In the closing years of the eighteenth century the Dutch East India Company started to charter American ships in order to ensure that they would be able to send the correct number of vessels to Nagasaki each year in accordance with their exclusive agreement with the Japanese authorities. The first of these ships, the Eliza of New York, was wrecked in 1797, but another ship, the Franklin of Salem, made it to Japan in 1799, reaching Nagasaki on 19 July. The personal account books of the Captain of the Franklin, James Devereux, record that he brought back a considerable quantity of lacquer, all of it apparently in contemporary European shapes, including '22 lacked knife boxes'1; some of these might have been knife-cases like those, in the shape fashionable in about 1770, in the Clive collection at Powys Castle2, but others were most likely knife-urns like the present examples. Another American vessel, the Margaret, visited Nagasaki in 1801 and her co-owner and Captain, Samuel Gardner Derby, is known to have acquired a Japanese knife-urn that is now preserved in the Peabody-Essex Museum, Salem, Mass.
This remarkable pair of knife-urns is very similar to a pair in the Royal Collection, to the Peabody example and to another urn recently acquired by the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, which is inscribed on the interior with the name of the maker, Kiyotomo; the same name, together with an address in the Sanjo-Teramachi district of Kyoto, written in a somewhat uneducated hand, has been found inside a fragmentary urn in a private collection3. The present examples are of special interest, quite apart from their excellent state of preservation, in that an examination of the interior has revealed that they too are inscribed inside, not with the name of the maker (i.e. the joiner) but that of the nushi or lacquerer as well as the month (but unfortunately not the year) of manufacture. Again the calligraphy is less than perfect and the lacquerer's name has yet to be definitively deciphered but it may read Rokujo, like Sanjo a Kyoto street name but also a surname. The whole inscription may thus read ??tsuki kichi nichi nushi Rokujo ga saku [made by the lacquerer Rokujo on a lucky day in the ? month]. The interior bears several other brief inscriptions, apparently notes by the joiner, as well as inscribed strips of scrap paper used to hold together the wooden splints from which the unusual facetted bodies of the urns are constructed.
Dr. Oliver Impey of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, has demonstrated convincingly by means of an 1864 business directory that the well-known so-called 'Nagasaki' lacquerer Sasaya in fact operated in Kyoto, with the same address, Teramachi-Sanjo, as the maker of the fragmentary vase mentioned above. These urns thus demonstrate a link between Japan's old capital and the shipping industry of New England more than half a century before U.S. Commodore Matthew C. Perry's celebrated 'opening' of Japan in 1853-4. A current exhibition at the Edo-Tokyo Museum, drawn from the Peabody-Essex collections, includes a number of these export lacquers and explores the part played by Pacific whaling in forming early Japanese-American relations, presenting a body of evidence which reminds us that for the United States as for Europe, we should interpret the events of the mid-19th century as less a climactic act of enforced enlightenment and more a decisive stage in a gradual process of mutual discovery that can be traced back to the arrival of the first Europeans in 1543.
1 Charles H.P.Copeland, 'Japanese export furniture', Antiques,
LXVI (July 1954), pp. 50-1
2 Mary Archer and others, Treasures from India: The Clive
Collection at Powis Castle (London, 1987), cat. no. 193
3 Oliver Impey, Sasaya Kisuke, Kyoto 'Nagasaki' Lacquer and the woodworker Kiyotomo, Oriental Art, vol. XLIV no. 2 (Summer 1998), pp. 28-32