PRE-MEIJI EXPORT FURNITURE AND ITS HISTORICAL CONTEXT
Namban Period (1549-1639)
The country named Zipango by Marco Polo in the thirteenth century remained untouched by the West until 1543, when Portuguese traders landed on the Southern island of Tanegashima.(1) Both countries saw an opportunity for profit, and quickly established trade, the Portuguese sending merchandise to Japan every two years for about a decade, and yearly from 1557 onwards. (2) They also introduced Christianity to Japan. The Spanish Jesuit missionary, St. Francis Xavier, arrived in Kyushu in 1549, followed by many others. At that time, Japan was riven with territorial disputes between feudal lords, who welcomed the missionaries, less from religious fervour than as a force to rival the politically strong Buddhist monasteries. (3)
For half a century, the Portuguese enjoyed exclusive trade with Japan, until the Spaniards arrived in 1596, the Dutch in 1600 and the English in 1613.4 Portugalís dominant position was gradually eroded by the Dutch, who established the Dutch East India Company (VOC, Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie) in 1602 and started a regular supply of cargo to Japan. Additionally, the growing antipathy towards Catholicism in Japan worked against the Portuguese. Ieyasu Tokugawa, first Shogun of the Edo period (1603-1867), was initially tolerant until 1613, when he promulgated an anti-Christian (particularly Catholic) edict. Thereupon, the missionaries were ordered to leave Japan; Japanese believers were severely persecuted; the Catholic Spanish and Portuguese were expelled from Japan in 1624 and 1639 respectively. Japan, then, entered a 200 year period of seclusion (sakoku), retaining the Dutch as the sole Western trading agent.
The above is a brief history of the period when Catholicism and the Portuguese prospered in Japan. Apart from Japanese chronological eras, this time is often referred to as the Christian (till 1613) or Namban (Southern Barbarians, till 1639) period, which features, if briefly, the very first Westernization and the fusion of Japan and the West.
Moving on to the content of the Portuguese trades, their transactions in European goods accounted for only about one-third or one-quarter of their turnover. They carried a huge quantity of Chinese raw silk and fabrics to Japan,(5) where they bought silver cheaper than elsewhere. Thence they returned to China and other Asian ports to purchase silk fabrics and spices for eventual sale in Europe.(6) In the course of this trade, various Western products were introduced to the Japanese. A few of the novelties included Western clothes, mirrors, carpets, glasses, foods, and wine. Naturally, such commodities appeared extremely exotic to the Japanese and a fad for things Portuguese was soon established. The powerful lords like Nobunaga Oda received numerous Western gifts not only from the Portuguese but also from other feudal lords currying Nobunagaís favour. The Jesuit Father Louis Frois visited Nobunaga in 1569 and was amazed by the foreign treasures accumulated in his castle:
Cordoba leather skins, hourglasses and sundials, candlesticks and tapers . . . the finest glassware . . . All this in such abundance that he has twelve or fifteen chests, like those of Portugal, fitted with these things . . .(7)
Frois also recorded that Nobunaga had a wine colour velvet chair with gilt decoration.(8) It is difficult to speculate about its design, but, at the date, it is likely to have been in Renaissance style.(9)
Another item of furniture brought by the Portuguese was a Chinese folding chair called kyokuroku in Japanese.(10) The Portuguese took these easily portable chairs to Japan for their own use (Fig. 2(a)), and some paintings testify that not only Japanese feudal lords but also even kabuki theatres used them to create an exotic air. Although production centres have not been identified, it is believed that some of them were produced in Japan.(11)
Turning to Japanese exports, besides silver, another item which attracted the Portuguese was lacquer. Japan was producing elaborate lacquer wares already in the early Heian period (794-1192), separating from the originatorís (Chinese) design towards the end of that era. Maki-e (sprinkled picture) is a Japanese original technique, where gold and silver powders are sprinkled on a wet lacquer surface to make decorative designs. Lacquer became commonly used for the furnishings of the aristocracy and in objects for religious ceremonies. In the Kamakura era (1185-1333), Japan even started exporting lacquer to China.(12)
The type of lacquer which the Portuguese encountered in Japan was Kodaiji maki-e (Fig. 3). It is a hiramaki-e (flat sprinkled picture), where motifs are painted on the flat ground. Compared to the relief takamaki-e, hiramaki-e is a time-saving and inexpensive technique. The gold plant motifs reserved against a black background diagonally juxtaposed with unrelated designs are characteristic of Kodaiji maki-e. As found in this example, autumn flowers were particularly favoured.(13) The Portuguese, who found Japanese lacquers noble and exotic, started to order objects of Western shape embellished with Kodaiji maki-e to produce what we call Namban style.
Namban lacquer wares divide into the religious and secular. It was the Portuguese missionaries who first ordered lacquer. Due to the rapid increase of Japanese converts, there was an urgent need for ritual objects (lecterns, shrines, and sacrament boxes) (Fig. 4). Some of them, originally intended for churches in Japan, were brought back to Portugal by missionaries. It is suggested that this production coincided with the first sacred images to be painted in Japan around 1563.(14) It continued until the persecution of Christians started in 1612. Consequently, churches and monasteries were destroyed, with their lacquer, which has rarely survived in Japan.
Following missionaries, the Portuguese merchants started to order domestic furniture such as a drop-front cabinet and a domed coffer (Fig. 5). These are the two commonest items of Namban furniture. It is not certain when the production of these items started. The earliest record of such furniture which survives today in Europe is the cabinet at Schloss Ambras near Innsbruck in Austria: it was inventorised in 1596.(15) Scholars speculated that the chests Louis Frois saw at Nobunagaís castle in 1569 may have been Namban export chests, which would make production earlier.(16)
When we compare Namban lacquers to Kodaiji maki-e wares, it is obvious that the Portuguese had created a very new lacquer aesthetic. First, they required mother-of-pearl inlay decoration, and then combined animals and birds with conventional plant motifs. Lastly, the spacious black background was entirely filled with either geometric or scrolling foliage motifs. It is clear that Japanese craftsmen strove to adapt to a taste different to that in Japan.
It is known that Namban lacquer wares were produced in Kyoto though workshops have not been positively identified as yet. Setting aside very early pieces, it is suggested that a single workshop was involved in the production on the evidence of basic decoration and uniformity of hinges.(17) William Adams, (18) an English pilot, wrote to Richard Wickham in November 1617:
I have sent by this bearer seventeen sundry parcels of contores and scrittores marked with R.W. . . . I have been at Meaco [i.e. Kyoto] and talked with the makeman [i.e. maki-e craftsman] who hath promised that in short time he will have done. He hath fifty men that worketh day and night; that, so far as I see, he doth his endeavour. Your candlesticks when I was in Meaco were not done, but promised me in two or three days after to send them. [sic] (19)
The mention of ìfifty craftsmenî implies a large workshop, perhaps that of the Koami family, prominent lacquer workers since the fifteenth century, given the similarity of the design of Namban wares to Kodaiji maki-e. (20)
To summarise, it can be said that the cultural interchange between Japan and Portugal during the Namban period was fairly limited. It is undeniable that the Portuguese presence was strongly felt in Japan, but without obvious influence on decorative arts, especially furniture. The objects featuring exotic subjects and motifs produced for the home market were confined to small crafts such as dishes,(21) and furniture of Western-origin like a bed and a chair had never found a firm place in Japanese culture.(22) The contrary, Japanese influence on European culture, was negligible. This may be attributed to the Portuguese attitude towards lacquer wares: assuming that Namban furniture would not be popular in Europe, they did not export it beyond Portugal.(23 )
Komo Period (c.1639- c.1854)