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The ragged procession made its way west from Kyoto and Osaka. At its center were 26 men and boys, harangued and humiliated as they were marched 400 miles through snow and rain, before arriving at the port of Nagasaki after a grueling month. There, on February 5, 1597, all 26 of them were taken to a hill overlooking the bay and crucified. Reports paint a horrifying scene: a row of crosses on which the 20 Japanese, four Spaniards, one Portuguese and one Mexican—all Catholics—slowly bled out as they were jabbed with spears. One was a bow maker who died alongside his 14-year-old son. Nearby, the mother of another teen wept on the ground as her son’s body went limp on the cross. The youngest, a 12-year-old boy who would later be canonized as Saint Louis Ibaraki, sang while torturers cut off one of his ears.

This gruesome scene marked the dawn of a new age in Japan. It was the start of a brutal crackdown on all non-Japanese influences, a major stepping-stone toward an era when Japan effectively withdrew from the rest of the world. Fearful of European colonizers and their growing influence across Asia, Hideyoshi Toyotomi, Japan’s ruthless military dictator, had banned Christian missionaries in 1587, but there were still close to 300,000 Christians in the country. And they came from all levels of Japan’s rigidly layered society, from influential feudal lords to oppressed peasants. For the notorious Toyotomi—a man who had once ordered his own nephew to commit ritual suicide to ensure that his son would have no rival as his successor—these Christians posed too much of a threat to Japan’s political and religious status quo. Toyotomi had no qualms about killing them to protect Japanese ways.

Although Toyotomi died in a delirious stupor in 1598, subsequent shoguns continued his purges. But ridding the country of Christianity was only one part of the ultimate plan. Shogun Tokugawan Iemitsu also issued a series of sakoku (“closed country”) edicts, which included barring foreign nationals from entering Japan, as well as banning all Japanese, on threat of death, from leaving the country. With these orders, he set Japan on course for more than 200 years of complete and utter self-isolation.

Or almost.

A map of the Dutch trading post on Dejima; painted between 1824 and 1825
A map of the Dutch trading post on Dejima; painted between 1824 and 1825 Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The now closed-off country would maintain limited trading routes with the Chinese and Koreans, as well as the Ryukyu Kingdom and the Indigenous Ainu people, both within the borders of modern-day Japan. But Europeans would be restricted to a single patch of earth—a manmade island in Nagasaki Bay. There, these traders could interact with the Japanese, but with a few (carefully escorted) exceptions, they were barred from continuing on to mainland Japan.

Called Dejima, this fan-shaped island, within view of the hill where the 26 martyrs had met their end some 40 years earlier, measured just 246 by 656 feet, about the size of a modern city block and large enough to house just a few dozen men at any given time. Though the trading post’s very existence represented fear and distrust of outsiders, it was also a concession that Japan couldn’t go it entirely alone. For the next 220 years, Dejima was the only place in the country where most Europeans could set foot, while for the few Japanese who were permitted to cross the gates from mainland Japan onto the island, it was a rare opportunity to interact with the outside world.

With much money to be made in this strategic settlement, the miniscule manmade island quickly filled with a parade of ambitious men. With them came espionage, prostitution, smugglers and scandal. Yet even as Japan’s rulers sought to keep these two cultures at arm’s length, the various people who passed through the island—Dutch (and some other Europeans in their employ) and Japanese alike—often found themselves allied together, whether by convenience, coercion or choice. In the process, this unusual crossroads mushroomed into Japan’s version of the Wild West: It became not just a trading hub where the cultures of East and West met, clashed and occasionally even fell in love, but also a place where fortunes were chased, desires sated and lives spectacularly fell apart. Debauchery, intrigue, romance: Dejima had it all.

