The Dutch island of Dejima (出島) in Nagasaki was for centuries the only way Japan had contact with the western world. For more than 200 years, the Dutch stayed here, locked up on an island measuring less than 150 by 150 metres. Since 2006, you can visit Dejima (but you can also say Deshima, Decima, Schism or Desjima) and relive the way of life of those days. In this article, I give you a historical explanation of the exceptional position that the Dutch had here and that Japan also eventually benefited from it. Finally, you will get my opinion whether Dejima is worth a visit during a stay in Nagasaki…
From Portugal to Dejima for the Dutch
When the Portuguese landed in Southwest Japan in 1543, they had two goals. Firstly, they wanted to promote trade and accumulate wealth. And secondly, they wanted to convert the Japanese population to Christianity. Until 1600 this went reasonably well, until the Dutch discovered Japan and started to compete with the Portuguese.
The new shogun of Japan, Ieyasu Tokugawa (1543-1616), was disgusted that the Portuguese were trying to convert and change the country. The shogun’s successors therefore decided that Japan should cut itself off from the rest of the world. But they needed the help of the Dutch to achieve this. During an uprising of Catholic peasants in 1639 in Shimabara, where the Dutch fought alongside the shogun, many Catholic citizens were killed. When the shogun won, the Catholic faith was banned and the Portuguese expelled. Only the Dutch were allowed to stay on condition that they promised not to convert people. That did not matter much to the crazy Dutch. The shogun gave them an island near Nagasaki: Dejima.
Fact: The meaning of Dejima is ‘Island that sticks out’. This was certainly true in the past, but now there seems to be no island…
The closed life of the Dutch on a small island
Until 1853, the island of Dejima was under strict control of Japanese observers. The Dutch were not allowed to leave the island, except during an annual audience with the shogun. Contact with the Japanese population also had to be kept to a minimum in order to limit the spread of Dutch influence. Nevertheless, there was a lot of contact with the Japanese on the island. For example, 270 Japanese worked as waiters, translators and suppliers of food and other products. Because of the small number of Dutch, it was common for love affairs to develop between the two groups. But prostitution was also not uncommon on Dejima. The Dutch were also forbidden to stay on the island for long periods and they were regularly replaced by new merchants from Batavia.
Trade relations with Japan: knowledge, silver and copper
When the Portuguese were driven out around 1640, the Dutch took over the silver-for-silk trade from them. This meant that the Dutch bought silk from the Chinese and exchanged it with the Japanese for silver. They transported the siver tot Batavia a few times a year. Especially in the beginning, this was lucrative. But since the Chinese were also allowed to have a trading post in Japan, they were in a better position. The Dutch then switched to copper, which was very popular in Asia. This brought the Dutch East India Company (VOC) great profits. But from 1700 onwards, trade from Dejima was restricted by the Japanese government and the settlement was no longer profitable.
Map of the island of Dejima or Deshima
But perhaps the Japanese gained more than the Dutch. The VOC merchants handed out many gifts to keep the shogun happy. This aroused the interest of the Japanese, who gained scientific knowledge as a result. On Dejima, too, there was much interest in ‘western’ books. These were translated and so they acquired knowledge of such subjects as astronomy, mathematics, chemistry, geography, warfare and medicine. Especially in the mid-nineteenth century, when industrialisation began in Japan, the country benefited greatly from this.
A visit to Dejima can easily be combined with the nearby Glover Garden. Whereas the Dutch contributed to the development and knowledge of Japan from 1640 to 1860, the Scotsman Thomas B. Glover did so from 1860 to 1900. Read more about this in the article Glover Garden | Visit the beautiful estate of a Scottish Samurai.
A review of Dejima or Deshima
A visit to the island of Dejima is (besides this article) a nice way to learn more about the history of the Dutch in Japan. It was opened as a museum in 2006 after a long period of restoration and gives a good sight of the centuries-old trade relations between the two countries. It is a pity that no buildings from that time have survived, but with a bit of fantasy and empathy you can walk right into eighteenth century Dejima. Therefore it is certainly worthwhile visiting this attraction, even if it is only for an hour.
Looking for more Dutch influences in Japan? Then go to the Huis ten Bosch theme park in the north of Nagasaki. Here you have the feeling to be back in the Netherlands.
Practical information for a visit to Dejima in Nagasaki
How to get there? Dejima is a 20-minute walk from Nagasaki’s main train station. Would you rather use public transport? Line 1 will take you from the station to Dejima Station in 7 minutes.
Opening hours: Dejima is open every day from 8 am to 9 pm. A visit takes about 2 to 3 hours and costs 520 yen.
Do you have more tips, ideas or comments about Dejima in Nagasaki? Then feel free to leave a message below.