after 1693 except for occasional purchases during the eighteenth century.(34) This was because of the increasing cost of lacquer towards the end of the seventeenth century. It is calculated that the total number of lacquer wares exported to Europe between 1652 and 1780 was 10,032, and those number sent to India was 13,032.(35) In addition, numerous unrecorded private trades were done. Consequently, the whole figures including the trades after 1781 would be huge.
Turning to the examination of Komo designs, although the Dutch continued to order lacquers from the workshops in Kyoto until the end of the eighteenth century, there was a distinctive shift in style from Namban lacquers. Since the early seventeenth century, the crowded Namban design was gradually replaced by a more restrained and elegant pictorial decoration with a plain black lacquer background, and mother-of-pearl inlay became less common and painted areas increased in size. This change became quite evident from the 1630s to the 40s.
The most common type of furniture in the seventeenth century was a chest of drawers with two hinged doors and a flattop coffer. These differ from the Namban cabinet with its drop-front and coffer with a domed lid. The majority of export lacquer wares were mass-produced and of mediocre variety, however, during this time, a number of pieces of ostentatious furniture were ordered as gifts to the nobility.
Figure 6, a cabinet set on a Baroque style stand, owned by the royal family of the Netherlands, is a good example. The panoramic landscapes are painted in hiramaki-e and takamaki-e techniques. Considering that the Tokugawa government issued a decree to the Dutch banning the export of lacquer wares depicting Japanese towns, castles, people and weapons on 14 August 1641, the design of this cabinet is probably earlier. (36) Its quality suggests that it was produced by one of the leading workshops of the day, the Koami or Igarashi family in Kyoto around 1640.(37)
The chair in Figure 7 is a rare example of export lacquer based on the prototypes sent from the VOC in India to Japan: the same type of ebony chair used as a model is held in the Gemeentsmuseum, The Hague.(38) The overall decoration with gold and black lacquer and mother-of-pearl inlay displays the glorious fusion of the West and the East: the arcades, balusters, a crest and heraldic lions of the back from the West; ho-o birds on the legs and applied chrysanthemum mon (family crest) from the East.(39)
The Europeans greeted lacquered furniture with great admiration. Those cabinets and coffers became status symbols of the rich and noted by travellers to the great houses. On 20 April 1661, Samuel Pepys saw in the Duke of York's closet, then he sent us to his closet, where we saw, among things, two very fine chests covered with gold and Indian varnish, given him by the East India Company of Holland. Also on 4 December 1679, John Evelyn saw in the house of the Portuguese Ambassador in London, The Stair Case is sumptuous & Gallerie: the Gardon: but above all the costly furniture belonging to the Ambassador, especially the rich <Jopon> Cabinets of which I think there were a dosen.[sic] (40 )
From the end of the seventeenth century, the vogue for Japanese lacquered furniture had penetrated throughout Europe. However, Japanese production could not satisfy demand. One solution to this shortage was to cannibalise the lacquered screens and boxes imported from Japan to create new furniture.(41) This was first practised in England and then in France. The marchands-merciers Hebert, Darnault and Poirier, ordered a commode in Japanese lacquer from Bernard II van Risenburgh (42) and made the first delivery to the Crown in 1737 (Fig. 8). This illustration displays how Japanese lacquer wares were adapted in opulent Louis XV style interiors.
In addition, the Europeans started to produce a substitute for Japanese lacquer wares: japanning. (43) The document which popularised these methods immensely was A Treatise of Japanning and Varnishing published by Stalker and George Parker in 1688. The manual described various ways to produce japanned wares, and a vast amount of rather confusing works were produced by amateurs due to indiscriminate copying of the attached twenty-four illustrations of furniture with chinoiserie designs (Fig. 9). This was also practised in the United States (Fig. 10).(44) This fashion continued through to the nineteenth century.
Returning to the Komo lacquer wares exported from Japan; from the late eighteenth century, the Dutch started to forward some orders to the workshops in Nagasaki, whence new kinds of lacquer emerged.(45) One type was colourful shell-inlaid wares. Extremely thin pieces of shell applied on a black lacquer ground were often painted on the back to enhance their tonality (Fig. 11).(46) Another type was much plainer objects in contemporary Western furniture shapes: they were decorated only with flat lacquered painting (Fig. 12).(47) These lacquer wares were exported from Nagasaki to the West until at least 1878 (Meiji 11th).(48)
To summarise the cultural intercourse in the area of decorative art between Japan and the West during the Komo period, the influence was more strongly felt in Europe. Japanese lacquer and porcelain were received enthusiastically as exotic ornaments in the European residences. On the other hand, decorative arts in Japan, particularly furniture, were hardly affected because Japan was in seclusion from the outside world.(49) Based on the historical facts discussed in this chapter, I now move on to the next period, the Meiji era, to examine how sensational were the cultural exchanges that took place between Japan and the West, and what had happened in the area of furniture.

1 This incident became known as
Teppo Denrai (the arrival of a gun) in Japan after the fact that the Portuguese introduced matchlock guns to the Japanese for the first time in the country's history.2

Chapter I - Introduction
Chapter II - Pre-Meiji Export Furniture
Chapter III - Social Context in the Meiji Era
Chapter IV - Meiji Export Furniture
Chapter V - Conclusions
Appendix - Footnotes