The Misadventures of the Lovelorn Medical Assistant

When Maximiliaan le Maire first set eyes on Dejima in February 1641, he could have been forgiven for wanting to take the next boat back to Europe. As the island’s first opperhoofd, or “chief trader,” the 35-year-old had been ordered by the shogun to abandon the Dutch trading post in nearby Hirado and relocate his men to this tiny speck of land. Upon arrival, le Maire found nothing more than half a dozen empty warehouses and several stripped-bare homes. There would be plenty of work to do to make Dejima fit for living, let alone trading.

Martijn Remei
Martijn Remei Illustration by Matthew Kam

Yet if le Maire and his men wanted to keep working in Japan, they had no other choice. Though the Dutch hadn’t been trying to spread Catholicism like the Spanish and Portuguese had (the latter had been the first residents of Dejima, from the time the Japanese built it in 1636 until they were banished in 1639 for supporting a Catholic uprising), tales of previous purges of foreigners must have weighed heavily on le Maire and his compatriots’ minds as they settled into their new home. In meetings with Japanese officials, it was made abundantly clear that even though a Dutch flag fluttered above Dejima, the Japanese were in control. Military forces stationed in and around Nagasaki were a reminder of that reality, as was the presence of Japanese officials on the island who oversaw Japanese workers and also kept a close eye on the Dutch. Simply put, the Dutchmen—no Dutch women were allowed—were being tolerated for the silk, sugar and other trade opportunities they brought, and entirely on Japanese terms.

According to those terms, Christianity was strictly forbidden. Le Maire and all other Dutchmen arriving at Dejima had to surrender their Bibles to Japanese officials. Sunday was designated as a day of work, and worship was banned. Even funeral services were prohibited, at least for the first decade. The dead on Dejima would have to be tossed into the sea.

Despite these restrictions, the Dutch traders soon built a thriving outpost, although in the early years it likely felt more like a remote barracks than a developing frontier community. But by the time the Nieupoort trading ship arrived, 18 years later in the late summer of 1659, a frequently changing succession of opperhoofd had made the island a fully functional trading post under the auspices of the Dutch East India Company.

But new Dejima resident Martijn Remei—a part-Dutch, part-Chinese medical assistant—soon discovered that the rules had become no less stringent. He was met by officials who searched his belongings before turning the Nieupoort’s hold inside out and confiscating its sails.

Once ashore, a list of rules posted on the heavily guarded bridge connecting Dejima to the mainland would have made it starkly clear to Remei that he wasn’t the most welcome guest. Dutch ships were not allowed to move beyond designated areas directly next to Dejima. No women other than designated sex workers were allowed to set foot on the island. Nor could monks, beggars or the homeless. And none of the 10 to 20 Dutch typically stationed there were allowed to leave Dejima without Japanese permission. (When ready to depart, they had to request that their ships’ sails be returned first.)

Nagasaki Harbor, with Dejima in the foreground and Dutch and Chinese ships in the water; painted between 1800 and 1825
Nagasaki Harbor, with Dejima in the foreground and Dutch and Chinese ships in the water; painted between 1800 and 1825 © The Trustees of the British Museum

In the several months to a year that most foreigners stayed on the island, their confinement meant that they had very little chance to explore. Beyond the warehouses and residences along the main street, they could peruse the flower and vegetable garden or tend the animals in the pens. In the course of their work, they might end up in the interpreters’ room or the customs inspection office by the loading dock that jutted into the bay, where Dutch ships were held until permitted to leave Japanese waters. On a bad day, there might be a trip to the physician’s quarters. By night, there was the comfortably furnished dining mess for drinking and socializing with “courtesans.” In later years, there would be a billiard room, but that was about it for entertainment. The curious could always stare across the bridge into the forbidden town of Nagasaki and wonder what life was like there, free to roam, for the Japanese who supplied Dejima with food and water or who would be needed to help if Dejima were ever engulfed in a fire—or to step in if there were ever unrest.

