Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
The Nanban period of Japanese history extends from the arrival of the first Europeans to Japan in 1543, to their near-total exclusion from the archipelago in 1650, under the promulgation of the Seclusion Laws.
"Nanban" (南蛮 Lit. “Southern barbarian”) is a Japanese word which originally designated people from South Asia and South-East Asia. It followed a Chinese usage in which surrounding “barbarian” people in the four directions had each their own designation. In Japan, the word took on a new meaning when it came to designate Europeans, the first of whom started to arrive in Japan in 1543, first from Portugal, then Spain, and later Holland and England. The word Nanban was thought naturally appropriate for the new visitors, since they came in by ship from the South, and their manners were considered quite unsophisticated by the Japanese.
A contemporary Japanese account relates: "They eat with their fingers instead of with chopsticks such as we use. They show their feelings without any self-control. They cannot understand the meaning of written characters" (from Boxer, “Christian century”).
Even prominent European observers of the time seemed to agree that the Japanese "excell not only all the other Oriental peoples, they surpass the Europeans as well" (Alessandro Valignano, 1584, "Historia del Principo y Progresso de la Compania de Jesus en las Indias Orientales).
The Nanban episode
The Japanese were not very impressed with the cultural, or even technological level of their visitors. Japan had grown into a sophisticated feudal society with a high culture and a strong pre-industrial technology.
Japan was more populated and urbanized than any Western country (in the 16th century, Japan had 26 million inhabitants against 16 million for France and 4.5 million for England). She had Buddhist “universities” larger than any learning institution in the West, such as Salamanca or Coimbra.
Her copper and steel were the best in the world, her weapons the sharpest, her military strength recognized: "A Spanish royal decree of 1609 specifically directed Spanish commanders in the Pacific ‘not to risk the reputation of our arms and state against Japanese soldier’" (“Giving up the gun”, Noel Perrin).
One thing the Japanese were definitely interested in was barbarian guns. The first three Europeans to reach Japan were Portuguese and came on a Chinese ship to the southern island of Tanegashima, and they had arquebuses and ammunitions with them. At that time, Japan was right in the middle of a huge civil war called the Sengoku period (Period of the country at war). Strictly speaking, the Japanese were already familiar with gunpowder (invented by, and transmitted from China), and had been using basic Chinese guns and cannon tubes called Teppō (鉄砲 Lit.”Iron cannon”) for around 270 years before the arrival of the Portuguese. The Portuguese guns however were light, had a matchlock firing mechanism and were easy to aim with.
Within a year, Japanese swordsmiths and ironsmiths managed to reproduce the mechanism and mass-produce the guns. Barely fifty years later, "by the end of the 16th century, guns were almost certainly more common in Japan than in any other country in the world", her army equipped with a number of guns dwarfing any contemporary army in Europe (Perrin).
The ships of the Southern Barbarian were also quite influential on the Japanese shipbuilding industry, and actually stimulated many Japanese ventures abroad.
The Bakufu established a system of commercial ventures on licenced ships called Red seal ships, which sailed thoughout Eastern and South East Asia for trade. These ships incorporated many elements of Nanban ship designs, such as sails, rudder, and gun disposition. They brought many Japanese settlers to South-East Asian ports, who sometimes became quite influencial in local affairs, as examplified by the story of the adventurer Yamada Nagamasa in Siam.
By the begining of the 17th century, the Bakufu built several ships of purely Nanban design, usually with the help of foreign experts, such as the galleon San Juan Bautista, which crossed the Pacific two times on embassies to Nueva Espana (Mexico).
Other Nanban influences
The Nanban also had some other various influences:
- Nanbandō (南蛮胴) designates a type of cuirass covering the trunk in one whole piece, a design imported from Europe.
- Nanbanbijutsu (南蛮美術) generally describes Japanese art with Nanban themes or influenced by Nanban designs.
- Nanbanga (南蛮画) designates the numerous pictorial representations that were made of the new foreigners, and define a whole style category in Japanese art (See an example at: or )
- Nanbannuri (南蛮塗り) describes lacquers decorated in the Portuguese style, and were very popular items from the late 16th century (See example at: ).
- Nanbangashi (南蛮菓子) is a variety of cakes derived from Portuguese or Spanish recipies, in particular the popular "Castela" (カステラ) named after Castile. These "Southern barbarian" cakes, often with reproductions of 16th century barbarians in the box design, are on sale in any supermarket in Japan today.
- Nanbanji was the first Christian church in Kyoto. With the support from Nobunaga Oda, the Jesuit Padre Gnecchi-Soldo Organtino established this church in 1576. 11 years later (1587), Nanbanji was destroyed by Hideyoshi Toyotomi. Currently, The bell is preserved as "Nanbanji-no-kane" (the Bell of Nanbanji) at Shunkoin temple in Kyoto.Shunkoin Temple
The end of the Nanban period
By 1650, except for the trade outpost of Dejima in Nagasaki, for Holland, and some trade with China, foreigners were subject to the death penalty, and Christian converts were persecuted. Guns were almost completely eradicated to revert to the more "civilized" sword. Travel abroad and the building of large ships was also prohibited. Thence started a period of seclusion, peace, prosperity and mild progress known as the Edo period.
The "barbarians" would come back more than 200 years later strengthened by industrialization, and end Japan's splendid isolation, with the forcible opening of Japan to trade by an American military fleet under the commandement of Commodore Perry in 1854.
Usages of the word "Nanban"
The term Nanban did not disappear from common usage until the Meiji restoration, when Japan decided to Westernize radically in order to better resist the West, and essentially stopped considering the West as fundamentally uncivilized. Words like Yofu (洋風), lit. ocean style, and Obeifu (欧米風), lit. European American style replaced Nanban in most usages.
Still, the exact principle of westernization was Wakon-Yōsai (和魂洋才 Lit. Japanese spirit Western talent), which tends to imply that, although technology might be acquired from the West, Japanese spirit is still superior to Western spirit, but probably not to a point overtly justifying the usage of the word “barbarian” anymore...
Today the word Nanban is only used in a historical context, and is essentially felt as picturesque and affectionate. It is can sometimes be used in a cultured jokingly manner to refer to Western people or civilization.
There is an area where Nanban is used exclusively to refer to a certain style. It is cooking and in names of dishes. These Nanban dishes are not American or European dishes but an odd collection of dishes not using soy sauce or miso but using curry powder and vinegar as its flavoring. Some of these dishes resemble Southeast Asian cuisines but are so heavily changed to fit Japanese tastes like ramen that they should be considered separate dishes.
"Giving Up the Gun", Noel Perrin, David R. Godine Publisher, Boston. ISBN 0879237732
"Samurai", Mitsuo Kure, Tuttle publishing, Tokyo. ISBN 0804832870
"The Origins of Japanese Trade Supremacy. Development and Technology in Asia from 1540 to the Pacific War", Christopher Howe, The University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0226354857
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