- Commemorating FailureThe Four Hundredth Anniversary of England’s Trading Outpost in Japan
On 11 June 1613, a strange vessel sailed into the port of Hirado on the western island of Kyushu. Dispatched more than two years earlier by the English East India Company, the Clove brought with it seventy-one mariners, a varied collection of trading goods, and grand ambitions to establish a foothold in the rich Japanese market. After initial negotiations with the local lord, the leader of the expedition, John Saris, set off for central Japan in search of an audience with the retired shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543–1616), the last of Japan’s three great unifiers and the founder of a regime that had succeeded in entrenching its power over a fractious archipelago. Arriving at Ieyasu’s headquarters of Sunpu (in modern-day Shizuoka prefecture) in early September, Saris set about obtaining generous trading concessions from Tokugawa authorities. The product of these negotiations was the so-called English factory in Japan, which was established in Hirado in 1613 and placed under the direction of Saris’s trusted deputy, Richard Cocks. There the outpost remained for just over a decade, until December 1623, when Cocks’s superiors made the decision to formally abandon it. The result was the virtual suspension of English contact with Japan until the nineteenth century, when the government that had been founded by Tokugawa Ieyasu began first to totter and eventually to collapse.
This year, 2013, marks the four hundredth anniversary of the English factory in Japan. Although all anniversaries are essentially arbitrary, and although the lapse of exactly four centuries since the outpost’s establishment has no particular significance, such occasions do have their uses, prompting if nothing else a moment of reflection on the current state of research concerning the history of the English experience in Japan. They can also be used, perhaps more productively, as opportunities to consider possible directions for future investigation. The starting point for such an exercise is with two incontrovertible, albeit somewhat paradoxical, facts that underpin the history [End Page 207] of the English factory. First, there can be no question that this particular experiment ended in abject failure.1 Unlike the Dutch presence in Japan, which lasted until the opening of the country in the nineteenth century, the English stay ended in what can only be described as a hasty retreat. Ludwig Riess (1861–1928), the Prussian-born professor of Tokyo University who penned one of the most important early studies of the English factory in 1898, noted that the “establishment of the East India Company in Japan was a failure,” while subsequent scholars have dismissed the venture even less charitably as an “unmitigated disaster” or as a “fiasco.”2
A ten-year experiment involving a handful of staff and producing no enduring impact either on Japan or on the parent organization’s balance sheet might have been expected to fade into obscurity. What saved the factory from this fate is the fact that it produced one of the most complete archives of the early modern trading world. In the words of one prominent archivist, “The English factory at Hirado in Japan was a minor episode in the history of the East India Company’s struggle . . . and yet it has left an archive of more than four hundred items which is unrivalled in depth and coverage at this date.”3 While the existence of these materials (the vast majority of them preserved in the India Office Records in London) is striking enough, it is also the case that they are, through the tireless work of staff at two key institutions, almost uniquely accessible. Between 1978 and 1980, the Historiographical Institute of the University of Tokyo published the complete version of Richard Cocks’s diary, a detailed and highly informative account of the factory’s daily workings covering the years 1615–1616, 1617–1619, and 1620–1622.4 And then in 1991 this already-useful resource was massively augmented by the British Library’s publication of the vast majority of the extant correspondence, journals, account books, and other records related to the factory. Compiled and edited with great skill by Anthony Farrington, The...