England meets Japan – four hundred years ago

Tokugawa IeyasuOn 18th April 1611 the British East India Company ship, the Clove, captained by John Saris, set sail from England headed for Japan. It arrived at Hirado near Nagasaki on 11th June 1613, the first British ship ever to reach Japan.

Hang on, I hear you say. What about William Adams? Wasn’t he the first?

Yes and no. He was the first Englishman to reach Japan, but he sailed as pilot of a Dutch ship with a Dutch crew. The Clove was an English ship sent to Japan to open up trade between the two countries. It carried an official letter and presents – a telescope, a cup and cover and bolts of broadcloth, altogether worth £150 – from King James I for the Shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu.

King James IThis portrait of King James I was painted in 1621 by Daniel Myths. It’s in National Portrait Gallery. King James’s original letter is now held by Tokyo University.

King James LetterBy the time the ship arrived Ieyasu (his picture is at the top of this post) had handed over the Shogun role to his son, Tokugawa Hidetada.

Tokugawa HidetadaHidetada gave Saris two suits of armour for King James. One of them, made by Iwai Yosaemon of Nara, the Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu’s personal armourer, is displayed at the Tower of London, where it has been on show since at least 1660.

King James I Japanese suit of armourIeyasu gave him ten painted gold-leaf screens and an official Vermilion Seal Letter (shuinjô) granting the English permission to live and trade throughout Japan. The original is kept at in the Bodleian Library at Oxford and will be put on show this October to mark the anniversary.

Tokugawa Ieyasu shuinjôIn a letter to King James, Ieyasu said, ‘Though separated by 10,000 leagues of clouds and waves, our territories are, as it were, close to each other.’

The English set up a trading station on Hirado, not far from the Dutch one that had been established in 1609. In this map you can see the English flag (the red cross of St George on a white background) marking the English trading post on the left about a third of the way down. The Dutch trading post on the coast is marked with a red, white and blue flag.

Map of the bay of Hirado

Here is the bay of Hirado as it is today.

Hirado BaySaris set sail from Japan in late 1613 laden with lacquer and screens, arriving in London in December, 1614. The lacquer was sold at auction in the first art auction ever held in England. Apparently King James was rather pleased with his presents.

There was one other thing the Clove brought that was new to Japan – beer. It was not meant for export but for the crew to drink. Japanese beer has come a long way since then.

Asahi beer displaySo will there be anything happening to mark the anniversary? Funny you should ask – because there will be. Japan 400, a voluntary alliance of leading British institutions and professionals including historians, journalists, representatives of cultural institutions and Japan enthusiasts will be running a series of events throughout the year. I’ve already covered one of them – Anjin at Sadler’s Wells – and there’ll be to more to come. Should be an interesting year!

Japan 400 logo

12 thoughts on “England meets Japan – four hundred years ago

  1. Thanks for recounting this interesting page of history! The British had to deal with the Japanese when Hong Kong was occupied during WWII. There are some very interesting info if you search Sir Shouson Chow, Sir Robert Kotewall, etc. My parents were in their late teens at that time.


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