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Reviewed by:
  • The Namban Trade: Merchants and Missionaries in 16th and 17th Century Japan by Mihoko Oka
  • Adam Clulow
The Namban Trade: Merchants and Missionaries in 16th and 17th Century Japan. By Mihoko Oka. Leiden: Brill, 2021. 277 pages. ISBN: 9789004463837 (hardcover, also available as e-book).

Oka Mihoko is one of the most exciting scholars currently writing about Japan's encounter with Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. She is the author or editor of a number of field-defining works in both Japanese and English, including A Maritime History of East Asia. That book, coedited with Haneda Masashi, is a remarkably ambitious and rich survey of maritime activity stretching across an expansive region centered on the East and South China Seas.1

If A Maritime History of East Asia was a composite achievement brilliantly shepherded to final publication by Oka and Haneda, the book under review here returns to Oka's area of expertise: the Nanban (Namban) trade carried out by Portuguese merchants with Japan. The field of Portuguese-Japanese studies has long operated in the shadow of Charles Boxer's numerous publications, and although Japanese scholars have worked productively to expand its perimeters, until recently there was (with some notable exceptions such as the work of Reinier Hesselink) relatively little in English for those interested in understanding the longer trajectory of Japan's foreign relations in this period. This has changed in the past several years with an explosion of new work that has permanently altered how we see this crucial encounter. Oka's new book can be read alongside another important Brill publication, The Portuguese Slave Trade in Early Modern Japan by Lúcio de Sousa, a monumental study of more than five hundred pages that presents a radically new interpretation of Portuguese trade built around an exhaustive investigation of the lives of thousands of enslaved people.2 [End Page 372]

The Namban Trade: Merchants and Missionaries in 16th and 17th Century Japan is an English translation of a book that was originally published in Japanese just over a decade ago. In fact, the Japanese title—Shōnin to senkyōshi: Nanban bōeki no sekai (Merchants and Missionaries: The World of Nanban Trade)—provides a perhaps more accurate window into the contents of this important volume.3 This is a book that concerns itself not so much with presenting a general overview or imposing a clear chronology as it does with exploring a string of important episodes or aspects in the wider world of Nanban trade, taking the reader on a fascinating and never entirely predictable journey from Macao to Nagasaki.

Oka combines the best of English-language scholarship with a panoramic view of Japanese-language publications. The former includes the work of George Bryan Souza and James Boyajian, who have argued among other things for a new focus on private Portuguese trade.4 Building on this insight, chapter 1 of The Namban Trade provides a case study of a key Portuguese figure, Diogo Pereira, the leader of one of the "multi-ethnic smuggler groups" (p. 24) that operated on China's maritime fringes and that blurred into the wider wokou (Jp. wakō) phenomenon of mass pirate raids on the coast. It has long been clear that the early activities of the Portuguese in East Asia must have overlapped in significant ways with those of the wokou, but only recently have scholars started to expand the picture. One key contribution has come from the abovementioned volume by de Sousa, which shows the Portuguese deeply immersed in the trafficking of people seized from wokou raids. Oka gives a fascinating portrait of Pereira, who operated within the wider wokou context before eventually rising to become "a substantive ruler of Malacca" (p. 49). She also traces a clear connection between Pereira and Francis Xavier, arguing that Jesuit activity in general and Xavier's operations in Japan specifically cannot be divorced from private maritime trade. Her study brings private traders more clearly into the picture, thereby changing our understanding of the forces that pushed Xavier's mission forward.

Chapter 2 provides an overview of Nanban trade that builds off the pioneering work of Takase Kōichirō. It moves...