Some days ago, I finished reading David Mitchell’s novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. The story is set in Japan at the turn of the 18th century and tells the story of Dutchman Jacob de Zoet, who starts working for the East India Company in order to prove to the father of his beloved Anna that he is a man worthy of her. The intended stay of a few years turns out to be a long and unexpected adventure. Mitchell is beyond doubt a brilliant narrator. His work does not only cover an exciting narrative, it is also built upon profound research. The bestseller was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2010 and received many enthusiast reviews. The story is told from various – Dutch and Japanese – perspectives:
‘David Mitchell told a Japanese newspaper, “My intention is to write a bicultural novel, where Japanese perspectives are given an equal weight to Dutch/European perspectives”.’ (Man Booker Prize)
Mitchell’s background also explains his interest and knowledge of Japan:
‘It is interesting but unnecessary to know that the author has lived in Japan, is the father of half-Japanese children, and has set an earlier novel –number9dream (2001) – in the country. Equally, the fact that this new novel centres on a love story between a European man and a Japanese woman represents no more than the most elementary draw from autobiography. (The Guardian, 9 May 2010)
Underneath the story , ‘dealing with questions of alienation and strangerhood’ (Ching-Chih Wang, 2013), lies Mitchell’s own alienation, experienced as a foreigner in Japan.
The novel creates a setting of Japan during the Edo period (1603-1868), when it was an isolated country (sakoku 鎖国). No Japanese could leave the country alive, and all contact with foreigners was forbidden. As a result, a united Japan, established by Tokugawa Ieyasu, maintained peace for over 200 years and domestic trade flourished. In 1799, only the Dutch were allowed on Dejima, an artificial island in the bay of Nagasaki.
Nagasaki itself, wood-grey and mud-brown, looks oozed from between the verdant mountains’ splayed toes. The smells of seaweed, effluence and smoke from countless flues are carried over the water. The mountains are terraced by rice paddies nearly up to their serrated summits. (…) Dominating the shorefront is his home for the next year: Dejima, a high-walled, fan-shaped artificial island, some two hundred paces along its outer curve, Jacob estimates, by eighty paces deep, and erected, like much of Amsterdam, on sunken piles. (TAJZ, p.15-16)
The Dutch were not the first to set foot in Nagasaki. In the 16th century, the Spanish and the Portuguese imported iron weapons, Western cuisine, foreign languages and Christianity (called Nanban “barbarians from the south” trade period). About 130,000 Japanese were converted to this new, humane religion, including many daimyō. With their support, the Portuguese obtained jurisdiction over trade in Nagasaki. The Japanese shogunate felt threatened and Toyotomi Hideyoshi promulgated the first ban on Christianity in 1587. Priests were no longer welcome.
With the unification of Japan, Tokugawa Ieyasu at first turned a blind eye towards the foreigners and their Christian mission in favor of trade. Later he realized trade was possible without accepting Christianity and forbade missionaries in 1614. All converts had to be executed, and the Catholics were driven underground (kakure kirishitan 隠れ キリシタン ). The Japanese also disliked that the Pope had divided Oceania among Spain and Portugal, of which the latter would receive Japan. A critical turning point was the battle of Shimabara in 1637, a rebellion of Christian peasants, supported by the Portuguese, against the Tokugawa regime.
From that moment, every person related to Christianity was severely punished. In order to unmask practitioners of the Western religion, the shogunate introduced fumie (踏み絵, “stepping on the picture”). Everybody had to trample on an image of Christ or Mary. Those reluctant or refusing to do this, were suspected of Christianity and sent to Nagasaki for torture. When they refused to change their religion, they were executed. The same applied to Dutchmen. Books they brought with the slightest hint to this Western religion were banned – and its owner killed.
I am told,’ says the interpreter, ‘Mr de Zoet brings many books… and here they are…’ he points to the chest ‘… many many books. A “plethora” of books, you say?’ ‘A few books,’ says Jacob, nervous enough to vomit. ‘Or quite a few: yes.’ ‘May I remove books to see?’ Ogawa does so, eagerly, without waiting for an answer. For Jacob, the world is narrowed to a thin tunnel between him and his Psalter, visible between his two-volume copy of Sara Burgerhart. (TAJZ, p. 21)
Only high officials of the Japanese government were allowed access to the Dutchmen on Dejima. The Dutch Chief had the duty to write a yearly report for the East India Company (Oranda fūsetsugaki, オランダ風説書), of which the oldest report archived now dates back to 1675. The Dutch were not allowed to study Japanese, and so they had to communicate via Japanese translators. Every year the Dutch chief of Dejima was summoned to Edo in order to report to the Shogun about the European situation.
