Dejima: The Island That Was Once Japan’s Only Connection To The Outside World

Dec 7, 2023 0 comments

For over two centuries, spanning from the 16th to the 19th centuries, Japan adopted a strict policy that prohibited foreigners, particularly Europeans, from entering the country. This restriction also extended to Japanese citizens, preventing them from leaving the nation. This stringent approach, implemented during the Edo period, aimed to curb the spread of Christianity and shield Japanese society from the perceived colonial and religious threats posed by European nations. The authorities feared that such influences could destabilize the shogunate's power and disrupt peace in the archipelago.

A Dutch trade ship approaches Dejima Island. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

The crackdown on European missionaries started in 1587 under Hideyoshi Toyotomi, Japan's military dictator. Despite the ban on Christian missionaries, around 300,000 Christians persisted in Japan, representing various societal strata, from influential feudal lords to oppressed peasants. These Westerners infiltrating different aspects of Japanese society were seen as a threat to the country's political and religious stability.

Following Toyotomi's death in 1598, subsequent shoguns continued the purges. Empress Meishō grew concerned upon learning about the Spanish and Portuguese colonization in the New World, fearing a similar fate for Japan. Between 1633 and 1639, Shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu implemented a series of "closed country" edicts known as sakoku. These edicts not only prohibited foreign nationals from entering Japan but also imposed the death penalty on any Japanese attempting to leave the country.

In order to sustain trade with Europeans, Shogun Iemitsu took a strategic step in 1634 by commissioning the construction of an artificial island. This island, known as Dejima, was created by excavating a canal through a small peninsula and connecting it to the mainland with a narrow bridge. Spanning a modest 246 by 656 feet, this fan-shaped island became the exclusive landing point for Europeans in Japan for the next two centuries.

Ground-plan of the Dutch trade-post on the island Dejima at Nagasaki. Image credit: Isaac Titsingh/Wikimedia Commons

Amid intense competition for trade, the British faced difficulties and withdrew from the competition, unable to match the resources of their rivals. The Portuguese were subsequently banned from trading as a result of their suspected involvement in a Christian rebellion against the shogunate in 1637 known as the Shimabara Uprising. The Dutch, however, secured favor by providing crucial assistance to the shogunate in suppressing the rebellion. Their support, which included supplying gunpowder and cannons, earned them exclusive trading rights with Japan.

The island of Dejima was guarded at all times by Japanese officials and watchmen, whose sole duty was to keep a close eye on the Dutch. Christianity was strictly prohibited on the island. Every arriving ship underwent thorough inspection, and Dutch visitors were required to surrender their Bibles to Japanese authorities. Work was mandated on Sundays, and religious activities, including worship and funeral services, were forbidden. Japanese civilians were generally barred from entering Dejima, except for interpreters, cooks, carpenters, clerks, and prostitutes. The isolation and control over Dejima reflected the shogunate's determination to regulate foreign interactions and prevent any potential threats to its authority and stability.

Japanese print of cargo being offloaded at Dejima. Photo credit: Japan Today

In the early years, there were as many as seven ships a year, although the shogunate gradually reduced the number. From 1715 to 1847, only one or two ships per year were permitted. Despite the stringent regulations, Dutch traders managed to establish a flourishing outpost on Dejima. In its initial years, the island likely resembled more of a remote barracks than a developing frontier community. Dutch sailors and merchants occasionally stayed on Dejima for extended periods, sometimes up to a year. Activities on the island were limited, with options like visiting flower and vegetable gardens or tending to animals in pens. Evenings were spent in socializing and drinking at the well-appointed dining mess. However, it was strictly prohibited for anyone to leave Dejima without explicit permission from Japanese authorities.

The era of sakoku finally came to an end in 1854 with the signing of the Treaty of Kanagawa with the United States, followed by similar treaties with other Western countries by 1858. This marked the conclusion of Japan's national isolation, and the Dutch East India Company's trading post on Dejima was dismantled. The island, which had served as Japan's sole connection to the Western world during the isolation period, underwent expansion through land reclamation. Eventually, it was integrated back into the peninsula and absorbed into Nagasaki.

The original structures on Dejima suffered damage during the atomic bombing of Nagasaki. Although a few buildings survived, they have since been restored as part of a life-size museum, following plans from the early 1880s. Visitors entering Dejima still traverse a single stone bridge, although the once-sea-facing views have disappeared. The island's historical significance is preserved in this museum, offering insights into the unique chapter of Japan's history when it was cut off from the world.

Dejima today. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Scale model of Dejima as it was during Edo period in Dejima. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

# The Wild West Outpost of Japan’s Isolationist Era, Smithsonian
# Dejima Island, Japanistry


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