Nanban in Nippon: Pre-Modern Interactions Between Europe and Japan


Nanban in Nippon:

Pre-Modern Interactions Between Europe and Japan

Etienne Soula





In 1543, a Portuguese crew anchored on a small island called Tanegashima. For the first time in history, Westerners set foot on Japanese territory. These strange men from the Occident brought firearms and strange stories of a crucified god. They came to be known in Japan as the “Nanban,” (南蛮) or “Southern barbarians.” Despite differences in culture and language, the relationship between the Portuguese – as well as the Spanish that closely followed – and the Japanese developed steadily over the following century, allowing Western ideas to gain a foothold in Japan. In fact, the influence of the Westerners became so great as to partially motivate the decision of the Japanese to expel all foreigners from the archipelago years later, which halted interactions between Japan and the West for almost two centuries. The West’s first contact with Japan ended in bloodshed but, while it lasted, it showed that through human and cultural exchange states can influence one another even in the absence of coercion.

The landing of the Portuguese on Tanegashima initiated a short window in Japanese history now referred to as the “Nanban episode.” It was an extraordinary period characterized by frequent intercultural exchanges between the Portuguese and the Japanese that resulted in a lasting yet tense relationship between the two peoples. Despite its brevity, the Nanban episode is significant because, for the only time in Japanese-Western interactions, both parties had a relatively equal bargaining position. When Western ships returned to Japanese waters two hundred years later, their technological and military advantage forced Japanese authorities to open their country to Western products and ideas. Similarly, most commentators see the current U.S.-Japan alliance as the inescapable result of the latter’s defeat in World War II. Hence the Nanban episode provides a unique example of Japanese-Western interactions that were not conducted under the threat of Western guns. In the 21st century, as the balance of global power shifts to Asia, the U.S. relationship with Japan is bound to move ever further from the coerced contacts of the late 19th and early 20th century. The study of this singular episode brings a different perspective on the current Japanese-Western alignment and shows the benefits as well as the pitfalls that come with a free and uncoerced relationship.

The Arrival of Westerners in Japan

Japan’s first contact with Europe came through the arrival of a small group of Portuguese traders who landed in Chinese ships in 1543.[1] It took the Portuguese crown a few more years to send a Nao, the largest ship on the seas at the time, to visit this “newly discovered” land. Covered in tar to keep the water out, these black ships became “anchored islands of fantasy.”[2] Because the Japanese had minimal information about Western peoples until that point, their own imaginations supplemented their understanding of the traders. The Portuguese arrived in the midst of the “Sengoku Jidai” (戦国時代), or the “Warring States Period,” which was an era of civil war with many warlords vying for control of the entire country. The instability of the Warring States Period benefitted the European travelers in three ways. First, the lack of a strong central government allowed them to maneuver between local authorities so as to improve their standing in the country. Second, because the country was at war, the Japanese were very interested in the arquebus, a new firearm the Europeans brought with them, and saw it as a way to break the gridlock of their own country’s internal conflicts. Finally, the grim reality engendered by the strife of the period made the local population more receptive to the images of motherly love and heavenly life after death promised by Christianity. For all these reasons, the “Nanban,” or “Southern barbarians,” truly captured the imagination of their Japanese hosts and left an impression strong enough to partially survive a two century-long break in Japanese-Western relations.

When the Portuguese arrived in Japan, the country suffered from war and a devastated economy. China, the regional hegemon at that time, had forbidden trade with Japan because of persistent raids by Japanese pirates on Chinese trade routes. Japan’s weak central government was unable to control the country, let alone the seas. As a result, Chinese luxury goods were in high demand in Japan, and the Europeans profited from trading Chinese silk for Japanese silver. The superior design and speed of Western ships allowed them to replace the local black market operators. It also resulted in their monopoly over trade in continental goods by the second half of the 16th century.

