A Brill Calendar: December 1
The Maiden Voyage of the Kaiyo Maru
Few nations have based their existence on self-imposed, carefully maintained isolation. Japan, Empire of the Rising Sun, used to be a unique example of this trust in self-sufficiency.
However in 1609 the Japanese emperor granted the Dutch East India Company exclusive rights to act as intermediary with the rest of the planet. This bi-lateral arrangement functioned adequately during more than two centuries, during which the West saw Japan (in the main) through Dutch eyes; eyes that were intent on generating commercial profit, hardly on changing policies of Japanese officials. Innate inquisitiveness about Japan and its people was confined to the cultural horizons of individual VOC employees. It all changed suddenly when this ‘splendid isolation’ was broken by the United States of America, Japan’s eastern neighbour across the Pacific; by their convincing threats coupled with maritime might in 1853 & 1854.
It is seldom in the history of military mimicry that a new ‘modus operandi’ was so quickly implemented by a nation state. In 1862 Japanese government commissioned the Dutch Trading Company NHM – successor of the bankrupt VOC – to build a state-of-the-art steam-powered frigate in Holland. Soon a Japanese delegation arrived in Europe to monitor construction and learn from it. The brand-new ‘Kaiyo Maru’ departed from Dordrecht, where she was built, for her maiden-trip to Japan on December 1, 1866: only a few men in her crew had been born & bred outside that city.
Throughout these months the city of Leyden functioned as the delegation’s ‘pied-à-terre’, with Professor Hoffmann, first Japanologist in the West, acting as host. Less then forty years later, Japan became the first Asian Empire to inflict naval defeat on a European one, Tsarist Russia.
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2013, April 11