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'Nanban' Screens: Trade and Art in Japan

Nanban byobu of c.1570-1616 attributed to Kano Naizen, Kobe City Museum

Southern Barbarians Come to Trade

Foreign traders and Japanese merchants interact with one another. Goods are inspected and money changes hands. The foreigners are exotic but not forbidding; they are humanised with a wealth of charming anecdotal detail and good humour. Nanban screens exemplify the harmonious interaction and trade between Japanese and Europeans four hundred years ago. The gold leaf and jewel-like colours of costly ground malachite and azurite also signal that these were luxury items. Far from being oddities, Nanban screens are recognized as the product of mainstream Kyoto painting studios, in an indigenous style typical of genre screens of the late Momoyama and early Edo periods.

Detail of Nanban screen, Kano Naizen, 17th century, National Museum of Ancient Art, Lisbon

Portuguese traders reached Japan in 1543, and by 1570 they had selected the Bay of Nagasaki as the ideal natural harbour for the centre of their commerce, which was conducted with little or no restriction. The Portuguese nau do trato was known to the Japanese as the kurofune (black ship) or nanban bune, ship of the Nanban, or 'Southern Barbarians' (南蛮), so called because from the Japanese perspective, these foreigners arrived from the south. (The term originated in China, where all foreigners were regarded as barbarians.)

The Portuguese made large profits selling Chinese silk to the Japanese in exchange for silver. Some European goods were traded, but for the most part the Iberians served as middlemen between the Chinese and Japanese. The great ship was a three-deck carrack of up to 1,600 tons, and its enormous size and exotic crew and cargo were the cause of much wonder and excitement. The carrack set off for Macau and Japan from Goa, on the west coast of India, the centre of the Portuguese empire in Asia, and some of the crew are dark-skinned, probably from India or South-East Asia.

Detail of Nanban screen

Jesuit missionaries accompanied the Portuguese traders and spread Christianity in Japan, especially in Kyushu, where there were many converts among the local daimyo. Francis Xavier, one of the founding fathers of the Jesuit Order, was the first to arrive, in 1549. Until 1624, there was also a small trade between the Japanese and the Spanish, who were based in the Philippine Islands. Spanish ships sailed every summer from Manila to Mexico on the Black Current and a few entered Japanese ports. A handful of Spanish Franciscan friars propagated their faith in Nagasaki, Kyoto, and elsewhere.

Detail of Nanban screen

In 1638, an uprising by Christian converts convinced the Tokugawa government of the dreaded possibility of intervention by European colonial powers. In 1639, the Portuguese were expelled. All sixty members of the Portuguese delegation that arrived the following year to plead for resumption of trade were beheaded. In 1640, the shogun put into effect a seclusionist policy that closed the country to all outsiders other than Chinese merchants, a handful of Dutch traders, and occasional Korean emissaries. By 1650, Christian imagery was banned and missionary activity a capital offense.

Arrival in Nagasaki

The immense heights of the central masts of the foreign ships are usually suggested by the diminishing size of the crew members furling the sails. The crew are usually shown performing alarming acrobatic feats in the rigging. Admiring Japanese would have been shocked by the words of an experienced European traveller that the great ships are filthy and stink. They would have also perhaps been more shocked when they discovered the poor bathing habits of Europeans at this time. Perhaps the term ‘barbarian’ was well-deserved. These screens also usually show Portuguese Jesuits wearing long black cassocks; a few Spanish priests (Franciscan and Dominican) possibly too. During the brief period when Japan was open to the West, Nagasaki was the seat of the Society of Jesus.

Detail of Nanban screen showing elephant

The artists exaggerated the height of the foreigners and emphasised the balloon-like bagginess of their bombacha pantaloons, but focused also on distinctive details such as heavy gold necklaces, facial hair, hats, capes, frilly white handkerchiefs and ruffled collars. The traders often are shown bringing wonderful animals, sometimes peacocks or tiger skins. On one such occasion, they even brought an elephant, named Don Pedro. It was presented to the ruler of Japan, Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536–1598), by the Spanish envoy in the summer of 1597. We know that Hideyoshi surrounded himself with imported exotica, a reflection of his infatuation with all things foreign, most especially with high-end luxury goods. It should also be mentioned, however, that in 1597 he ordered the execution of twenty-six Christians, including six foreigners—one of them a Mexican Franciscan; he was not entirely comfortable with zealous missionaries. Nonetheless, Hideyoshi and his fellow warlords were an important source of commissions for sumptuous decoration and objects in what became known as the Nanban style.

Detail of Nanban screen

Nanban Screens

The earliest screen of this type is thought to date from the 1590s and is attributed to Kano Mitsunobu (1561/5–1608), who was called from Kyoto to decorate Hideyoshi’s Nagoya Castle in northern Kyushu. Mitsunobu may have travelled to Nagasaki to observe the ‘Southern Barbarians‘ at first hand. The fad for Nanban screens continued into the second quarter of the seventeenth century. The novel subject fascinated the Japanese, and the Kano-school atelier as well as other professional painting studios in Kyoto made numerous versions in the early seventeenth century for clientele prepared to enjoy the strange costumes and odd physiognomy of these tall, hairy and long-nosed Southern Barbarians, a throwback to the outlandish imagery familiar from the iconography of Daoist immortals.

Detail of Nanban screen

Around ninety Nanban screens are now recorded and Japanese scholars have determined that the subject ranked second in popularity only to screens depicting Scenes in and around the Capital (Rakuchu rakugai zu). What accounts for this high demand? One theory about the use of these screens is that their foreignness and abundance of luxury goods were viewed as a charm for happiness and prosperity. Trade was without question auspicious and generated wealth, and the original owners of such screens were for the most part merchants in port cities along the Japan Sea coast or the Inland Sea. Thematically, the painting here continues a tradition of now-lost screens of Chinese trade ships that were in vogue during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries at the peak of the Sino-Japanese tribute missions that brought entourages numbering in the thousands from the Ming court.



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