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  • Cultural Commerce and Dutch Commercial Culture: The Influence of European Material Culture on Japan, 1700-1850
  • Bruce L. Batten
Cultural Commerce and Dutch Commercial Culture: The Influence of European Material Culture on Japan, 1700-1850. By Martha Chaiklin. Research School CNWS, Leiden University, 2003 (Studies in Overseas History 5). 284 pages. Softcover €30.00.

Long ago, as a beginning graduate student, I learned from my adviser that many of the historical sources I would need in my research were available (or not, as the case might be) only as hibaihin, goods never intended for sale, distributed largely through private channels. I thought this phenomenon was peculiarly Japanese, but apparently I was wrong. Technically, of course, Martha Chaiklin's book is no hibaihin, since the publisher lists a price on its home page. But potential purchasers will search long and hard to find a copy. You won't see it at or Barnes & Noble, and if my experience is any guide, CNWS won't answer your e-mails, either. That's a shame, because this solid, well-written volume deserves a wide readership among students of Japanese history.

In the publisher's defense, Cultural Commerce and Dutch Commercial Culture is actually Chaiklin's doctoral thesis, for which limited distribution is perhaps to be expected. The author refers to her work as a "dissertation" on more than one occasion, and the "review of literature" in chapter 1 was clearly written with a committee in mind. But don't let that turn you off: on the whole, Chaiklin's thesis looks like a book and reads like a book. I will therefore review it as such.

The purpose of Cultural Commerce and Dutch Commercial Culture is to assess the nature and extent of Western (especially, Dutch) cultural influence on Japan during the period 1700-1850. To this end, Chaiklin examines the "process of acceptance and diffusion of imported objects" (p. 2), specifically finished manufactured goods such as clocks, glassware, and guns. Her conclusion, in a nutshell, is that Western cultural influence in Japan was far greater than is generally recognized. Although revisionist by the standards of previous works on cultural history and Dutch-Japanese relations, the book's thesis is a natural extension of recent trends in the larger literature on foreign relations, which have turned sakoku from a received truth about the Edo period into a dirty word not uttered in polite company. Many informed readers will therefore be predisposed to accept Chaiklin's arguments—and even skeptics may change their minds after reading the book, to whose specific content I now turn.

Chaiklin starts off with a brief introduction and then goes on, in chapter 2, to describe the overall structure of Dutch-Japanese trade. She finds that "[l]egal trade, both official and private, was the most significant route by which foreign objects [End Page 531] entered Japan" (p. 31), and that smuggling and theft, at least of European manufactured objects, were relatively unimportant. We learn in chapter 3 that goods also entered Japan in the form of gifts from the Dutch to their Japanese hosts. Larger gifts, which generally stayed within the shogunal palace, had little chance to influence society at large, but smaller ones circulated more widely. This contributed to "increased awareness about European objects," which in turn "represented the first step toward creating demand and sowed the seeds of cultural influence" (p. 48). Chapter 4 is about eisen, special orders placed by Japanese officials that provided yet another route for the import of European goods. Eisen were used to obtain "Western technologies that interested the Japanese but which they had unsuccessfully tried to adapt or reproduce" (p. 69). The Dutch were generally obliging of these requests. Chapter 5 focuses on the distribution and availability of European goods within Japan. According to Chaiklin, imported goods were widely available in urban centers through specialized shops known as karamonoya and komamonoya; "[i]tinerant merchants and gift purchases by visitors to the capitals helped distribute products" more widely within Japanese society; and as a result, "imported manufactured goods were common enough that many of those who could not own them still knew what they were" (p. 85...


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