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Tuesday, April 25, 2000

The 400-year-old bridge

BRIDGING THE DIVIDE: 400 Years The Netherlands -- Japan, edited by Leonard Blusse, Willem Remmelink and Ivo Smits. Leiden: Hotei Publishing, 2000, 288 pp., $60.

Japan and the Netherlands have a special relationship. No two other European and Asian countries have maintained such long and continuous contact undisturbed by the trauma of colonialism. It began 400 years ago when, after a gruesome crossing of the Pacific, the Rotterdam trading vessel Liefde, or "Love," washed ashore in Usuki Bay, Kyushu, on April 19, 1600.

The Japanese-Dutch relationship which thus began is very special for a number of reasons. After the Portuguese, along with all other Christians, were expelled from Japan in 1639, the Dutch alone were allowed to stay. For more than two centuries, their trading factory on the artificial island Deshima in the port of Nagasaki was Japan's only window to Europe. The little bridge connecting Deshima with the town of Nagasaki came to be known as the "Dutch bridge" ("oranda no kakehashi"), a metaphoric expression referring to the Dutch as cultural mediators for Japan.

This metaphor inspired the title and the theme of this book. Spanning a short physical gap, the bridge to Deshima linked different worlds. The distance between them and how the inhabitants on either side interacted with each other are fascinating topics, but this is not all that is intended with the bridge metaphor. The book also makes an attempt to span the four centuries of Dutch-Japanese exchange it commemorates.

This is no small order, but it has been mastered in an impressive way. The editors have done a marvelous job, including more information than one can usually hope to find between the covers of a single volume. Much of it is embodied in close to 250 illustrations, expertly selected and superbly reproduced. The publisher is to be commended for excellent craftsmanship.

A wealth of maps, folding screens, paintings and prints featuring various scenes involving Dutch and Japanese participants, travelers' sketches, books, diaries of times long past and photographs of more recent vintage make the evolving relationship through four centuries come wonderfully alive.

But don't be mistaken. This is no coffee-table book. The editors have brought together some of the finest scholars in the multifaceted history of Dutch-Japanese relations. Fifteen chapters range from the early years of the Dutch trading post in Hirado to an up-to-date review of Dutch-Japanese cooperation in commerce, science and the arts.

The longer chapters are interspersed with vignettes of a page or less on more specific topics. For example, Torii Yumiko's review of the broad field of "Dutch studies" is garnished by contributions that highlight details: Dutch loanwords in Japanese, by Isabel Tanaka-Van Daalen, the Japanese translation of "Robinson Crusoe," by Matsuda Kiyoshi, the Motoki house of Dutch interpreters, by Harada Hiroji, among others.

Similarly, Reinier Hesselink's and Matsui Yoko's chapter on Japan's "sakoku," or "closing-off" policy, is augmented by accounts of the Dutch traders' annual court journey to Edo, by Katagiri Kazuo, the problem of smuggling on Deshima, by Fujita Kayoko, and the courtesans of Nagasaki's pleasure quarter who visited the Dutch, by Ivo Smits. Karel van Wolferen's discussion of Dutch sentiments toward the Japanese occupation of the Netherlands East Indies during World War II is augmented by a short and characteristically flamboyant piece on the night the Showa Emperor died, by Ian Buruma.

These and many other topical articles make for fascinating reading, providing a sparse and abstract historical overview with flesh and blood. The editors took pains not to present the relationship between Japan and the Netherlands in isolation, but in the context of world history. What has often been characterized as Japan's self-isolation policy is described by Leonard Blusse, interestingly, as a concomitant of Japanese nation-building, a process of consolidating centralized state power that was threatened both from within, by ambitious warlords, and from the outside, by Christian missionaries.

It is clear that for the most part both the Japanese and the Dutch considered the strange arrangement of a severely restricted trading post on an artificial island mutually beneficial.

However, the traffic over the "Dutch bridge" in Deshima was one-sided. On the whole, the Dutch influence on Japan was much stronger than vice versa.

This is not surprising, because it was only in the 20th century that the Dutch were at the receiving end of the relationship, and not in a way they appreciated. Japanese-Dutch relations reached their lowest point when the Japanese girded themselves with the "emerald belt," as the Dutch called their colonial dominion in the East Indies. That the Japanese invaded the Netherlands East Indies, put many Dutch into camps and some into army brothels is the most painful part of their 400 years of history, and is covered at length in this excellent book.

Closing on a positive note, Fukukawa Shinji in his essay on the future of Dutch-Japanese relations focuses on the many areas of common interest and cooperation, ranging from environmental issues to technology and culture. The Dutch bridge, it would appear, is still there. With this book, which is simultaneously published in Dutch and Japanese, its quadricentennial is given a worthy monument.

Florian Coulmas is professor of Japanese studies at Duisburg University.

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