Dejima 出島, which literally means “out -” or “exit-island” in Japanese, was an artificial, fan-shaped island reclaimed from Nagasaki bay by order of the Shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu 徳川 家光 in 1634, to house those errant Portuguese, whom, ostensibly in the city for trade, embarked upon a systematic and very successful campaign of evangelisation.
By 1639 – after this strategy of containment failed to work, the Portuguese were gone, and Catholicism, which the Japanese called Kirishitan キリシタん (after the Portuguese “cristão“) in their native tongue, was banned. The Japanese Christians were persecuted and went into hiding for a good 200 years, only re-emerging in the 1800s, when Japan was once again, open for business.
The V.O.C., or Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie, also known as the Dutch East India Company, moved into Dejima from 1641 and remained till 1858. For two hundred years, only Dutch and Chinese ships were allowed to enter Japanese waters, through the port of Nagasaki, and specifically, Dejima.
On Dejima, the Dutch established one of the earliest instances of extra-territoriality. The foreign settlement on the island, albeit minuscule, was in all aspects, self-governing. The Dutch were banned from leaving Dejima and could not cross the narrow straits into Nagasaki proper. Conversely, the Japanese were also banned from entering the island.
But goods and ideas passed freely. For two centuries, the Dutch continued the very profitable nanban 南蛮 trade (or “Southern Barbarian Trade”) first established by the Portuguese. From the sole exit point of Dejima, Nagasaki, Japanese luxury items like porcelain and most notably, lacquer, were commissioned by and exported to European markets. These rare nanban trade pieces still exist today, scattered in a range of museums and private collections in Japan and Europe.
Conversely, European thoughts and technologies slipped through the cracks into Japan – things like coffee, chocolate, photography and even billiards.
When Commodore Perry’s black ships came in 1858, the Dutch monopoly in Dejima was abolished, and a new foreign settlement established in nearby Oura (although foreign trading houses were still allowed to operate in Dejima). Over the course of a century and a half, the artificial island would gradually be swallowed up by the development of the city – quite literally, as due to land reclamation, Nagasaki’s coastline extended further and further south.
Dejima was designated a historic site in 1922, but it took until 1996, when reconstruction efforts began in seriousness. Excavations uncovered the perimeter wall of the island, and at the time of writing, some dozen or so buildings had been reconstructed; and the plan is to dredge further around around the island so it is once more surrounded by water, and visitors can view the island’s iconic fan-like shape.
A stroll through the reconstructed Dejima is an absolute must in Nagasaki, primarily because great pains have been taken to reconstruct these buildings and structures to a very high degree of accuracy. While the site is still largely work in progress, the reconstructed buildings and interiors provide a vivid sense of what life must have been for these Dutchmen far away from their homes.
For two hundred years, they would reside here, in this tiny enclave, adopting a mix of European and Japanese lifestyles, objects and decorative taste as they evolved and adapted to their immediate environment. And then, as swiftly as they arrived, it was all over.