Painted with gemlike colors, this screen depicts the arrival of Portuguese traders and missionaries at a Japanese port, presumably Nagasaki on the west coast of Kyushu, the southernmost of the four main islands of Japan. Flags with emblems of the Society of Jesus (the cross and a heart with three nails, for example) flutter on deck. The Portuguese nao do trato was known to the Japanese as kurofune (black ship) or Namban bune ("Namban" ship), the ship of the "southern barbarians", so called because these foreigners came to Japan from the south.
The great ship was a three-deck carrack of up to 1,600 tons, and its enormous size was the cause of much wonder and excitement in Japan at the time of its annual visit. The carrack set off for Macao and Japan from Goa, the center of the Portuguese empire in Asia, and many of the crew were dark-skinned natives of the Indian subcontinent. Portuguese ships were permitted access to the Bay of Nagasaki from 1571 until 1640, when 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.
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, and who presumably had the opportunity to travel to Nagasaki and observe the southern barbarians at first hand. The theme was copied in numerous versions in the seventeenth century by anonymous artists in Kyoto for clientele curious to study the strange costumes and odd physiognomy (especially the large noses) of the Portuguese and their slaves.
The composition on this screen unfolds in sequential narrative style from left to right. The great ship is dramatically silhouetted against a large expanse of gold. Sails have been dismantled by black slaves and cargo is being offloaded onto the shore in seven or eight small craft. The European captain-major has been ferried ashore and is shown parading through the town at the center of the third panel from the right. A servant holds a cloth parasol over his head. There is a welcoming committee of Portuguese Jesuits in long black cassocks from the local mission. (During the brief period when Japan was open to the West, Nagasaki was the the seat of the Society of Jesus.) There are also two hooded friars, representing the handful of Spanish Franciscans who arrived with the Iberian traders. The artist has lovingly recorded the balloon-like bagginess of the foreigners' bombacha pantaloons, the rich variety of European, Chinese and Southeast Asian textiles used for their garments, and even the large white handkerchiefs they carry.
While such screens frequently include a Catholic chapel, this artist
emphasizes instead a multi-storied Buddhist pagoda. Also very unusual is the scene at the center top of a fortified mansion of a local feudal lord, who is receiving a visit from a group of Portuguese. Bows and fur-covered quivers are lined up on the right. The Japanese lord is seated in front of a folding screen and holds a closed fan. Bearded and moustached, with a round face and square jaw, he is shown with almost portrait-like realism; perhaps this man or one of his descendants was the patron who commissioned the screen. The Portuguese are shown as humble suitors, seated meekly outside on the verandah.
Foreign commerce, and in particular the silk trade, was supported by the military leaders Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1568-1595) and Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616). The Portuguese made large profits exchanging Chinese silk for Japanese silver. This artist is frankly interested in the luxury wares traded in Nagasaki. The foreigners are bringing peacocks and other rare birds in cages, as well as tiger skins, goats, carved Chinese lacquers, books, and other fabulous treasures. These trade goods are a staple of many "Namban" screens. More unusual is the lively local color, the wealth of activity in the street and shops. Japanese merchants in open storefronts along the main street sell imported Chinese lacquer, bronzes, ceramics, tea wares and silks. A medicine store sells exotica in the form of rhinoceros horn, the carapace of a giant tortoise, coral from the South seas and even goldfish. Next door a Portuguese with a Japanese interpreter is buying silver in exchange for his gold. His big pouch of gold is open by his side.
Bolts of coveted Chinese silk and rugs are traded both in the street and the shops. There are some amusing details: one bored Japanese shopowner whose business seems to be languishing (his wife sits outside nursing an infant) peeks through the curtain to observe the activity in his neightbor's shop where an elderly customer is admiring a textile. Other local color takes the form of a samurai client who grimaces as his head is shaved at an open-air barber shop, and a food stall where an adventurous foreigner buys dango, or sweet rice balls on a skewer.
Most of the more than sixty pairs of "Namban" screens are rather stereotyped and static as the result of recombining elements from countless earlier versions of the theme. In this example there is an exceptional liveliness and originality. Foreign traders and Japanese merchants interact with one another--goods are being inspected and money is changing hands. The foreigners are exotic but not forbidding; they are humanized with a wealth of charming anecdotal detail and good humor.