When the first foreigners (Spanish and Portuguese) appeared during the 16th century, they were initially allowed to enter the country and many of them came as missionaries, trying to spread Christianity to what they thought of as “the heathens”. (The Japanese in their turn considered the foreigners “barbarians”). The English and Dutch came only to trade and were also cautiously welcomed to begin with. The Englishman Will Adams even went so far as to become a confidant of the Shogun (ruler) Tokugawa Ieyasu and James Clavell’s novel Shogun was based on his life and true events. But then things started to go downhill.
The Shogun heard that the Christians considered God’s word as law and that was something he couldn’t tolerate. In Japan, the Shogun’s word was law – end of story. So the Christians were persecuted and the Portuguese and Spaniards evicted from the country, while the English and Dutch were allowed to stay on in the port of Hirado only (north of Nagasaki). The English traders didn’t do very well and eventually left of their own accord, but the Dutch clung onto their tiny foothold.
This became even smaller when they were forced to move to a man-made island called Dejima in Nagasaki’s harbour. It was shaped like the Shogun’s fan and connected to the mainland only by a single bridge which was guarded at all times. The foreigners were forbidden to set foot on the mainland unless invited and so they had to spend all their time on this island. It must have been a surreal existence and very claustrophobic! (The novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell describes this).
While doing research for my own novel, I visited Dejima and it was an amazing feeling to stand where those long-ago traders had spent their lives. I was very fortunate to be able to see it because Dejima had at one time disappeared under reclaimed land in the harbour, but has now been reconstructed and designated a national historical site. Many of the original buildings have been rebuilt and I was able to go into the Chief Factor’s residence and other houses and see how the traders would have lived – it was fascinating! I also walked from one end of the island to the other, which didn’t take very long at all, and spent time studying a model that has been built to show the island as it would have been in the past.