Japan400: 400 years of Japan-British Relations

Four hundred years ago the Clove, a wooden ship belonging to the East India Company arrived in Japan with official letters and gifts including the first telescope ever seen in Asia to be presented to the retired Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu, and a precious cup and cover for his son and ruling Shogun, Tokugawa Hidetada. In return, Hidetada presented the commander of the ship John Saris with two suits of armour for King James I of England and VI of Scotland, while Ieyasu sent 10 painted gold-leaf screens and an all-important 'Shuinjo' letter granting British nationals permission to live and trade throughout Japan.

This small adventurous beginning opened up cultural, scientific and commercial exchanges that are the foundations of the dynamic developments in art, science, trade, technology and lifestyle that we see between Japan and the UK today.

Japan400 has celebrated this spirit of endeavour and friendship in 2013, a year that also saw the anniversary of the first academic interaction 150 years ago as the 'Choshu Five' made their way to Britain.

The launch of Japan400 was held in the presence of HRH the Duke of Gloucester, Patron of the Japan Society and direct descendant of King James, and Minister Shikata of the Japanese Embassy, in the ancient Livery Hall of the Worshipful Company of Skinners, where the East India Company was first established. The year opened appropriately with a UK-Japan production Anjin, directed by RSC’s Gregory Doran and produced by Horipro at Sadler's Wells Theatre. This was based on the story of William Adams, the first Englishman to reach Japan (aboard the Dutch ship Liefde) and who helped set up the first trading post for the East India Company after 1613.

This year, 2013, nearly two hundred and fifty Japan400 events (including many in Japan) such as talks, festivals, exhibitions of contemporary art, lectures, performances, films, a fan competition and academic and educational exchanges, many of them free, have brought not only history and contemporary art and culture together but also expanded this friendship and enriched the dialogue with new audiences across all ages in Britain and Japan.
On 11th June, the very day on which after a two-year journey, the Clove sailed into Hirado, a port on an island on the westernmost tip of the island of Kyushu, a Voyage through Words and Music was held in All Saints Parish Church in Fulham where the Commander of that first Mission to Japan, John Saris lies buried.  The evening took us from the music of 1613 in both countries, to performances of music by contemporary Japanese and British composers and speeches and readings by esteemed guests, such as Ambassador Keiichi Hayashi, and the Marquess of Salisbury, whose ancestor the first Lord Salisbury as King James’s Chief Minister, sent the Clove to Japan, and BBC presenter Evan Davis, who took on the role of Captain John Saris.
Within the week that commemorated the delivery of those gifts from King James to Tokugawa Ieyasu and Hidetada on 8th and 17th September 1613, we saw a series of special events including a focus on the trade and investment relationship between the City of London and Japan at the Japan400 Business Seminar followed by a Dinner at Guildhall with Ambassador Hayashi and many leading politicians and business people, hosted by the Lord Mayor of London.

History was brought to life in Two Cultures United by Tea as Akira Matsura, the direct descendant of the Lord of Hirado who warmly welcomed those weary travellers and helped to establish the first English trading post in Japan, held a Kencha tea ceremony, dedicated to the memory of the first founders of Japan-British relations under the watchful gaze of ceiling portraits of King James by Rubens, and attended by HRH The Duke of Gloucester and the Marquess of Salisbury, at the historic Banqueting House in Whitehall.

Earlier in Japan400 Week, the Marquess of Salisbury hosted a ceremonial banquet at Hatfield House, the stately home in Hertfordshire built by the first Lord Salisbury. This was the first opportunity to view a British crafted telescope, commissioned by Japan400, to be presented and displayed in areas of Japan with particular association with those first contacts with Britain in the New Year. Mr Matsura and the Marquess of Salisbury kept a tryst with history, each toasting the other’s ancestor. A second viewing was hosted by the Chairman of HM Royal Armouries for the Marquess of Salisbury and Mr Matsura in the White Tower of the Tower of London in front of the suit of armour presented to King James by Shogun Hidetada. We were able to see this on NHK News and hear about it on the BBC’s Today Programme.


Hirado held its own celebrations for Japan 400 throughout 2013. On 26 May, the Mayor of Hirado hosted an international conference on the anniversary of William Adams' death, attended by the Mayors of other towns with early British connections: Yokosuka, Ito and Usuki. Yokosuka held an Anjinsai in April and Ito in August.  In October, The Mayor of Hirado and the British Ambassador to Japan Tim Hitchens, unveiled a major refurbishment to the large monument to the English Trading House, with Japan400 banners flying throughout the town, in the presence of British visitors including representatives from the Medway, where William Adams was born, and the Co-chairman of Japan400. Other cities in Japan, including Shizuoka have held events to celebrate Japan400.
At the end of Japan400 Week, William Adams was celebrated in his very own festival in Gillingham.  In October, the weather stayed fine for the Japan Matsuri festival in Trafalgar Square, where the global phenomenon of Manga to bring young people together was celebrated in a 'manga wall' competition that had ‘voyages’ as its theme, including the world of 1613. The opening ceremony was performed by figures from Japan-British relations in the costumes of 1863 for the Choshu Five and 1613 for Japan400: John Saris, William Adams and Tokugawa Ieyasu each took his place on the dais. The British Museum opened Shunga, a major exhibition of 170 erotic woodblock prints and paintings. The prints were a source of fascination for the first English visitors to Japan, who also took several shunga paintings back to England. John Saris of the East India Company was highlighted in one of the first panels of the exhibition as the first known British collector of shunga.
Japan400 celebrates the life-changing encounters with each other’s culture that continue today in My Japan, My Britain, a gallery of interviews with people who describe the spark of encounter with Japan or Britain and how it has enhanced their life and work (see www.japan400.com).

Former Tokyo-based journalist William Horsley described Britain’s foundation of relations with Japan as “a story of adventure and discovery”. He said Japan400 consists of “exciting events to celebrate the links between people who live as far apart as possible”.

Saris left Japan on 5th December 1613 and it is documented that King James took great pleasure in the gifts. Some of these artefacts still survive and are on display.  Many of them were auctioned in the first art auction ever held in Britain in 1614.  This year, Japan400 has supported a dedication of the first memorial plaque in the baptismal church of St Chad's in Seighford, in honour of Richard Cocks, chief of the English Trading House in Hirado from 1613-23, who died at sea on the return voyage.  The East India Company has minted 400 each of gold and silver coins to celebrate Japan400 with a design personally approved by HM The Queen.  Next year, 2014, will see the 400th anniversary of the return of the Clove to Plymouth in September, so please expect more celebrations!

King James wrote: ''Even in our country we have heard with certainty of the greatness of the glory of the Lord Shogun of Japan. Thus for ever and ever we will, we avow, communicate with Japan without any sense of distinction or separation.”
As we reach the end of this year of celebration, we find a legacy of renewed energy and tremendous enthusiasm for this communication and friendship between Japan and the UK from the many event organisers, supporters, audiences and participants in Japan and Britain who have come together to celebrate these small beginnings and which, we hope, will continue for at least another 400 years!

What we share in common is best expressed in the words of the retired Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu in a letter to King James: “Though separated by 10,000 leagues of clouds and waves, our territories are, as it were, close to each other.”

For details of the events, the voyages on sea and land and the generous supporters of Japan400, without whom this year's celebrations would not have happened, please see the website
www.japan400.com (in English and Japanese) where you can post comments on Japan400's Facebook and Twitter pages.


Japan400 Executive Group