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An Important Nanban Six-Fold Screen Depicting the Arrival of a Portuguese Ship for Trade
An Important Nanban Six-Fold Screen Depicting the Arrival of a Portuguese Ship for Trade
An Important Nanban Six-Fold Screen Depicting the Arrival of a Portuguese Ship for Trade
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An Important Nanban Six-Fold Screen Depicting the Arrival of a Portuguese Ship for Trade
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An Important Nanban Six-Fold Screen Depicting the Arrival of a Portuguese Ship for Trade


An Important Nanban Six-Fold Screen Depicting the Arrival of a Portuguese Ship for Trade
Edo period (17th century)
Ink, colour and gold leaf on paper
122 x 373 cm.
Anna Jackson, Amin Jaffer ed., Encounters: The Meeting of Asia and Europe 1500-1800, Victoria and Albert Museum (London, 2004), front and back covers, p. 202-204, pl. 16.1

Mitsuru Sakamoto et al., Nanban byobu shusei [A Catalogue Raisonné of the Nanban Screens] (Tokyo, 2008), p. 286, 287, 381, no. 89
Encounters: The Meeting of Asia and Europe 1500-1800, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 23 September - 5 December 2004
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Lot Essay

Southern Barbarians Come to Trade

A three-masted ship unloads cargo in a port that likely represents Nagasaki, on the west coast of Kyushu, the southernmost of the four main islands of Japan. The scene presents a narrative of the dynamic conflation of East and West around 1600. 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, so called because these foreigners arrive 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 natives of the Indian sub-continent.

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.

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 height of the central mast of this carrack is suggested by the rapidly diminishing size of the crew members furling its sails. The crew is shown performing alarming acrobatic feats in the rigging. The European captain-major is seated on a thronelike Chinese-style chair beneath a Chinese canopy. Around him are merchants and Jesuits missionaries, their flags with Christian emblems fluttering in the breeze. Backgammon players are enjoying some fun on the poop deck. Cargo and passengers are offloaded into small boats that pull alongside the ship. Admiring Japanese would have been shocked by the words of an experienced European traveller that the great ships are filthy and stink.

On the third panel from the right, the captain-major, having been ferried ashore, parades towards the centre of town. A servant holds an enormous cloth parasol over his head. He approaches a welcoming committee of Japanese officials and Portuguese Jesuits wearing long black cassocks; a few Spanish priests (Franciscan and Dominican) accompany the group. During the brief period when Japan was open to the West, Nagasaki was the seat of the Society of Jesus.

The artist exaggerates the height of the foreigners and emphasizes the balloon-like bagginess of their bombacha pantaloons, but focuses also on distinctive details such as heavy gold necklaces, facial hair, hats, capes, frilly white handkerchiefs and ruffled collars. The traders have brought wonderful animals, notably a cage with peacocks and a magnificent tiger skin. 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.

Religion is clearly not the main theme here. The artist of this screen is frankly interested in the trade in luxury goods between Japanese and Portuguese. Foreign commerce, notably the silk trade, was supported by the Japanese military leaders and Portuguese made big profits exchanging Chinese silk for Japanese silver. The main street here is lined with shops. Moving from left to right, we see first a medicine store selling exotica in the form of rhinoceros horn, the carapace of a giant tortoise, coral from the South Seas and even goldfish. In the next shop, a Portuguese seated with a Japanese interpreter is buying silver in exchange for his gold. His capacious money pouch is open by his side. The next two shops sell bronze vessels, ceramics, tea wares and textiles. In the first of these, business seems to be languishing. The owner’s wife sits outside nursing and infant and their scrawny dog is stretched out under the porch. The bored but nosey shop owner peeks through the front curtain to observe a Japanese merchant passing by on horseback with goods for trade. In the last shop, an elderly Japanese customer admires a textile. Other local colour takes the form of a samurai client grimacing as his head is shaved at an open-air barber shop. An adventurous foreigner buys sweet rice balls on a skewer (dango) at a food stall.

Gold clouds subdivide the composition into three main sections: the black ship silhouetted at the left; the main shopping street; and—most unusual—the scene at the centre top of a fortified daimyo mansion. The mansion replaces the Jesuit seminary that is frequently included in such Nanban screens. The daimyo sits before a folding screen and holds a closed fan as he meets a group of Portuguese, shown as humble suitors seated deferentially outside on the veranda.

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.

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.1

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. Looking at other known examples of Nanban screens, the scene of the arrival of the ship and the procession of the captain-major on shore can be usually seen on the right-hand screen of a pair. However, this screen is unusual in its rather compact size and in recent research by Mitsuru Sakamoto, it has been proposed that this screen was made as a single screen, not as a pair.2 In addition to this there are two examples of small-sized screens in the Itsuo Art Museum, Osaka which are also thought to be single screens.3

Unlike most Nanban screens, there is an exceptional liveliness and originality to the present example. 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. This work exemplifies the harmonious interaction and trade between Japanese and Europeans four hundred years ago. Stored away for centuries, it is in exceptionally fine condition and features the gold leaf and jewel-like colours of costly ground malachite and azurite that signal the work of a master.

1. Yukio Lippit, ‘Japan’s Southern Barbarian Screens’, in Jay A. Levenson, ed., Encompassing the Globe, (Washington, DC, 2007), p. 248
2. Mitsuru Sakamoto et al., Nanban byobu shusei [A Catalogue Raisonné of the Nanban Screens] (Tokyo, 2008), p. 381.
3. Mitsuru Sakamoto et al., Nihon byobu-e shusei, vol. 15 Fuzokuga - Nanban byobu-e shusei, (Tokyo, 1982), no. 89 and p. 90, no. 103

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