Why a young man like Remei would sail halfway around the world to work on this lonely island is anyone’s guess; it likely had to do with the paycheck, and perhaps the hope of additional earnings from personal side trades of minor commodities that the Dutch East India Company allowed its employees. On auction days, the company would first sell off all of its own goods, but then individuals were allowed to hawk anything they’d shipped in independently—glassware, medical instruments, clocks, all sorts of things changed hands privately on Dejima. Not all of it legally. With legitimate personal trade restricted to the exchange of goods for goods, not for currency, the only way for the Dutch to get sought-after gold coins from their private trading was to smuggle. And they had various ways of doing it. The goods might be tossed into the ocean under the cover of night, where waiting Japanese boats would quietly carry them ashore. More commonly, Japanese interpreters would sneak items across the bridge into Nagasaki, then bring gold coins back onto the island—sometimes hidden in the lining of their clothes, other times with discreet bribes for the guards. But it was a dangerous game. Any Japanese caught smuggling could expect death. The Dutch had it easier—just fines and possible deportation.

Though cramped, Remei’s new home was a hub of activity. Each day, a colorful army of Japanese interpreters, cooks, gardeners and clerks came and went over the heavily guarded bridge into Dejima. Young errand boys shuttled in supplies of bread, rice and meat. Stern-faced guards were kept busy checking wooden passes and searching for lucrative smuggled goods. And when the dayworkers retreated into Nagasaki in the fading light, in came the oranda-yuki—sex workers designated for the Dutch. They could stay on the island, but each morning they would have to appear in their finery for a roll call, to be sure none had eloped with a European.

Japanese, Chinese and Dutch officials meeting on Dejima; painted by Shiba Kokan, late 18th century
Japanese, Chinese and Dutch officials meeting on Dejima; painted by Shiba Kokan, late 18th century Courtesy of the Minneapolis Institute of Art / Gift of the Clark Center for Japanese Art & Culture

Nothing, however, was as hectic as the annual auction day: a chaotic meeting of East and West, with Japanese traders in their kimonos, loose hakama overpants and haori jackets, and the Dutchmen in their suits and hats, all sweating under an early autumn sun as Indonesians enslaved by the Dutch hauled around all manner of cargo. Looking over Dejima’s auction yard, Remei would have seen a sea of Dutch stock on display. There was pile upon pile of silk that could be crafted into kimonos and other garments, and heaps of sappanwood that the Japanese could use for lumber, as well as for making red and purple fabric dyes and concocting traditional medicines. There were thousands of imported deerskins and buffalo horns, too, and shark skin that would be used to wrap samurai sword hilts. Later, ships even brought livestock and exotic animals such as elephants and camels that would have been unknown to the Japanese at the time. One report says that part of the island resembled a zoo, with peacocks strutting colorfully around the grounds.

While the trading hub did feel chaotic at times, the residents of Dejima also had plenty of downtime. Once the trading day was done, there wasn’t much to do there, and absolutely nowhere to go. Over the years, there were some who used that time to document their life in Japan. Others studied the language and Japanese ways. Remei, however, had his eyes firmly on the oranda-yuki. And whatever this young Dutchman came looking for—fortune, love, or perhaps both—he failed to find it. As documented in Frits Vos’ “Forgotten Foibles: Love and the Dutch at Dejima,” Remei’s time on the island didn’t end well. After three nights with an unnamed sex worker, a besotted Remei declared his love to her, only to be spurned. Then the meltdown began. Unable to imagine life without his new love, he penned a suicide note, quietly slipped past Dejima’s guards and into the still of night, where he plunged into Nagasaki Bay in an effort to drown himself.

Maybe it was the jolting cold water that brought about his sudden change of heart, but instead of sinking mournfully to the bottom of the bay, Remei frantically swam to a nearby Chinese trading boat, snuck aboard and cowered among the cargo.

Remei sneaking aboard a trading boat
Remei sneaking aboard a trading boat Illustration by Matthew Kam

The next morning, as he shivered damp and silent in the darkness, all hell was breaking loose ashore. The Japanese were turning Dejima and Nagasaki upside down—some thought Remei was a Portuguese spy attempting to sneak into the mainland to spread Christianity. Remei’s suicide note in hand, the Dutch opperhoofd, Zacharias Wagenaer, scrambled to convince them otherwise. Nevertheless, the island’s interpreters and Remei’s disinterested muse were all questioned by officials. Fear even cut through the guards who had failed to prevent Remei’s escape: If he wasn’t found, they could be paying with their lives.

