A Timeline of Feudal Japan’s ‘Nanban’ Trade with Europeans | History Hit

A Timeline of Feudal Japan’s ‘Nanban’ Trade with Europeans

Portuguese vessel in the port of Nagasaki, detail from a 16th/17th century folding screen.
Image Credit: Public Domain

In 1542 or 1543, the first Portuguese merchants reached Japan. They landed on Tanegashima, off the Japanese island of Kyushu, and they did so by accident. But Portuguese sailors were dogged in pursuit of trade opportunities and their discovery of Japan heralded a new phase in the country’s history.

From the first arrival of Europeans until the early 17th century Sakoku Seclusion Edicts, Japan engaged in a period of trade dubbed the ‘Southern barbarian trade’ or Nanban trade. (Nanban after the designation routinely applied to other people from southern China, Southeast Asia and beyond.)

The Portuguese’ arrival in Japan coincided with the turbulent Sengoku ‘Warring States’ period. While they might exploit this division and their own exotic appeal to their advantage (their matchlock arquebuses were of particular interest), the Portuguese also found themselves subject to the feudal lords’ reversals of fortune. The exchange quickly acquired a religious character as Portuguese missionaries identified Japan as ripe for Christianisation.

Dating from 1467-1603, the Sengoku or ‘Warring States’ period is known as the bloodiest in Japan’s history; an era of continuous social upheaval and civil war which transformed the country.
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The encounter between the Japanese and the European interlopers has found purchase in modern culture: Martin Scorsese’s 2016 film Silence adapted Shūsaku Endō’s 1966 novel about the arrival of Jesuit priests in 17th century Japan. Meanwhile John Blackthorne, the fictional protagonist of James Clavell’s acclaimed 1975 novel Shōgun and two television adaptations, is loosely based on a real English navigator. William Adams arrived in Japan in 1600, the first Englishman to do so, and achieved influence as a high-ranking samurai in the service of the Tokugawa shogunate.

Timeline of Japan’s Nanban trade


The Portuguese were the first Europeans to arrive in Japan, landing on the island of Tanegashima in the company of Southeast Asians, labelled nanban (‘southern barbarian’) by the Japanese.


Following the arrival of Spanish Jesuits including Francis Xavier to Kyushu, Catholicism began to develop as a major religious force in Japan. King John III of Portugal was particularly interested in converting Asians to the Jesuit religion, prompting Francis Xavier’s journeying initially to India, and then to Japan.

When Francis Xavier first came to Japan, he considered Buddhism a variation on Christianity.


The Jesuits funded missionary work with profits from their trade post in Nagasaki, which received richly laden Portuguese ships. In May 1580, Ōmura Sumitada, the Christian daimyo in control, gave Nagasaki to the Jesuits. This resulted in a religious domain taking shape in Japan with warlord allies.

When Christians were welcomed by rulers, it was generally because trade was believed to follow in their wake. For the subsequent social changes experienced in Japan, the period is also known as the ‘Christian century’.

When Portuguese merchants ran aground on the Japanese isle of Tanegashima in 1543 two worlds collided - Europeans had encountered Japan for the first time.
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As Toyotomi Hideyoshi gradually unified Japan, he became concerned of Christianity’s influence. He condemned Christianity as a ‘pernicious doctrine’ and gave Jesuits 20 days to leave Japan. He relented, hesitant of disrupting trade. But he seized Nagasaki the following year, curbing European — and Christian — influence.


When the Spanish ship San Felipe was wrecked on Japan’s coast, its cargo and crew were captured by the local daimyo. Its pilot alluded to the links between existing Portuguese missionaries in Japan and the Spanish empire – for both Portugal and Spain were ruled by the same king at the time. Appalled by a perceived deception by the missionaries, Hideyoshi ordered the crucifixion of 26 Christians.

17th century depiction of the 26 Martyrs.

Image Credit: Public Domain


The Dutch followed the Portuguese and Spanish, and in 1609 the Dutch East India Company was granted permission to establish a base at Hirado, near Nagasaki.


The Tokugawa Shogunate, which came to power in 1603, firmly outlawed Christianity. The Tokugawa pursued an isolationist foreign policy, prioritising domestic unity and Japanese control over foreign relationships.

Japan’s shōgun Tokugawa Iemitsu was at least partly influenced in his scepticism of the Portuguese and Spanish by the advice of English navigator William Adams.


The Sakoku Edict of 1635 was intended to eliminate foreign influence by forbidding Japanese from leaving the country, banning Catholicism and restricting ports open to trade. An anti-Christian inquisition was set up to crack down on practising Catholics. Suspects were sometimes required to step onto likenesses of Jesus or Mary, or face torture and death.

The isolationist policy more or less continued until 1854, when the United States bent the Tokugawa Shogunate’s arm into signing the Kanagawa Treaty, which opened several ports to American vessels. (Commodore Perry had arrived with steam warships and threatened to burn Edo to the ground.)

Detail from a print depicting the 1854 Perry expedition.

Detail from a print depicting the 1854 Perry expedition.

Image Credit: Public Domain


Following the Shimabara Rebellion in which European Catholics were implicated, the Portuguese were excluded from Japan definitively. This meant that for the next 220 years, the Dutch were the only westerners allowed to access Japan. Their right to Hirado’s port was revoked. They were admitted only at Dejima, an artificial island in Nagasaki Bay which was the central route for foreign trade and cultural exchange with Japan between 1600-1869.

Kyle Hoekstra