A pair of elephants, trunks upraised and painted in kaleidoscopic colours, appear as fantastic beasts. Elephants were known to the Japanese through representations in Buddhist art, but the live creatures were only seen in the country for the first time in 1408 and then in 1575, when a ship arrived from Ming (China) carrying live exotic rarities to a port in eastern Kyushu. Although the animals would have been no different from the greyish-brown elephants we know today, their arrivals have made such an impression that only vivid colours could convey that wonder. From stories, images or sculptures, artists would record these encounters and they would subsequently be passed down through local folk memory for hundreds of years, until finally the elephants would appear as these gorgeous multi-coloured animals.
During the 17th to 19th centuries, Japan had carried out a foreign policy of Sakoku (literally “chained country”), which sought near complete isolation through tight restrictions on foreign trade and prohibiting Japanese subjects to leave the country on penalty of death. The primary purpose of the policy was to prevent external religious and colonial influences from gaining any foothold into the country. Starting in 1639 and extending for more than 200 years, Japan had maintained a policy of national seclusion.
Before the enactment of Sakoku, Japan had traded actively with foreign countries – mainly the Dutch, Portugal and Ming dynasty China. It was through trade that that Japanese first visualised the world on a map. And rulers showed strong interest in people, culture and exotic rarities from overseas. It was written that the first Shogun Ieyasu Tokugawa liked to discuss the state of foreign affairs before a screen showing a map of the world, according to Sunpuki, a record of the Shogun’s post-retirement period. It is interesting to note this expansive view of the world held by the founder of the Edo period, especially as it would be his son who would impose the prohibitions that would narrow the foreign scope of the Japan. In the collection of Imperial Household, a map of the early 17th century world features small panels depicting foreign people and cultures. Similar ethnological images were reproduced continuously throughout the Edo period (1603 – 1867), which demonstrate the strong curiosity and aspiration toward foreign countries.
There was also growing appetite in the West for Japanese exports, especially the lacquer ware brought back by Jesuits and the Dutch East India Company (VOC). To furnish Christian churches and also for export, Japanese lacquer workers produced decorative chests, coffers, boxes and other furniture, as well as ceremonial religious objects. Due to the surge in foreign demand, many such works were commissioned by Portuguese Jesuits including the nanban shokendai lectern (shown above) decorated with IHS emblem of the Society of Jesus. The shape and construction of these Japanese lecterns are likely derived from Goanese carved wood originals, while evidence also suggests that the form is based on Islamic design. To get a sense of the typical style for the export market, the lacquer chest (also shown above) offers a beautiful example with its lavishly decorated gold and mother-of pearl design, bordered by hanabishi and cut mother-of-pearl with finely engraved copper gilt fittings.
Owing to the monopoly of trade by VOC in the 17th century, taste in lacquer style would shift, as the nanban style fell out of favor and moved toward more pictorial elements, depicting realistic landscape scenes. This type of export lacquer may have been better suited the tastes of wealthy Dutch burghers of 17th century Amsterdam. This style of cabinet became extremely popular among European aristocrats.
The developments in painting also progressed with imported techniques, such as perspective seen mainly from Dutch prints. However owing to the lack of open exchange between Japanese and foreign artists, Japanese-Western style of painting was often mere superficial copy of Western art. Kawahara Keiga (1786 – 1860?) was one of the only artist at that time who realized the assimilation of Western and Japanese styles in painting. He worked for the Dutch doctor Philipp Franz von Siebold in Dejima, an artificial island to accommodate foreign traders.
The Sakoku period ended abruptly in 1859, triggered by the unexpected steamship arrival of U.S. Commodore Matthew C. Perry, whose expedition forced Japan to enter into trade and diplomatic relations with the West, and as a result the port of Yokohama was opened. What an astonishment it must have been for the Japanese, when a large majority of them had only known Americans from depictions dating back to the early 17th century.
Despite the more than 200 years of “chained” isolation, Japan still managed to keep connections to foreign countries throughout the Edo period. This kind of controlled exchange created an environment in which artists were able to access an unusual combination of Western influence and Japanese art.
Sotheby’s Japanese Art sale in London on 5 November presents the rare works of art featured in this story, as well as a fine selection of other nanban art and export lacquer works from important private collections.