As some of you perhaps already know, this year we celebrate 150 years of friendship between Japan and Belgium (so 150 years Nippaku 日白, actually). In this post, I will give a short overview of the events leading to the signing of the treaty and some (early) history that both countries share.
It all started in 1866 when a Treaty of Amity, Commerce and Navigation was signed. Belgium was the ninth Western state the Japanese shogunate entered such a treaty with. The Japanese were particularly attracted by Belgium’s technology, e.g. the railroad industry and glass techniques, and institutional organisation, such as law and the central bank system (the Bank of Japan was actually founded in 1882 based on the Belgian model). It is also suggested that the Meiji constitution was indirectly influenced by the Belgian one. The visit from the younger brother of the shogun, Tokugawa Akitake (1867), Japanese students (1871) and the Iwakura mission (1873) are proof of that interest. Belgium, on the other hand, believed that Japan was a promising new market.
Ironically, it was a French journalist that suggested in 1847 that Belgium should send a military expedition to Japan in order to pursue foreign trade (“gunboat diplomacy”). Although the project was firmly rejected and the interest in Japan was almost non-existing at that time, the appearance of American Commodore Matthew Perry in 1853 who forced the Japanese to sign a treaty, impressed the Western countries greatly. Thus, Belgium used the opportunity to sign a similar treaty on 1 August 1866. Count Charles Descantons de Mountblanc established the first official contacts and negotiations were undertaken by Auguste t’Kint de Roodenbeke. Despite the title “Treaty of Amity, Commerce and Navigation” 修好通商条約, it was clearly an unequal/semi-colonial one: it included extraterritoriality (foreigners in Japan were exempted from local jurisdiction) and denial of the right for Japan to determine the import tariffs. The foreign ministers in the following years would devote a big deal of their time on revising these unequal treaties.
The amount of export from Belgium to Japan was around ten times the amount of import, but trade between the two countries in general was limited for a long time. The policy Belgium adopted to encourage marine trade brought a change: now the shipping company Nippon Yūsen made a stop at the port of Antwerp on its way to London. The line was inaugurated in 1896.
Informal connections between Belgium and Japan, however, go back much further in time and originally rooted in religion. The first “Belgian” avant la lettre to ever set foot in Japan was Jesuit missionary Theodoor Mantels in 1588. The arrival of the second Belgian, missionary Ludovicus Frarijn, in 1620 was rather short-lived since he was burnt alive two years later. A third unlucky missionary, Lambert Trouvez, befell the same fate. This was due to the ban on Christianity promulgated in 1587.
Flemish art, mainly inspired by religious figures, reached Japan at an early stage. During the sixteenth century, copper engravings and such were sent to Japan and China as a visual means of spreading Christianity. For example, some Brussels tapestries dating from that period are still used today to decorate the floats at the Gion festival in Kyoto.
During the “splendid isolation” (sakoku 鎖国, ca. 1633-1853) period, the Low Countries (including The Netherlands and Belgium of today) was the sole Western country Japan maintained a relationship with. [Check out my post on Jacob de Zoet if you want to know more about this topic!] Via the VOC (East India Company) various books written in Dutch or Latin were imported and exerted considerable influence as new sources of knowledge on technology, medicines etc. In order to understand the members of the VOC residing on the island of Dejima, and read the books they brought along, the Japanese started to learn Dutch (the so-called rangaku 蘭学, “Dutch learning”).
One work that played a crucial role in the development of rangaku is the Cruydt-Boeck (“herbal book”, 1554) by Rembert Dodoens, a botanist and physician from Mechelen. Shogun Tokugawa Yoshimune (r. 1716-1853) was curious about its contents and ordered a translation. Problem: no one could read Dutch well enough. It took ten years to offer the shogun some sort of summary, and the complete translation in Japanese was ready only two hundred years after the original publication date. Nevertheless, its translation laid the groundwork for a flourishing study of Dutch in the first half of the nineteenth century. We know, for example, that Hiraga Gennai was an avid collector of Dutch works such as Dodoens’s.
Vice-versa, the enormous influence of Japan on Belgium during the late nineteenth century can not be overlooked. The treaty of 1866 set in motion the cultural exchange we now call “japonisme/Japonism”. The Belgian bourgeoisie and nouveaux riches became obsessed with Japanese fine arts and decorative arts, such as fans, kimono, paintings, woodcut prints, nature motifs, ceramics, textiles etc. The VOC had imported Japanese objects as curiosities before, but these objets d’art really became fashionable around the 1880s. International exhibitions played an important part in the diffusion of Japanese culture, as did the magazine Le Japon Artistique by art dealer Siegfried Bing.
The impact of Japanese art is visible in neo-impressionism, decorative art, symbolism and Art Nouveau. Examples of Belgian artists influenced by Japonism are Théo Van Rysselberghe, Fernand Khnopff, James Ensor, Alfred Stevens (pictures below), Henri Van de Velde and Victor Horta. [A Dutch example is Vincent Van Gogh, post here.] They were attracted by elements such as simplicity, two-dimensionality and asymmetry. In short, a style completely different from traditional Western painting. Japanese elements are also present in fin de siècle literature for example the work of the Destrée brothers, Max Elskamp or Émile Verhaeren. Nevertheless, there is the critique that artists influenced by Japonism hardly made any distinction with chinoiserie and had a rather superficial idea of Japanese arts.
Inversely, there were also Japanese artists influenced by their visit to Belgium. The poet Kaneko Mitsuharu and European-style painter Kojima Torajirō, for example. The former read work of Flemish authors and interacted with the Belgian artistic society during his stay in Brussels. The latter’s work, as you can see below, is obviously influenced by pointillism or neo-impressionism (luminism in Belgium). Kojima studied in Ghent and was acquainted with Emile Claus. Furthermore, he brought many European works back home. Nowadays, these are displayed at the Ohara museum of art in Kurashiki, the oldest museum featuring Western art in Japan.
Other things that indicate a link between Japan and Belgium are 1) the Japanese tower in Brussels. King Leopold II had the plan to establish a district in North East Brussels full of majestic buildings from different cultures. Besides a Chinese pavilion, he required the building of a Japanese tower. Although the bottom part was a piece from the 1900 world exhibition in Paris, the rest of it was designed by Belgian and French architects. Hence, the tower is far from an accurate representation of a pagoda. The number of roofs, the structure and the interior design are way off the mark. It is more a reflection of how the West saw Japan than a real effort to understand Japanese culture. What is more, King Leopold lost all interest in the tower once it was completed. 2) there is a second Manneken Pis, the iconic statue of a urinating boy, in Tokushima. The statue was a gift from the Belgian embassy. But that is not the only replica: apparently there is also a Manneken Pis in Itami, Hamamatsu and Tokyo.
Concerning diplomacy, bilateral relations intensified during the 1960s after a difficult start in the postwar period. Japanese companies sought access to the European market for investments. Nowadays, Belgium’s most important export product to Japan is pharmaceuticals, while Japan mainly exports cars to Belgium and Europe in general. It is also known that there are close ties between the imperial Japanese family and the Belgian royal family. Both families frequently make official or private visits, for example in the vintage photograph below.
Although I would love to go into more detail about this fascinating topic, I fear this post might become too long. In case you would like to know more, check out the referenced materials!
- Vande Walle, Willy F., ed. Japan & Belgium: Four Centuries of Exchange. Bruxelles: Commissioners-General of the Belgian Government at the Universal Exposition of Aichi 2005, Japan, 2005. All pictures without source reference are from this work.
- 150 years japan belgium
- diplomatic relations – embassy of belgium in japan