A collective sigh of relief swept through Dejima when the news came that Remei, unable to bear the cold and hunger, had meekly given himself up for what was to be an unexpectedly lenient fate. He was banished on the next Dutch ship out of Japan.

Of course, in his place was a fleet of new restless adventurers waiting to try their hand at this bizarre, dangerous game called Dejima.

The Pious Plant-Collector and the Journey to Meet the Shogun

Yoshio Kogyu had made the walk to Dejima thousands of times—weaving through the narrow streets of Nagasaki, passing by ordered rows of single-story wooden houses, shallow canals and temples emitting musky, woody wafts of incense. As a longtime interpreter for the Dutch, Kogyu was a familiar face to Dejima’s guards, but rules were rules: Before he could set foot on the island, his pass had to be checked and his bags searched for contraband.

Once beyond the checkpoint, the Dejima that Kogyu visited from the 1730s to 1770s didn’t look much different than the island young Remei had briefly known a hundred years earlier. The Dutch flag still flew above the short, curved main street lined with warehouses and two-story residences with tatami-mat flooring that the Dutch decorated with European furnishings. The island’s sole garden was filled with flowers and vegetables. In the summer heat and humidity, the pigsty and cattle pen must have emitted a nearly unbearable stench.

Kogyu was born to be there. From a Nagasaki family that for several generations had served as official Japanese-Dutch interpreters, Kogyu had studied Dutch since childhood, an unusually cosmopolitan upbringing in a nation that was typically kept distant from anything foreign. By the time Kogyu reached his mid-20s, he was Dejima’s chief interpreter, and in the decades that followed, he would become one of the foremost Japanese scholars of Dutch medicine and science. One of his achievements, handy in a brothel-filled town like Nagasaki, was learning to apply the Dutch’s mercury treatment against Japan’s syphilis epidemic.

Carl Peter Thunberg
Carl Peter Thunberg Illustration by Matthew Kam

He and his fellow interpreters were crucial for Dejima, serving as linguistic conduits between senior Europeans and the island’s Japanese workers. They were present during ship and cargo searches and central to official negotiations between the Europeans and Japanese merchants or Nagasaki officials. But while Kogyu was a dedicated student and admirer of Dutch ways, that feeling wasn’t always reciprocated by the Europeans he assisted on the island. For a case in point, meet Carl Peter Thunberg.

A pious physician with hair swept back from a slightly receding hairline and a weathered, chiseled face, Thunberg, a Swede, came to Dejima in 1775 as a physician and botanist. Unlike the young Remei and many other denizens of Dejima, Thunberg’s life there was far from wild. While he wrote that some of his fellow islanders spent their nights “squandering money on the fairer sex” or “droning over a pipe of tobacco,” Thunberg considered himself above such behavior. He also considered himself far above the locals.

“Without doubt, the Christians, who are enlightened by religion and morality, ought not to degrade themselves by a vicious intercourse with the unfortunate young women of this country,” he wrote in his memoir Travels in Europe, Africa and Asia. “But the Japanese themselves, being heathens, do not look upon lasciviousness as a vice.”

Though Thunberg worked closely with Kogyu and other interpreters, his memoir never mentions any of them by name, though it does criticize their Dutch language skills: “One frequently hears from most of them very laughable expressions and strange idioms,” he wrote. “Some never learn it well.”

