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  • Shipwrecks and FlotsamThe Foreign World in Edo-Period Tosa
  • Luke S. Roberts (bio)

The ocean brings strange and surprising things—gifts and dangers. On a late autumn day in 1694, two children and two adults, fishermen living in the domain of Tosa in present-day Kōchi prefecture, set out in a small boat from the beaches of Kaminokae village into the Pacific. About a mile from the coast they saw a strange being struggling in the water and rowed over to it. Taking a leather-handled sword, Chōemon , one of the adults, rather unwisely began hitting the beast, which turned out to be a bear that then clambered into the boat and attacked him. One child hid under a seat board in fright, while the other dove into the sea. The remaining adult frantically beat the creature with an oar until it finally fled, although not before it had badly mauled Chōemon. During the struggle, the boat had drifted near the coast, and the bear scrambled from the water onto some rocks. The commotion brought out people from the village, and after a hunter shot the bear the villagers skinned it and extracted its precious gallbladder, which they dried and offered as medicine to the domain lord, along with the curious story.1 Perhaps the animal had been washed out into the sea by a sudden storm, but who, in any case, would have expected to come across a bear in the Pacific? The incident, though perhaps a minor one on the scales of history, highlights how nature regularly defies human expectations.

In the days when ships were mainly powered by wind and currents, storms and other accidents made chance arrivals on Japanese coasts surprisingly common. In recent decades, many historians have investigated these shipwrecks to better understand the realities of how coastal Japan connected with the foreign world during [End Page 83] the Tokugawa period.2 These studies complement research on foreign relations as they were conducted through formal channels, offering crucial alternative perspectives to that research. The Tokugawa government greatly limited sites of trade and interaction with foreigners; its maritime control edicts of the 1630s, for example, forbade Japanese to travel abroad and to build ships designed for the open sea. The government itself maintained direct, normalized foreign trade only with the Dutch and Chinese, and only at the port of Nagasaki. In addition, it recognized three other preexisting sites of interaction controlled by daimyo: Tsushima domain, which conducted trade and relations with Korea; Satsuma domain, which had invaded and taken control of trade and relations with the Ryūkyū kingdom; and Matsumae domain, which was responsible for trade with the Ainu peoples of the northern frontier. The establishment of these four sites of structured interaction with the outside world meant that Japanese living in other areas ordinarily had no opportunity to interact with foreigners, except when they encountered the occasional embassies to Edo—and when shipwrecked vessels were cast ashore by the policy-ignoring ocean.3

Since Commodore Matthew C. Perry’s (1794–1858) arrival in 1853, there has been well over a century of historiography characterizing Tokugawa Japan as a “closed country” (sakoku ) only in limited touch with the world through Nagasaki. Scholarship since the late 1970s has, however, challenged that view, reframing the country as a participant in a wider East Asian international-relations culture involving maritime prohibitions (kaikin ) and tribute. Much research now focuses on striving to understand the actual content of Tokugawa-period foreign interaction in terms of Japanese goals and East Asian political culture, rather than of nineteenth-century Western ideals.4 Scholars have thus been creating richer narratives that explore the myriad ways in which foreign relations through official channels impacted matters throughout Japan.5 A more recent trend has been to examine the sometimes cooperative, sometimes adversarial relationships between the Tokugawa government and the three domains in charge of contact with Ryūkyū, Korea, and the Ainu.6 Other studies have analyzed interaction by nonstate actors engaged in coastal smuggling and offshore trade.7

Within this context, shipwrecks encourage us to shift our gaze from the officially approved sites of foreign contact to the other coasts...


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pp. 83-122
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