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  • The Dutch East India Company in Early Modern Japan: Gift Giving and Diplomacy by Michael Laver
  • Martha Chaiklin
The Dutch East India Company in Early Modern Japan: Gift Giving and Diplomacy. By Michael Laver. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2020. 184 pages. Hardcover, £85.00; softcover, £28.99.

In the small pamphlet Japan—Friend and Ally prepared around 1952 by the Troop Information and Education Section of the General Headquarters of the Far East Command of the United States is a paragraph on gifts under the heading “Japanese Courtesy.” It reads,

Gift-giving and returning favors are things with which you are familiar. However, in Japan, gift-giving is in greater proportion than any American merchandising promotor ever dreamed of. Only in this case, it is not based on the merchant’s desire for monetary gain. It is a form of courtesy. A gift for a gift, a favor for a favor is strictly adhered to.

(p. 14)

Considering the ubiquity of gift giving in Japanese culture, important enough to be included in this basic introductory pamphlet for American military personnel and their dependents, it has received relatively little attention in Western scholarship, especially outside of contemporary anthropological studies. A perceived division between anthropology and history has perhaps kept worthy topics such as this one from more historical inquiry. This is unfortunate, since the study of such practices over time illuminates many aspects of culture and society that cannot be discerned from observing contemporary practices alone.

Michael Laver’s The Dutch East India Company in Early Modern Japan: Gift Giving and Diplomacy fills this gap, showing how gift giving under the auspices of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) offers a rich field for exploration because of the variety of gifts it brought. According to Laver, “the institution of gift-giving was a central feature of Company success in Japan” (p. 17). The quote from the Far East Command is notable in that it equates gift giving, which might seem to be selfless, with returning favors and commerce. Transaction and its motivations in relation to altruism is a fundamental debate in the study of gift giving—and an important concern as well for this book focusing on the commercial aspects of Dutch–Japanese relations.

Laver has plumbed the dagregisters—official diaries or journals kept by the VOC opperhoofd (factory head) with information about interactions with Japanese, local politics, and anything else that might have had some use for the company or individuals stationed in Japan, as well as the occasional personal observationin depth. Notations on gift giving appear regularly in their pages, and the short volume synthesizes this material in an engaging manner, reading more like a popular history than an academic tome.

Following an introduction that gives background for nonexperts and focuses largely on the seventeenth century, chapter 1 provides a generalized historiography of gift theory covering Marcel Mauss, Lewis Hyde, Jacques Derrida, and a few others. [End Page 172] The ubiquity of gift-giving occasions in Asia is described along with a summary of gifting occasions in Japan; Laver argues that these practices changed little over time because they were “an elaborate pageant meant to demonstrate Dutch submission to the authorities in Edo, and by extension Nagasaki” (p. 35).

The subsequent chapters are organized based on groupings of similar kinds of gifts. Chapter 2 looks at megafauna, birds, and animal products. In Laver’s interpretation, the bringing of animals was a sign “that the Dutch were submitting to Tokugawa authority in the region” (p. 54), although not all animals were brought for the shogun and not all animals were valued merely as exotic. Arabian horses, for example, were desired in part to be crossbred with small Japanese horses in the hope of creating a larger hybrid. Chapter 3 looks at art, both fine and decorative. Two separate incidents involving lanterns are used to show the importance of these objects, the first being the Nuyts Incident, an armed conflict that erupted in 1628 between Japanese traders and Pieter Nuyts, the governor of Formosa (Taiwan), over shipping rights and taxation on the island. This caused a break in relations between the Dutch East India Company and Japan for over...


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