The Nagasaki Naval Training Center
The Nagasaki Naval Training Center, where Japanese Navy officers would train, was directly across from the island of Dejima. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

As Thunberg’s “heathens” comment makes clear, his sense of enlightenment didn’t extend to any notion of all people being equal. Look no further than his treatment of the enslaved. Unable to afford to bring his own slaves with him to Dejima, he was delighted to be lent one by a Dejima resident returning to Europe. That delight soon turned to dismay, however, when the enslaved man—also not deemed worthy of a mention by name in Thunberg’s memoir—developed an air of melancholy at being separated from his family and eventually attempted to flee the island. Like Remei’s disappearance, the affair didn’t last long. The unnamed Indonesian was found hiding in a storehouse and dragged into the yard, where he had the soles of his feet beaten and was then put in chains.

It’s hard to find anything to like about Thunberg in his memoir, except maybe the detailed records he left behind—not only about his stay on Dejima but also about his trips to the mainland. By Thunberg’s time, there were occasions when Dejima’s European residents might be granted permission to make escorted excursions into Nagasaki, which Thunberg did on several occasions, taking obsessively detailed notes on the plants growing in the nearby hills. He wrote about varieties of ginger and chili, patches of tobacco and fields of buckwheat, and—to his surprise—many of the vegetables he would have found back in Europe. There was also bamboo the size of trees. Traveling through farming villages with an entourage of Japanese guards and interpreters, Thunberg documented how he would be mobbed by children shocked by the bizarre look of a foreigner with large, round eyes.

Then, in March 1776, Thunberg was part of one of the most remarkable expeditions from Dejima—the annual trip to Edo (as Tokyo was then called) to pay respect to the shogun. He was the physician in a party of three Europeans—along with Dejima’s opperhoofd and secretary—who, with Nagasaki officials and close to 200 Japanese guards, valets and servants, spent more than a month traversing west to east across Japan by road, river and sea.

At times the caravan stretched a mile long as it navigated mountain paths and passed through thick forests and paddy-studded farmland. Each village and town revealed new aspects of Japan to Thunberg, some confirming his belief that the Japanese were indeed heathens, others instilling an admiration for Japan’s politeness, hospitality and unflinching sense of order. He was appalled to see women bathing in the nude in clear sight of men and mystified by “the absurd beliefs inculcated into them by their priests.” But his entourage was met by local lords who gave them the same courtesy they would have paid to princes; peasants bowed to them as they passed by. The prudish Thunberg looked upon the Japanese’s obedience to superiors with envy. Their culture of frugality impressed him too. There was none of the wanton excess that, in his opinion, polluted European morals.

The annual expedition from Dejima to Edo to pay respect to the shogun; painted by Engelbert Kaempfer, 1727
The annual expedition from Dejima to Edo to pay respect to the shogun; painted by Engelbert Kaempfer, 1727 Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Even the roads astonished Thunberg. It wasn’t just that they were brushed clear of dung and dirt and were regularly marked with mileposts; the way the Japanese always traveled on the left was also a revelation—a “regulation which would be of the greatest utility in Europe … where they frequently travel with less discretion and decorum,” he wrote. Religious heathens they may well have been to Thunberg, but heathens with an incredible knack for order and efficiency.

It was thanks to that and the shogun’s protection that with little fuss the Dutch caravan smoothly reached Edo in late April. For Thunberg’s delegation, there was none of the court jester humiliation that had befallen early trips to Edo—no need to sing and dance for the shogun. During their month in Edo—then the largest city in the world, with close to a million people living in cramped blocks of wooden buildings frequently beset by fires—there was only an obligation to visit the palace to pay their respects, and within the carefully guarded confines of their inn in Edo’s central Nihonbashi district, to meet with an endless stream of Japanese officials and scholars.

By and large, these were formal yet sociable visits, softened with food and sake, but nonetheless they amounted to what were essentially a series of polite interrogations—the Japanese picking Thunberg and his companions’ brains about Western knowledge and ways and studying every minutia of their habits and dress. But it wasn’t all one way. The Japanese brought him samples of flora, fauna and wildlife to study. Though Thunberg never revealed how, he also bought maps of the country—strictly prohibited to foreigners—and smuggled them back to Dejima. It may have seemed like an innocuous infraction, born out of academic curiosity rather than anything sinister, but as one of Thunberg’s successors on the island would later learn, in the era of Dejima, a little illicit map-trading could have life-changing consequences.

