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  • King Willem II's 1844 Letter to the Shogun:"Recommendation to Open the Country"
  • Fuyuko Matsukata (bio)
    Translated by Adam Clulow

On 15 August 1844, a letter signed by King Willem II of the Netherlands arrived in Nagasaki aboard the Dutch East Indies frigate Palembang. The letter was conveyed to bakufu officials in Edo, who responded with their own document addressed to the Dutch government. The receipt of the king's missive, known conventionally as his "recommendation to open the country" (kaikoku kankoku 開 国勧告), represents an important moment in the history of Japan's engagement with the outside world. Japanese high-school textbooks invariably reference the incident; one explains that "in 1844 (the first year of the Kōka era), the king of the Netherlands dispatched a letter urging Japan to learn from the lesson of the Opium War and open itself to trade, but the bakufu rejected [this advice]." 1

The present study reassesses the purpose, outcome, and broader significance of the king's letter. The Tokugawa bakufu's 1825 Foreign Vessels Expulsion Order (ikokusen uchiharai rei 異国船打払令) dictated that foreign vessels must be driven away by force, but in 1842 the regime appeared to withdraw from this hard-line stance when it issued a second edict, the Order for the Provision of Firewood and Water (shinsui kyūyorei 薪水給与令), which stipulated that incoming vessels should be provided with basic supplies. Willems letter sought to gauge the extent to which the bakufu's attitude toward foreigners had changed with the 1842 order. As such, it stemmed from a Dutch desire to preserve their long-held monopoly over trade with Japan and was not the selfless gesture of friendship that it is so often depicted to be. In addition [End Page 99] to reassessing the nature of the king's letter, this study uses the document to consider the system of communication between the Dutch and the bakufu as well as the process by which Tokugawa foreign relations were codified into a fixed ancestral law. In so doing, it sheds new light on bakufu policy during a key period when the Western powers were beginning a sustained push to open Japan to diplomacy and trade.

The first comprehensive study of the 1844 letter, Neêrlands streven tot openstelling van Japan voor den wereldhandel (Dutch efforts to open Japan to world trade), 2 was published in 1867 by Jacobus A. van der Chijs, a bureaucrat at the Dutch colonial government in Batavia (now Jakarta). As might be guessed from the title, Van der Chijs's book was essentially political in nature and countered criticism leveled by other Western countries in the 1850s and 1860s that the Dutch had neglected to push Japan to open its ports. Van der Chijs does not call Willems letter a "recommendation to open the country," although he does emphasize that the communication warned Japan about the dangers of an exclusionist policy not out of a desire for specific concessions, but as a return favor "for two centuries of kind treatment." 3 For his work Van der Chijs relied exclusively on materials produced by the colonial government. 4

In prewar Japan, the 1844 letter was discussed by Fukuchi Gen'ichirō 福地源一郎 and a number of other well-known scholars. 5 The first to refer to Willem's missive as the kaikoku kankoku was Tabohashi Kiyoshi 田保橋潔, who argued that the letter intended to preserve trade relations between the Netherlands and Japan. In the postwar period, Morioka Yoshiko 森岡美子 criticized Tabohashi's assertion, suggesting that the message was essentially an "act of friendship"; she also examined the bakufu's response to the letter. 6

Despite the differences in their views, all of these scholars depend on Van der Chijs as their primary source. By contrast, Nagazumi Yōko's 永積洋子 1986 article in Nihon rekishi 日本歴史 draws on archival materials from the Deshima factory to reconsider the significance of Willem's missive. She concludes that the letter's dispatch was essentially a "selfless" act and that the Dutch monarch was pleading for the bakufu to "open relations with other countries as well." 7 Nagazumi does not, however, consider sources from government officials in the Netherlands.

Those sources provide the backbone to Els M. Jacobs's more...