When the Europeans arrived, they established themselves in Kagoshima, Funai, Hirado, and Nagasaki.[3] A few years after the initial contact in Tanegashima, Portuguese trading ships from Macau began to visit Nagasaki once a year, from July until September, when the monsoon allowed them to sail back. The Japanese were fascinated both by the crews and the goods that were aboard the Portuguese ships. The Europeans were accompanied by Africans, as well as men from the Indian sub-continent. They brought with them spices, Venetian crystal, Indian textiles, wine, and Chinese luxury goods; all of which generated huge interest among Japanese of all classes.[4] As the warlord who was in the process of bringing Japan under his control, Hideyoshi was so fascinated by these goods that he and his retainers began to wear European clothing and carried crucifixes or rosaries because they thought such actions would bring them success and prosperity.[5] Without any coercive power, simply through trade and their hosts’ curiosity, Westerners were given the opportunity to establish a relationship with a society completely different from their own at the other end of the globe.

Understanding the Nanban Episode through Art

The main challenge in analyzing the “Nanban Episode” is the lack of documentation of the encounter. This is because during the subsequent two hundred years of total isolation, the Japanese eradicated Christianity, expelled foreigners from the island, and destroyed a large proportion of the records and artifacts that related to the Portuguese presence in Japan. Therefore, present-day historians have relied on the so-called “Nanban art,” a heterogeneous collection of artwork depicting religious and secular themes that were produced in relation to the Portuguese’s arrival. The artistic mode of expression allows the attentive observer to derive the emotions and fantasies that the newcomers awakened among the Japanese as well as the Portuguese. Historians, however, insist that this type of material be treated with methodological caution for the following reasons. First, the Nanban artwork produced in traditional Japanese style must be distinguished from those painted in the Western style. Second, the Nanban artifacts were created over the course of several decades and thus evolved over the course of time.  As such, their representation of certain themes changed as Japanese artists improved their knowledge and comprehension of their Portuguese guests.   Finally, many Nanban artifacts were destroyed during the 17th and 18th centuries as Japanese authorities attempted to erase all evidence of Western presence in Japan. As a result, the Nanban artifacts that did survive present an incomplete portrayal of their era.

That being said, Nanban artworks have nevertheless taught historians one of the most significant aspects of interactions between the Japanese and Portuguese: their surprise when confronted with one another’s perceived physical differences. According to historians, the Portuguese reported that their long noses, thick beards, and fair hair were an object of great curiosity to the Japanese. They also felt that the islanders viewed these features as defects.[6] However, commentators who have worked on the surviving Nanban screens, which were created by traditional Japanese painters, contest this account. The scholar Moritaka Matsumoto explains that some of the samurai depicted in the artworks were represented with features quite similar to those of the Westerners. Moreover, he insists that Japanese onlookers seemed to exhibit “curiosity, anticipation and empathy” rather than “disgust, abhorrence or fear.”[7] Even when the Portuguese were depicted in an exaggerated manner, he argues that this was done for comedic purposes rather than out of rejection.

Additionally, because the arrival of foreigners created a desire to obtain Western goods, there was a pressure on artists of the time to depict Western-themed objects for wealthy Japanese consumers. As such, the parodic representations of expressions of devotion, which characterized Christians, were in fact a fusion of Western ideas and traditional Japanese artistic expressions. The official artists of the time were proponents of the “Kano school” (狩野派), a traditional style of painting that bore heavy Chinese influences. And while Kano artists were keen to observe the innovations brought by Western art, they “seemed consciously to ignore and, to a large extent, reject Western modes of thinking.”[8] This is especially poignant in the depiction of Western women in Kano art. The only access Japanese artists had to Western women was through Western art, which they found unworthy of consideration. As such, they used the idea of the Western woman to express their own vision of what an ideal woman should be, which at the time was a Chinese woman. As a result, in screens that represent Westerners leaving their homes to trade with Japan, depicted wives of sailors always have distinctly Chinese features.

