Japan's Trader Island – Dejima, Nagasaki

Nagasaki has been an operational port city for nearly 450 years and is one of the original gateways for merchants to sell their products in Japan. One of the earliest visitors to Nagasaki were the Portuguese who could see Japan as a place to trade as well as spread Christianity among the local population.  The Portuguese requested a calm harbor to moor their trade vessels in and Nagasaki fitted the bill.  Accepting this request, local feudal lords and merchants got together and established the port of Nagasaki and eventually Dejima.  Today, we can step back in time and immerse ourselves in this old trade port which has been accurately restored to its glory years of the 18th and 19th century.

Nagasaki’s trams are very convenient and cheap for traveling around town.

Dejima is located to the south of Nagasaki City and is easily accessed by tram.  I got off the tram and was instantly surprised, as I was expecting to see Dejima on the seaside as it once was.  However, I soon realized Dejima is no longer an island.  Landfill and port modernization from the early Meiji Period has left Dejima at least 100m from the ocean to the west and at least double that to the south which I think is a shame.  Oh well, it is what it is, and I made my way to the west gate ticket counter which was once the ocean side loading dock.  The only proof we can see of the old dock is through a glass window on the ground near the gate where excavations have uncovered the original steps that used to lead down to the ocean.

Main street of Dejima from the west ticket office which was once the ocean side loading dock.
Main street of Dejima looking back to the west loading docks and the ocean, late 19th century.

Dejima has been restored in three sections.  The first restoration was completed in 2000, the second in 2006 and the third in 2016.  Once you pay for your tickets and head inside you get a surreal feeling of stepping back into Edo period Japan but also a weird feeling of 18th century Europe.  Early archaeological digs on Dejima uncovered the foundations of most structures and the reconstructed buildings sit exactly how they did 200 years ago.  The restored buildings were researched using documents, photos and paintings from Japan and Holland to accurately depict the port of Dejima.

The rebuilt main bridge that connected Dejima with the Japanese mainland.

The trade port of Nagasaki was initially established in 1570 by local merchants, Portuguese traders and local feudal lords who were looking to make it rich.  However, it was not only the Portuguese who were interested in establishing new trade routes in Japan.  At the same time, Dutch, British and Chinese ships also made regular stops along the western coastline of Kyushu wanting to offload their valuable goods for the Japanese elite in Osaka, Kyoto and Edo (Tokyo) who readily spent big on exotic foreign goods.  Japanese trade routes extended to China, Taiwan, The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore and Indonesia.  Trade flourished and by around 1613 a serious trade war erupted between the Japanese, Portuguese, Dutch, British and Chinese.  

Artistic work of Nagasaki harbor from the 19th century with Dejima at the bottom of the print.

As the trade war intensified, the British were the first casualty and left their trade port in Hirado (to the north of Nagasaki) in 1623.  This was followed by the Dutch (who were also in Hirado) in 1628 with a five-year trade ban placed upon them after opening a port in Taiwan and cutting off Japanese trade profits.  The port of Hirado was left empty and eventually shut down.  In the end, among the Europeans, it was only the Portuguese left standing.  A few years earlier the new Tokugawa shogunate established a strict isolationist and anti-Christian policy and it was only Portuguese ships that were given permission to dock in Nagasaki, but this partnership was strictly controlled.  An artificial island was made in 1636 jutting out into the ocean which was named Dejima and the Portuguese were only allowed to trade from this island.  In the past, the Portuguese were allowed free rein around the town.

Inside one of the rebuilt storehouses.

However, this was also short lived.  Under the third Tokugawa shogun, Hidetada, there was a crackdown on Christians due to a series of Christian revolts against the shogunate.  The final and bloodiest battle was the Shimabara-Amakusa Rebellion in 1637 which was the last straw for the shogunate.  The Portuguese were expelled and banned from trading in 1639 which left Dejima a deserted island.

The Dutch had longed to trade again in Japan.  In 1641, long after the five-year ban had been lifted, they were granted sole trade rights (under the VOC- United East India Company) moved onto Dejima and went on to enjoy a trade monopoly in Japan along with only the Chinese for next 218 years.  The Dutch had proven their loyalty to the Tokugawa shogunate by bombarding Hara Castle in Shimabara from their ships which was a key base for the Christian revolts.

A VOC model ship which used to trade in Dejima.

Conditions of trade were strictly enforced.  No Dutch were allowed to leave Dejima.  VOC trade ships generally arrived in summer and by autumn all the ships were headed home leaving a minimum of ten employees on Dejima until the following year of trade.  Ships were unloaded and loaded from the west gate and Japanese merchants transported goods off Dejima via the single bridge which connected it.  Dejima was like a home away from home, however only males were allowed on the island and the isolation left some employees describing it as a jail sentence.

Home away from home. European styled dining room where the Dutch could entertain Japanese merchants and local politicians.

The first Dutch ships arrived in Nagasaki bringing such goods as silk, textiles, perfumes, glasses, clocks, and medical equipment.  Merchants from all over Japan flocked to Dejima and the well-to-do people of Edo were keenly interested in these luxurious goods and valued them highly.

The former Nagasaki International Club.  A newer building which was originally built in 1903 by Kuraba Tomisaburo (Thomas Glover’s son) to help introduce foreigners staying in Nagasaki with local Japanese business people.

There is so much history to cover on Dejima but unfortunately it would end up as a full research paper, so I’ll leave it here.  Dejima and of course Nagasaki is a wonderful place to visit.  There is mixture of Chinese, Korean and European cultures and food which makes Nagasaki a truly fascinating place to visit.  Some of the oldest churches in Japan are still here as are beautiful Chinese temples not seen anywhere else in Japan.  Some readers may wonder how some old areas of Nagasaki managed to survive the bomb blast of the second war.  Nagasaki is very mountainous.  The plutonium bomb was dropped in the north of the city, so the southern side of the city was mostly protected by these mountains and luckily for us we can still see and feel old Nagasaki and the famous Dejima trade port.

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