The Defenders of Dejima

Just as Thunberg had mixed views on the Japanese, he would have been very conflicted by Hendrik Doeff, who arrived on Dejima 25 years after Thunberg. A striking character, with an intense gaze and long, thick sideburns pointing toward a cleft chin, Doeff was a man for all seasons, in one account described as both “an excellent scholar as well as an accomplished lover.”

Arriving as a 22-year-old in 1800, Doeff spent 17 years on Dejima, initially as a scribe but working his way up to opperhoofd, during which time he also helped produce the first Japanese-Dutch dictionary. He was even more prolific by night. By the time Doeff was based on Dejima, it was possible on some occasions for the Dutch to enjoy a change of scenery and visit the brothels of Nagasaki’s Maruyama district. He didn’t need inviting twice. Bring on the “vicious intercourse,” as Thunberg had put it.

Hendrik Doeff
Hendrik Doeff Illustration by Matthew Kam

One story in “Forgotten Foibles” tells of a “party” with 20 prostitutes. And although there are some claims that the Dutch of Dejima were the first to introduce contraception to Japan, it obviously wasn’t Doeff. He had children by two of Maruyama’s ladies: with Sonoo a daughter who died in infancy, and with Uryuno a son who lived till his teens. It’s unclear whether any of Doeff’s family lived on Dejima with him; that would have been a rare sight, although there are some reports of small children living on the island. More likely, his children would have lived nearby, outside the gates of Dejima, and only been permitted to visit him.

They would never have been allowed to leave Japan; no child born to a Japanese mother could. And while they were ostracized from many professional opportunities due to their outsider status, Doeff was able to successfully petition Nagasaki’s magistrate (akin to a mayor) to grant his son full Japanese status and allow him to train to be a specialist in foreign affairs.

Arguably Doeff’s greatest legacy, however, is his involvement in the H.M.S. Phaeton incident of 1808—a notable instance of British attempts to muscle in on the Dutch’s Japanese foothold in Dejima’s final few decades, as well an example of how the Dutch and Japanese on Dejima could work together in an hour of need.

Doeff looking out at the Phaeton
Doeff looking out at the Phaeton Illustration by Matthew Kam

It was early October, and an unscheduled ship flying a Dutch flag had appeared in Nagasaki Bay. It was a curious arrival, but Doeff and Nagasaki’s magistrate, the 40-year-old Yasuhide Matsudaira, had no reason to assume anything was amiss. At least not until he sent a Dutchman and a Japanese interpreter out as a welcome party. The interpreter came back in a panic: The vessel was a British warship called the Phaeton, traveling on orders to raid Dutch shipping and outposts now that Holland was (briefly) under the control of the enemy French. To compound matters, the Dutchman was now prisoner, and the British had their canons pointing toward Nagasaki.

For Matsudaira, things were about to get worse. He didn’t have enough troops at hand to launch a preemptive attack—maybe not enough to even put up a defense. Instead, together with Doeff, he decided that a temporary retreat was better than a potential slaughter, and the two dozen residents of Dejima were quietly ushered off the island for the safety of the magistrate’s office on the mainland—just in time. A British raiding party snuck into Dejima that night but found nobody there to kill or capture and very little to loot.

Hendrik Doeff and a servant in Dejima; Japanese painting from the 19th century
Hendrik Doeff and a servant in Dejima; Japanese painting from the 19th century Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

With just a single ship so far from home, the British couldn’t realistically seize and hold Dejima for long. They hadn’t brought the manpower for that. It would take time for the Japanese to rally their forces together, but their arrival in vastly superior numbers was inevitable. And they would spare nobody. So began hasty negotiations between the British and Matsudaira and Doeff to end the standoff. With the British threatening to torch Dutch and Chinese ships in the bay and bombard Nagasaki unless the Phaeton was fully stocked with food and water, Doeff and Matsudaira had few options. Matsudaira wondered if they could send for reinforcements and attempt to block the Phaeton’s retreat until they had the forces ready for a counterstrike. But huddled together in the shrine overlooking the bay that Matsudaira used as his office, they eventually agreed that the quickest and most peaceful solution was to comply. It worked—once supplied, the British sailed away. Forty-eight hours after the incident had begun, it was over.

