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Sunday, Nov. 7, 2004

THE ASIAN BOOKSHELF

And you thought doing deals in today's Japan was tough


THE DESHIMA DIARIES MARGINALIA 1740-1800, edited by Leonard Blusse, Cynthia Vialle, Willem Remmelink and Isabel van Daalen. Tokyo: The Japan-Netherlands Institute, 898 pp., 2004, 13,000 yen (cloth).

It has been 12 years since I had occasion to review on this page the first volume of the Deshima Diaries Marginalia. Now the second volume has appeared.

The marginalia consist of abstracting annotations to the actual diaries maintained at the Dutch trading post in Nagasaki during the Edo Period. The Dutch originals, covering hundreds of volumes, are held by the General State Archives in The Hague.

Since these extremely informative and valuable manuscripts are rather inaccessible, the Japan-Netherlands Institute has undertaken to edit the annotations and translate them into English. The hiatus of 12 years between the publication of the first volume and second is an indication of how much work is involved in this project. But it was worth the effort.

No other documents come close to the Deshima Diaries as a source of knowledge about Japan's dealings with the outside world in the 18th century. The first volume covers the period from 1700 to 1740; the second, from 1741 to 1800. The latter is almost twice as long as the former.

The diaries are the official day-to-day records of the Dutch East India Co.'s trading factory in Japan. Their purpose, besides serving as the equivalent of a ship's logbook, was to provide documentation for future reference by traders.

As the Dutch found out early on, relations with the Japanese were not always easy, and in many cases it proved advantageous if a precedent could be referred to on how to handle a current problem.

The Dutch on Deshima, the artificial island the Japanese had built for them in Nagasaki harbor, were merchants whose primary concern, naturally, was trade. Life revolved around the arrival and departure of ships, the unloading, selling and procuring of goods.

They represented the VOC, a trading company. Since they were the only Europeans allowed a permanent presence in Japan, however, their position was of great import, as evidenced by the opperhoofd's (chief merchant) annual journey to the Edo court, a lengthy and very costly undertaking.

Also, to put things into perspective, it must be noted that, at the time, the VOC was the biggest and most powerful company of the world. As the Japanese were quite aware of this, they had an active interest in maintaining trade relations with the Dutch and obtaining information from them about the West. Their curiosity for things European knew no bounds.

Yet, in addition to being traders, the fleshy red-haired Dutch were considered barbarians, so they were held in low esteem in the feudalistic social order of Tokugawa Japan. The tension that arose from these two contravening views transpires from some of the diary entries.

Somehow, bound by mutual interest, the Japanese and the Dutch got along with each other, cowriting an intriguing story of cultural contact and exchange whose success is credited in no small part to the official interpreters. As mediators between the often impatient and arrogant Dutch traders, and the equally often high-handed and suspicious Japanese officials, they paved the way for smooth relations with diligence, discretion and acumen, clearing up more than just laughable misunderstandings on an almost daily basis.

Not surprisingly, the interpreters, who formed a highly regarded profession and considered themselves an intellectual elite, were deeply hurt when they had to submit to searches on their way to and from Deshima. The Japanese authorities had decided on this measure in order to control smuggling.

The anxiety of the Japanese to prevent smuggling is a recurring theme in the diaries. With just two ships per year on average and 12 to 25 Dutchmen to keep watch, one would think that the traffic of goods and people was quite manageable. However, there were always smugglers eager to move contraband into and out of Japan.

Business matters take up much room in the text, such as the constant negotiations about export quotas for copper (the most profitable merchandise the Dutch bought in Japan), difficulties in supplying the amount of Java sugar demanded by the Japanese, limitations on the volume of trade, demands and regulations by the shogunate government, declining profit margins, and exchange-rate problems.

The Dutch, as well as the Japanese, knew that commercial savvy was not enough. Knowledge about their trading partners was an asset. And it is this kind of information in the diaries that gives us a glimpse into a fascinating epoch of Japanese history.

Outside the trading season, the Dutch led a rather quiet and boring life on Deshima that left them plenty of time to record their daily dealings.

There is the occasional entry noting that "nothing happened" that day. Otherwise, the detailed accounts of the Dutch opperhoofden are a gold mine of information that make the reader hope that the third volume of the diaries won't take as long to come out as this one.

"The Deshima Diaries Marginalia" is distributed by The Japan-Netherlands Institute at a subsidized price that is below production cost.


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