Book Review: Monumenta Nipponica Vol. 56 (2001), No. 4, pp. 545-547.

Bridging the Divide: 400 years The Netherlands-Japan. Edited by Leonard Blussé, Willem Remmelink, and Ivo Smits. Leiden: Hotei Publishing, 2000. 288 pages.

Wolfgang Michel

This is not the first book of its kind. In 1983, in cooperation with the Dutch Foreign Ministry, Margot E. van Opstall, Frits Vos, Willem van Gulik and Jan de Vries published a historical retrospective on Dutch-Japanese relations: Vier Eeeuwen Nederland Japan (Four Centuries: The Netherlands and Japan); Lochem: Uitgeversamaatschappij De Tijdstroom B.V.) Together with a message of Prince Mikasa Takahito, the editors presented four richly illustrated chapters on the intercourse between the two countries prior to 1856, images of the Dutch in Japanese art, daily life at Dejima, the Dutch language in Japan, and the history of cultural and diplomatic relations. That booklet of 64 pages (16 x 24 cm) focusing on the Edo era was a mere prelude compared to this voluminous, large-format opus of 288 pages published in 2000, in celebration of the fourth centennial since the Dutch vessel de Liefde was blown off course and stranded on the Japanese shores.

This time, editors, Leonard Blussé, Willem Remmelink, and Ivo Smits have collected contributions from more than sixty Japanese and Dutch authors well known in their respective fields of scholarship. The book consists of fifteen chapters:

  • From Inclusion to Exclusiveness: The Early Years at Hirado, 1600-1640
  • Sakoku, or Japan "Closed off" from the World.
  • The Decline of Trade and Russian Expansion in East Asia
  • Japan, China and the West
  • "Dutch Studies" and Natural Sciences
  • The Introduction of Western Medicine in Japan
  • "Dutch Studies": Interpreters, Language, Geography and World History
  • Exotic "Holland" in Japanese Art
  • Nineteenth-Century Japanese Collections in the Netherlands
  • Tension in East Asia in the Nineteenth Century
  • The "Question of the Netherlands East Indies": Japanese-Dutch Relations, 1900-1942
  • The War Issue: History and Perception of Japanese Rule in Indonesia
  • On War Guilt and the Uses of History
  • Peace and Protectionism: Dutch-Japanese Diplomatic Relations, 1945-1971
  • The Future of Dutch-Japanese Relations

These essays cover a wide spectrum beginning with the early years of Dutch-Japanese intercourse between 1600 and 1640, when both nations were still in the making. The subsequent "closure" of Japan and the restrictive policies during the second half of the seventeenth century are shown to be the result of a series of ad-hoc measures in reaction to internal and external developments rather than a planned long-term policy. During the eighteenth century, trade declined but the cultural exchange showed a remarkable upswing. The need to know more about the outside world was stimulated by the appearance of Russian ships off the shore of the archipelago in the latter part of the century. Japanese intellectuals gradually moved beyond their traditional background to develop the new discipline of "Dutch Studies" (Rangaku). A broad field, this covered medicine, natural sciences, military technology, and language studies. Among its pioneers were scholars as well as educated and intellectually adept interpreters who made their own contributions. Apart from this intellectual interest in the West, we find an influx of exotic Dutch people in Japanese popular art, together with the introduction of paintings using Western-style perspective. On the other hand, Europeans could appreciate the exoticism of the other, too, enjoying Japanese porcelain, lacquerware, silken gowns, and earthenware. From the end of the eighteenth century, however, under the influence of the Enlightenment, European collections were build up in a more systematic way, and in the nineteenth century they showed an increasingly anthropological character. The same century brought the forced reopening of Japan. A rapidly modernizing Japan reappeared on the Asian stage and soon had to be accepted by Western nations as an equal partner.

The essays are concise and adorned with well-chosen illustrations. Here and there we find a variety of short columns giving glimpses of single aspects or events, inserted into the chapters as a kind of interlude. While the preface points out, appropriately, that the essence of the relationship between Japan and the Netherlands can be grasped only within the wider context of world history, as an ardent supporter of a united Europe, I would have welcomed a few pages on non-Dutch Europeans who came to Japan as loyal servants of the East India Company and played an important role in East-West intercourse. Nevertheless, even in its first nine chapters dealing mainly with the Edo period, this book far surpasses its 1983 predecessor in both contents and scale.

But the ambitions of the editors, indeed, went even further. The history of Dutch-Japanese relations does not end with reminiscences of the good (?) old days at Hirado and Dejima. The book lives up to the occasion of this jubilee by having a sober look at the twentieth century, too, when, for a time, the Netherlands East Indies became the stage and object of Dutch-Japanese confrontation. Following the advance into Manchuria, the Japanese Military invaded the Indonesian archipelago in 1942. The three-and-halve years of Japanese rule had a lasting impact on the Dutch collective memory. The volume takes note of the inability of certain groups in the Netherlands to come to terms with that period, as well as the ways some Japanese revisionist historians have dealt with it. For many readers it will be in these chapters that the title, "Bridging the Divide", gains a deeper sense.

After 1945, Dutch-Japanese relations were restored with formal settlements and the rebuilding of bilateral trade, which today is increasingly embedded in the larger framework of international cooperation. The book closes with suggestions for further reading, a chronological table, and an elaborated index.

This is not a scientific work with countless footnotes and long lists of literature, but, thanks to the expertise of its editors and contributors, it is a highly reliable and up to date source of information. An appetizer, that stimulates the reader's hunger for more, it presents many aspects of Dutch-Japanese relations in an educational manner. Here beginners will enjoy an extensive survey, while specialists are enabled to reconfirm the broader framework of their studies. A Japanese translation was printed in the same year by the Japan-Netherlands Institute in Tokyo.


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