The Hall of Sixty Mats is airy and shaded. Fifty or sixty sweating, fanning officials – all important-looking samurai – enclose a precise rectangle. Magistrate Shiroyama is identified by his central position and raised dais. His fifty-year-old face looks weathered by high office. Light enters the hall from a sunlit courtyard of white pebbles, contorted pine trees and moss-coated rocks to the south. Hangings sway over openings to the west and east. A meaty-necked guard announces, ‘Oranda Kapitan!’ and ushers the Dutchmen into the rectangle of courtiers to three crimson cushions. Chamberlain Tomine speaks and Kobayashi translates: ‘Let the Dutchmen now pay respect.’ (TAJZ, p. 40)
The Japanese imported Dutch wool, textile, cotton, medicine, clock works and sugar. They were also interested in western knowledge, mainly in the positive sciences. Rangaku (蘭学, “the study of the Netherlands”) as a term for the study of western sciences, medicine and technology in particular, and the translation of these books in Japanese, led to the beginning of a modern Japan. In return, the Dutch were mostly interested in copper. They shipped it to Batavia, the capital of Dutch India.
Interpreter Iwase translates for Chamberlain Tomine, who arrived with the hollyhock-crested scroll-tube delivered this morning from Edo. Kobayashi’s Dutch translation of Edo’s message is half unrolled. ‘Number?’ ‘What,’ Vorstenbosch’s patience is exaggerated, ‘is the Shogun’s offer?’ ‘Nine thousand six hundred piculs,’ announces Kobayashi. ‘Best copper.’ 9,600, scratches the nib of Jacob’s quill, piculs copper. ‘This offer is,’ affirms Iwase Banri, ‘a good and big increase.’ A ewe bleats. Jacob fails to guess what his patron is thinking. ‘We request twenty thousand piculs,’ assesses Vorstenbosch, ‘and we are offered less than ten? Does the Shogun mean to insult Governor van Overstraeten?’ (TAJZ, p.144)
When confronted with Western weapons, technology and ships, many Japanese realized – but only a few dare to utter – that sakoku, Japan’s voluntarily isolation, is an illusion which will soon come to an end. The supremacy of European colonial power is visible in all of Asia, and unconquered Japan is too tempting to leave alone. In order to survive, Japan should start developing a similar military force to handle foreign attacks. In the story of Jacob de Zoet, The English also attempt to extort a trade agreement – and fail, thanks to the resistance of the Dutch.
‘The recent incursions by Captain Benyowsky and Captain Laxman warn us of a near future when straying Europeans no longer request provisions, but demand trade, quays and warehouses, fortified ports, unequal treaties. Colonies shall take root like thistles and weeds. Then we shall understand that our “impregnable fortress” was a placebo and nothing more (…) Dr Maeno clears his well-respected throat and raises his fan. ‘First, I wish to thank Yoshida-san for his stimulating thoughts. Second, I wish to ask how best the threats he enumerates can be countered?’ (…) ‘By the creation of a Japanese Navy, by the foundation of two large shipyards, and by the establishment of an academy where foreign instructors would train Japanese shipwrights, armourers, gunsmiths, officers and sailors.’ The audience as unprepared for the audacity of Yoshida’s vision. (TAJZ, p. 198)
When the Union Jack appears on the frigate’s jack-staff, Jacob de Zoet knows, The war is here. The transactions between the longboat and the greeting party puzzled him, but now the strange behaviour is explained. Chief van Cleef and Peter Fischer have been kidnapped. (TAJZ, p. 365)
On the last day of 1799, the East India Company is declared bankrupt. Jacob de Zoet, however, stays in Japan and returns years later home as a rich man.
Fischer smiles for a long second. ‘Captain Penhaligon’s orders are to negotiate a trade treaty with the Japanese.’ ‘Jan Compagnie trades in Japan,’ says Ouwehand. ‘Not John Company.’ Fischer picks his teeth. ‘Ah, yes, some more news. Jan Compagnie is dead as a doornail. Yes. At midnight on the last day of the eighteenth century whilst some of you – ‘ he happens to glance at Gerritszoon and Baert – ‘were singing rude songs about your Germanic ancestors on Long Street, the Ancient Honourable Company ceased to exist. Our employer and paymaster is bankrupt.’ (TAJZ, p.390)
It is in 1854 that American Commodore Perry forced the opening of Japan. As predicted, unequal treaties follow, but thanks to the import of Western knowledge, the transition to a modern nation ran smoothly.
Facts for Fun
– Want to read more about this? Goodman, Grant Kohn. Japan and the Dutch, 1600-1853. Richmond, Surrey: Curzon, 2000.