- The Company and the Shogun: The Dutch Encounter with Tokugawa Japan by Adam Clulow
Adam Clulow’s book on Dutch-Japanese relations in the seventeenth century is an important study that deserves a wide audience. It is original, well written, and provocative in the best sense of the word, and it has made me rethink some of my cherished beliefs about foreign relations in early modern Japan. The book also raises more questions than it answers (not a bad thing) and suffers from a few flaws, none serious enough to detract from its overall value.
Fundamental to a proper understanding of The Company and the Shogun is that it is not a book about Japanese history: it is a work of global history that happens to be about events in Japan. This may seem a minor distinction, but it makes an important difference in how one evaluates the book, a point to which I shall return. The intellectual background to the study is spelled out in Clulow’s lucid introduction. Ultimately, the author is interested in why European expansion in Asia was slower and less successful than scholars formerly believed. Following Sanjay Subrahmanyam, he sees the early modern period as an “age of contained conflict” between Europeans and indigenous societies, in which “accommodation was reached more often because the weaker side retreated than because the two parties met in the middle” (p. 9). The Company and the Shogun is a case study of one such encounter, with the Dutch—more accurately, the Dutch East India Company, or VOC—playing the role of the weaker party. Clulow, following the lead of Jurrien van Goor, sees the VOC as “a hybrid organization that successfully combined the attributes of both corporation and state.” Its state-like features consisted of “three wide-ranging powers: the right to conduct direct diplomacy with any ruler it might encounter, the right to maintain (and of course deploy) military forces, and the right to seize control of territory (by building fortresses and strongholds)” (p. 12). These are, respectively, the subjects of parts one, two, and three of Clulow’s well-organized study.
Part 1, “Diplomacy,” consists of three chapters that chart the inglorious trajectory of the VOC’s official relations with Japan during the first four decades of the seventeenth [End Page 132] century. The first Dutch mission to Japan, in 1609, was an ill-prepared, ad hoc affair sent in the name of a largely fictive “king of Holland.” It was nonetheless accepted at face value by Japanese authorities because it came during a brief period when the newly established bakufu was eager for diplomatic partners, no matter how unlikely or unprepossessing. After the VOC became better established in Asia, the company abandoned the pretense of representing the “king,” and in 1627 it dispatched a mission in the name of the Batavia governor-general. Despite the planning and preparation put into it, this embassy was rejected by the bakufu on grounds that the governor-general was unqualified to engage in diplomacy, which was the prerogative of sovereigns. Finally, in the 1630s, the VOC “crafted a new diplomatic strategy that saw its agents in Japan repackaged not as representatives of the ‘king of Holland’ or a sovereign lord of Batavia but as loyal vassals of the Tokugawa shogun” (p. 96). The head of the Dutch factory in Japan took part in hofreis, an annual court visit symbolizing submission to the shogun that was seemingly modeled on the sankin kōtai system of “alternate attendance” for daimyo. Dutch “service” to the bakufu also included the provision of intelligence reports (Oranda fūsetsugaki) and, on one occasion, actual military aid: the Dutch were active participants in suppressing the Shimabara Rebellion of 1637–1638. Part 1, taken as a whole, constitutes a frontal assault upon the idea that Dutch activities in Japan were purely mercantile, or, more generally, that Tokugawa foreign relations can be neatly divided into “diplomatic” (tsūshin) and “commercial” (tsūshō) categories. A stronger case could not...