For Doeff, it wouldn’t be the last time he had to repel British advances. Their ships returned twice more in the 1810s with demands for food and water. But Matsudaira wouldn’t be there for that. After the Phaeton had left Japanese waters, Doeff retreated to his office, wrote a letter of apology for his failure to prevent the incident, and then—kneeling on the floor—thrust his short sword deep into his stomach, slicing open his abdomen. An honorable end for a samurai.

The Star-Crossed Lovers and the Affair of the Astronomer’s Maps

Of all the colorful characters who spent time on Dejima, it’s hard to argue against Doeff being one of the most impressive residents in the island’s 200-plus-year history. But there is one more candidate for that title—Philipp Franz von Siebold, a German physician who disembarked at Dejima in 1823.

Then aged 27, Siebold cut a magnificent figure, with thick, brushed-back hair and the kind of high cheekbones and sharp jawline that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Hollywood’s Golden Age. He also possessed a towering intellect and restless curiosity. While living on Dejima, he founded a private academy in Nagasaki where Japanese students learned Western medical science. They in turn would go on to popularize Dutch learning, or rangaku, throughout Japan.

Siebold was even permitted to practice medicine beyond Dejima’s gate—an unprecedented move by Nagasaki’s magistrate. The books about Japan he went on to write included eye-opening studies on Japanese anthropology, botany, geography and zoology for European audiences. Sadly, it was his interest in geography that would come back to haunt him and the love of his life, Sonogi.

Philipp Franz von Siebold
Philipp Franz von Siebold Illustration by Matthew Kam
Sonogi
Sonogi Illustration by Matthew Kam

Sonogi was likely only 16 when she first encountered Siebold, though exactly how they met is shrouded in mystery. One romanticized version of the story is that Sonogi, real name Taki Kusumoto, was from a respected family, a merchant’s daughter who, with a single glance, fell in love with Siebold when he was meeting her father, prompting her to become a prostitute and sully her name so that she and Siebold could meet on Dejima. Another less romantic but more likely account is that she was sent from the brothels of Maruyama to be Siebold’s courtesan—traded like cattle years after her own family had sold her into sex work.

Whatever the truth, within a couple of years she had born him a daughter, Ine, and the three lived together on the island. Paintings show a tall, suited Siebold and a petite, kimono-clad Sonogi looking out at the sea, the infant Ine hanging in a vivid red sling on her mother’s back—a rare snippet of family life on this male-dominated island. But as with Doeff and others before him, the chances of Siebold ever taking his Japanese family to Europe were slim, since no child born to a non-Japanese father and Japanese mother was ever allowed to leave Japan. Soon, an incident in 1829 made sure they wouldn’t be able to remain together in Japan either.

On a trip to Edo as part of the Dejima delegation to the shogun, Siebold acquired maps of Japan from an astronomer named Takahashi Kageyasu—a not uncommon bit of trading between academics and intellectuals, but one that was nonetheless prohibited. Just like the Japanese people themselves, no maps of the country were permitted to leave or fall into the hands of potential adversaries. And when the shogunate was tipped off that Siebold had maps in his possession, there could be no turning a blind eye.

Takahashi was arrested and interrogated, as was Siebold, who in an attempt to prove his loyalty to Japan—and stay near his family—offered to give up his citizenship and become Japanese. His offer was declined and Siebold was banished from Japan, leaving Sonogi and 2-year-old Ine with a stockpile of goods to trade and a network of Dutch and Japanese supporters who came together to watch over them. As ever, Dejima had a habit of both dividing and uniting—and for delivering harsher justice to the Japanese. Takahashi, like Matsudaira before him, got the worst of the deal—he was killed in jail.

