This book takes up the matter of the arrival of the English in Japan in 1613. It addresses why they sought access to Japan, and how they prepared themselves to enter the market. The story of English engagement with Japan is hardly ever told, unlike that of the Dutch and Portuguese, and their presence is generally dismissed as unimportant. Equally, English historians study the rise of international trade, but give scant attention to Japan, focusing on the New World and India.
Screech argues that the English presence in Japan in this period was extremely important. His argument centres on the decision to send the spectacular present of a silver-gild telescope to the retired shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu. It was the first telescope to leave Europe and the first built to be a royal present. The English were aware how a key activity of the Spanish and Portuguese in Japan at this was teaching astronomy, undertaken by Jesuit priests. The papacy adhered to the Ptolemaic model, whereas Protestants had embraced heliocentricity, and a telescope was a means for non-specialists to see that, indeed, the earth does go around the sun. This gift was therefore a way to disprove the value of the Iberians in their principle area of activity in Japan and discredit their missions there. This scheme seems to have been successful: shortly after presentation of the telescope to Ieyasu, the Jesuit missions were closed, and the English given free trading rights. This book thus outlines a key but forgotten answer to the vexed question of why the missions were closed in Japan, after so many decades of successful evangelism.
The Shogun’s Silver Telescope – God, Art, and Money in the English Quest for Japan, 1600-25 is published by Oxford University Press. It is available for purchase via this link. A discount code for 30% will be provided to attendees of this event.
Date: Tuesday 1 December 2020
UK Time: 11:00am-12:00pm (GMT)
Japan Time: 8:00pm-9:00pm (GMT+9)
About the contributors
Timon Screech is Professor of the History of Art at SOAS, University of London, and Fellow of the British Academy. He has taught at numerous universities including Chicago, Heidelberg, Meiji, and Waseda. An expert on the art and culture of the Edo Period in its international dimension, he has published some dozen books. Probably best known is Sex and the Floating World, a study of erotica. In 2016, his field-defining overview of the Edo arts, Obtaining Images, was paper-backed. He published two books in 2020: Tokyo before Tokyo, and The Shogun’s Silver Telescope. Screech’s work has been translated into French, Japanese, Korean, Polish, and Romanian.