Japan Encounters the West

Foreigners first came ashore in Japan in 1543, when three Portuguese trading ships were blown off course. Nanban, they were called, or "southern barbarians," a derogatory Chinese word for peoples of the islands south of China. But their influence was welcomed at first, and others soon followed—Dutch, Spanish, English, Russian—bearing guns and Christianity, tobacco and sweets.

Portuguese guns were a big attraction for Japan's feuding warlords. They immediately copied the weapons brought by the first traders, aided by the arrival of a Portuguese blacksmith the following year.

Christianity was among the first cargo brought ashore, spread by Jesuit missionaries who arrived in 1549. They founded a school to teach Japanese priests, and a painting school to meet demand for religious images. By 1614, there were an estimated 300,000 Japanese Christians. Periodic attempts to control the spread of Christianity included the expulsion of all missionaries in 1614 and violent crucifixions and massacres of Japanese believers. A complete ban on foreigners began in 1639.

From that point on, images of foreigners held huge appeal in Japan, and came to appear on all manner of decorative objects.

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