Philipp Franz von Siebold (holding the telescope), and Sonogi (holding their baby-daughter Ine) watching an incoming Dutch ship at Dejima, along with other residents
Philipp Franz von Siebold (holding the telescope), and Sonogi (holding their baby-daughter Ine) watching an incoming Dutch ship at Dejima, along with other residents Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

From Europe, Siebold would write and send gifts and financial support to Sonogi and Ine. Sonogi, though she would one day remarry and live a long, comfortable life, was heartbroken. “There is no day that I do not weep. … I recall your face and long for the days gone by,” she wrote in Japanese in one ornately scribed letter. Back in Europe, Siebold named a variety of hydrangea after his wife. Otaksa—Siebold’s nickname for Sonogi—now blooms across Japan, China and the Americas.

The lovers never reunited, but their daughter, Ine, was a pioneer. She became Japan’s first female physician and later the court physician to the empress.

The End of an Era

In 1854, United States warships sailed into Edo Bay under the command of Commodore Matthew C. Perry, their second incursion based on an 1853 mandate from President Millard Fillmore to force Japan to open to American trade and Western ways. In steam-powered ships equipped with cutting-edge Paixhan shell guns and carrying 1,600 well-armed sailors and marines, Perry put on enough of a show of modern force to set in motion negotiations for a treaty that would see Japan end its self-isolation. The country reopened, and the Dutch no longer had a monopoly on trade from the West, effectively making Dejima obsolete.

For a time in the 1850s, the island became a Dutch consulate, but then it gradually fell into disrepair and was swallowed up as Nagasaki grew into a flourishing city—one that would be decimated by an American atomic bomb in August 1945. Today, Nagasaki is a lively metropolis once again, and the few original Dejima buildings that survived have been restored, with the rest of the island reconstructed as a life-size museum based on plans from the early 1880s. Like Japanese visitors of old, those who enter the replica of Dejima today cross a single stone bridge, though there are no more views that look out to the sea. Today, the island is surrounded by a sprawling city, parts of which are built on reclaimed chunks of the bay where Dejima’s sailors once docked.

Dutchmen playing billiards in Dejima as Japanese women and a servant look on, 19th century
Dutchmen playing billiards in Dejima as Japanese women and a servant look on, 19th century Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

But inside, walking around the two-story buildings, with their unusual mix of Japanese tatami and European furnishings, things are different; exhibits documenting Dejima’s past throw glimmers of light on its former residents. There are paintings of giggling women in kimonos watching suited Europeans play billiards, and others of Japanese and Dutch traders weighing copper as Indonesian slaves haul about wooden crates. There are samples of the fine tableware the Dutch dined on, and even a rusted handgun. Amid it all, you can almost sense the jilted Remei fleeing in distress, the studious Kogyu interpreting for an unappreciative Thunberg, or the fearless Doeff and Matsudaira teaming up to protect the island at any cost. Maybe you can even feel Sonogi and Siebold calmly reading together by lamplight or chasing little Ine around the tatami—treasuring simple, everyday family moments on an island where life was anything but normal.

A scale model of Dejima in modern-day Nagasaki, 2010
A scale model of Dejima in modern-day Nagasaki, 2010 STA3816 via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 3.0

So many of Dejima’s contrasts and contradictions are on display in the stories that remain. As an island designed to divide, Dejima remains a remarkable example of what happens when people from all sorts of backgrounds, and with manifold motivations, are thrown together. Often, despite some of history’s most extreme efforts to keep people apart, they found that their best option was to unite. Love, scandal and unexpected allies—this tiny patch of land where East was permitted to meet West was a place like no other.

Rob Goss is a Tokyo-based writer. Find him on Instagram at @robgosswriter.

This article is republished from Narratively, a storytelling platform that celebrates the diversity of humanity. Read the original article.

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