Analysis of artwork from the Nanban era shows that while uncoerced exchanges based on trade and culture will influence a state’s society to some extent, one must also realize that such an approach has its limits. While Japan’s traditional Kano artists were curious about the newcomers, they were not prepared to give up centuries of Sinicized canons and remained largely defiant of Western ideas.


The Influence of Christianity in Japan

The complex relationship between homegrown traditions and foreign influence can also be observed in the country’s religious history. For the Portuguese, spreading Christianity to new countries was integral to their expeditions. In fact, the Catholic Counter-Reformation, born in reaction to the advent of Protestantism in Europe, caused the Westerners to promote their faith aggressively. For example, the first Jesuit missionaries arrived in Kyushu in 1549, and actively traveled around the island, gathering information about the local population and customs. As a result of these efforts, Christianity spread through all of Kyushu and southern Honshu in the second half of the 16th century.[9] Warlords who were attempting to unite the country under their banner encouraged Christianity as a counterweight to Buddhism, which they viewed as an obstacle to their own power and influence. This benevolent attitude spurred a huge commitment on the part of the Vatican. Pope Gregory XIII personally financed colleges in Japan and, in 1585, received a group of Japanese envoys from Kyushu. By the end of the 16th century, the Jesuits had established a college, one novitiate, two seminaries, ten residences, and 200 churches in Japan. They also had an estimated 150,000 Christians served by about 500 mission personnel. By 1614, the number of Christians in Japan is believed to have reached approximately 300,000.[10]

When the Jesuits first arrived in Japan, they were accompanied by three Japanese Christians who had studied at the College of Goa. In fact, it was customary for European missionaries to be assisted by local Jesuits, the “Dōjuku” (同宿). The high percentage of Japanese personnel in Jesuit operations was a key element in their success, as it lent a familiar face to foreign ideas. This resulted in a deep penetration of Christian symbols into Japanese society. In addition to carrying Christian items with them, many Japanese people learned prayers by rote, and recited them in the streets for good fortune.[11] Some Jesuits even reported that the locals attributed divine qualities to them, and that they believed each Portuguese to be “a Bodhisattva descended from the heavens.”[12] Such unrealistic expectations led to quick disappointment. The Dōjuku lived in close proximity with European missionaries and soon realized the foreigners were far from holy beings. This was compounded by the racist views of Westerners, who believed that the Japanese were not worthy of being ordained as priests and treated their local assistants “as second-class Christians.”[13] The prejudices held by Westerners were an essential reason behind their failure to fully integrate their ideas to their host’s society. Had the Catholic church made room in its ranks for Japanese priests and bishops, the values and principles it sought to spread would have been harder, if not impossible, to eradicate. Additionally, some of the ideas promoted by Christianity were seen as incompatible with Japanese society. For instance, Hideyoshi found the prohibition of polygamy unacceptable.[14] Also, the prevailing Japanese perception of sensuality and sexuality was not reconcilable with the strict Catholic views on these matters. Similarly, the Christian ideal of equality under God and the pope openly clashed with the feudal structure of Japanese society, where secular authorities held the ultimate say in public affairs.  As Hideyoshi tried to unite Japanese society under a neo-Confucian ideology, Western religion became an obstacle that needed to be removed from Japanese society.

The difficulties encountered by Jesuits were amplified by other religious rivalries brought by the Europeans. As a result, several religious orders competed for power and wealth in Japan. Such conflicts became a part of the greater political struggle between Spain and Portugal. Infighting between Western powers was thus a key element in their eradication from the archipelago. When the government set up by Hideyoshi’s successor defeated the last opposing warlord in 1615, the priority became to ensure that no one would rise up against it. Controlling the ports in Kyushu was essential to ensuring that no local lord could accumulate the wealth necessary to successfully challenge the new government. Eradicating Christianity was seen as part of that exercise. The persecutions against Christians increased in both frequency and intensity. They culminated in 1638 with the suppression of the Shimabara Rebellion, which Hideyoshi’s successor viewed as Christian-inspired. One is left to wonder if a savvier Western leadership, aware of the domestic politics and sensitivities, might have, through calculated shows of fealty to the newly-established central Japanese government, maintained the status of Christianity in the archipelago. Be that as it may, by the middle of the 17th century, Christianity had been virtually wiped out from Japan and all traces of the Nanban episode had been carefully erased. All that remained of the West was a small Dutch contingent sequestered on a small, artificial island in Nagasaki harbor.


