June 21, 2018

Connecting Past and Now, Japan and the Netherlands

By H.E. Hiroshi Inomata, Ambassador of Japan to the Kingdom of the Netherlands.

When I assumed my post as Ambassador of Japan in the Netherlands about two years ago, I was of course familiar with the shared history of our countries which has been over 400 years relationship, but living here has truly made me realise how deeply entwined the connection between Japan and the Netherlands is.

In February 2017, I had a chance to visit the place that was the key to the beginnings of this relationship: Dejima, a once fan-shaped artificial island, which as a served trading post from 17th to 19th century, in the bay of Nagasaki in the south of Japan.

The island Dejima has changed the geological shape and function with city expansion. In 1922, Dejima was registered as a national historic site and full-fledged restoration projects started in 1996.

On 24 November 2017, the restoration process reached a significant milestone for the Japan-Netherlands relationship. The Omotemon (Main gate) Bridge, which had formed the sole connection between mainland Nagasaki and the island of Dejima, was restored at the exact location where the original bridge had been until around 1890. It was unveiled in the presence of Her Royal Highness Princess Laurentien from the Netherlands and Their Imperial Highnesses Prince and Princess Akishino.

The Omotemon (Main gate) Bridge.

As Princess Laurentien aptly phrased it in her speech: “The completion of the Omotemon Bridge has made the bond between Nagasaki and the Netherlands even stronger.” As a matter of fact, on that very same day, the city of Nagasaki and the city of Leiden had a sister-city affiliation ceremony.

In a period where Japan was all but closed off to the outside world, the Netherlands was the only ‘Western’ country that was allowed to conduct trade with Japan. For over two hundred years, from 1641 to 1859, the Dutch were granted a permanent presence on Dejima that measured no more than 120 by 75 meters (390 by 250 feet). This trading post was de facto one of the only windows Japan had on the rest of the world, and as such, it was paramount to the Japanese in terms of ‘Western’ science, knowledge, culture and lifestyle.

Over several decades, the Dutch introduced a great variety of scientific knowledge to Japan: ‘Western’ medicine, chemistry, electricity, microscopes, hot air balloons and clocks, to name a few, which ushered in a new era of science. In addition, Japanese artists freely experimented with the styles of perspective that were common in the art that the Dutch imported. Indeed, for the Japanese, the interaction with the Dutch offered new views on the world, which were instrumental to the rise of Japan as a modern nation.

Her Royal Highness Princess Laurentien from the Netherlands and Their Imperial Highnesses Prince and Princess Akishino.

In turn, the Dutch greatly benefited from the trading relationship as well. They imported Imari ware, famous Japanese porcelain, which became one of the major influences on the famous Dutch Delftware ceramics. The German-born doctor Von Siebold was posted on Dejima from 1823 to 1829 as the trading post’s physician and when he returned to the Netherlands and settled in Leiden, he brought back many cultural objects from Japan, as well as samples of Japanese flora and fauna. As a result, many of the plant species he collected in Japan adorn Dutch and European gardens nowadays, among which varieties of Japanese maple trees, hostas, and various species of hydrangeas and azaleas.

The Japanese prints, including Ukiyoe, and decorative art objects that found their way to Europe would later inspire painters like Van Gogh and the cultural phenomenon of Japonism that existed in the European arts.

When in 1854 Japan signed the Treaty of Peace and Amity with the United States, Japan’s policy of national seclusion came to an end, and with it the unique position of the Dutch on Dejima.

The historical Dutch trading post of Dejima might be a thing of the past, but the Netherlands remains a top-ranking investment partner for Japan within Europe and even on a global scale.

This year we were also proud to introduce two new Honorary Consul-Generals: Mr. Ter Avest for Amsterdam and Mr. Briët for Rotterdam. With their assistance, and the enthusiasm of the various Japan-related organisations located here, I am confident that the Netherlands and Japan will further deepen their relationship in the future.

The reconstruction of Dejima is scheduled to be completed in 2050. Meanwhile, in the botanical gardens in Leiden, several plants can still be found that Von Siebold planted himself and that, just like the friendship between Japan and the Netherlands, have continued to flourish to this day.

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