Even though the first contact between Japan and the West ended in bloodshed, its historical context provides valuable insights into the nature of these two regions’ relationship to this day. On the one hand, the strange appearance, different artistic codes, and otherworldly moral ideas of the Europeans were rejected by the Japanese, who viewed them as intrinsically alien. On the other hand, there was genuine enthusiasm at all levels of society, specifically surrounding artwork and religion that were fundamentally different from what the country had known until then. On a deeper level, despite vastly inadequate efforts by the West to understand Japan’s society and sensitivities, Christianity managed to make such a strong impression on the Japanese that thousands of people converted, with many prepared to die for ideals that came from the other end of the world. This paradox of resistance to outside influence, combined with an extraordinary assimilation of foreign ideals, would become the hallmark of the Japanese-Western relationship. Although it stands out in Japanese history as a seemingly discrete and self-contained interlude, the Nanban trade episode sowed the seeds of the simultaneous attraction and repulsion that Japan has felt ever since when looking westward.

Since the end of WWII, interactions between Japan and the West have been relatively lopsided. As the victor and then the protector, the United States has had the upper hand in its dealings with the archipelago. But as the balance of global power moves away from the West and towards Asia, the relationship between Tokyo and Washington is bound to become more equal. In coming decades, neither capital will be able to unilaterally impose its agenda on the other. With this in mind, the Nanban episode serves as an illustration of both the opportunities and the limitations that come with a free and uncoerced relationship with Japan. By understanding what went wrong in initial contacts between the West and Japan, the U.S. can prepare for a better future relationship with the Land of the Rising Sun.




Boxer, Charles R. The Christian Century in Japan, 1549-1650. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1951.


Boxer, Charles R. The Portuguese Seaborne Empire: 1415-1825. New York: A. A. Knopf, 1975.


Cooper, Michael. They Came to Japan: An Anthology of European Reports on Japan, 1543-1640. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1965.


Loh, Joseph F. “When Worlds Collide—Art, Cartography, and Japanese Nanban World Map Screens.” Ph.D. Thesis, Columbia University, 2013


Nagatani, Keizō and David W. Edgington. Japan and the West: The Perception Gap. England: Ashgate, 1998.


Okamoto, Yoshitomo. The Nanban Art of Japan. New York: Weatherhill/Heibonsha, 1972.

[1] Joseph F. Loh, “When Worlds Collide—Art, Cartography, and Japanese Nanban World Map Screens,” Columbia University (2013), 4.

[2] Keizō Nagatani, and David W. Edgington, Japan and the West: The Perception Gap, (England: Ashgate, 1998), 15.

[3] Loh, 8.

[4] Charles R. Boxer, The Portuguese Seaborne Empire: 1415-1825, (New York: A. A. Knopf, 1975), 39-64.

[5] Charles R. Boxer, The Christian Century in Japan, 1549-1650, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1951), 208.

[6] Michael Cooper, They Came to Japan: An Anthology of European Reports on Japan, 1543-1640, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1965), 37.

[7] Kenzo & Edginton, 19.

[8] Ibid., 29.

[9] Loh, 8.

[10] Boxer 114.

[11] Ibid., 208.

[12] Yoshitomo Okamoto, The Nanban art of Japan, (New York: Weatherhill/Heibonsha, 1972), 73.

[13] Kenzo and Edginton, 44.

[14] Boxer, 140.

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