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‘The Loudest Lies’: Knowledge of Japan in Seventeenth-Century England

  • Derek Massarella (a1)


The comment in the title of this article was made by James I after having been shown a ‘long scrole of fyne paper’, probably a Japanese almanac, and an account of the estates and revenues of the daimyo ‘most of them equally or exceeding the revenues of the greatest princes of Christendom’, and a letter, all of which had been sent by Richard Cocks, head of the English East India Company's factory at Hirado during its entire existence from 1613 to 1623. Cocks's letter and the two enclosures had been sent to his patron, the then Keeper of the Records, Sir Thomas Wilson, who had shown the letter to James with a covering note stating that he had received it ‘from the most remote part of the world’. The letter describes, in considerable and acutely observed detail, the new capital of the Tokugawa shogunate, Edo, the shogun's magnificent retinue as he led a falcon-hunting party (hunting was a pastime he had in common with the British monarch), the great daibutsu of Kamakura, the sights of Kyoto, including Sanjusangendo, and recent political developments relating to the banishment of the Jesuits and friars. Wilson, rather obsequiously, felt that the letters, written in January 1617, ‘were a good recreation for Your Majesty (if you had any idle hours)’ and declared that ‘neither our cosmographers nor other writers have given us true relation of the greatness of the princes of those parts’. But James could ‘not be induced to believe’ what was written, and dismissed the letter as ‘the loudest lies that ever [he] heard of.



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1 Massarella, Derek, ‘James I and Japan’, Monumenta Nipponica 38 (1983) 377386; Wilson, D.H., King James VI and I (London 1956) chapter 2; Maurice, Lee, James I and Henri IV (Urbana 1970) 29.

2 Idem, The Early Career of Richard Cocks (1566–1624), Head or the English East India Company's Factory at Hirado (1613–1623)’, The Transactions of the Asiatic Society of Japan third series 20 (1985) 146.

3 On travel writing see Marshall, P.J. and Williams, Glyndwyr, The Great Map of Mankind (London 1982) chapter 2.

4 Quoted in Crone, G.R. and Skelton, R.A., ‘English Collections of Voyages and Travel Writings 1625–1846’ in: Lyman, R. ed., Richard Hakluyt and His Successors (London 1946) 91 and passim.

5 (Chicago 1965).

6 Stecle, C.R., ‘From Hakluyt to Purchas’ in: Quinn, D.B. ed., The Hakluyt Handbook (2 vols.; London 1974) 1, 76; Lach, Asia in the Making of Europe 11 book two, 69.

7 Chaudhuri, K.N., The Trading World of Asia and the English East India Company (Cambridge 1978) 79. The view is restated in his Trade and Civilization in the Indian Ocean (Cambridge 1985) esp. 8283.

8 Wicki, Joseph, ‘Archives and Libraries in Rome Concerning Portuguese India’ in: John Correia-Afonsoed., Indo-Portuguese History: Sources and Problems (Bombay 1981) 37, 38.

9 Danvers, Frederic Charles and Foster, William eds., Letters Received by the East India Company from its Servants in the East (6 vols.; London 18961902) I, xvxvi; I[ndia] O[ffice] R[ccords] B/3, f.37v.

10 IOR B/5, 318, 468.

11 IOR B/5, 238. Sec also B/3, f. 19.

12 IOR G/40/1; Sainsbury, E.B. ed., A Calendar of the Court Minutes of the East India Company 1635–1679 (11 vols.; Oxford 19071938) [hereafter CCM\ 1668–1670, 72, 180; William Foster, A Guide to the India Office Records 1600–1858, I ff; Idem, The East India House (London 1924) 51 & n.

13 IOR G/10/1, 1. Another Company clerk, Peter Pratt, had already compiled materials for a history of Japan, later published as History of Japan Compiled from the Records of the English East India Company. M. Paskc-Smith ed. (2 vols.; Kobe 1931; repr. London and New York 1972). A memoir of the Company's China trade from its beginnings to 1832 was drawn up at around this time (IOR G/I2/11, G/12/12). Pratt's work is invaluable because it contains material subsequently lost but it has to be used carefully.

14 IOR Home Miscellaneous Series 722, 341.

15 The details of the destruction of the years 1858–1867 can be followed through in IOR Home Miscellaneous Series 722.

16 On Rundall see IOR Home Miscellaneous Series 722, 24–27.

17 B[ritish] L[ibrary] Cotton Cart. III 13 XXVI 28. Thankfully, they survived the 1731 fire which destroyed a number of Sir Robert's manuscript volumes.

18 Bassett, D.K., ‘The Trade of the English East India Company in the Far East, 1623–84’, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society (1960) 3247, 145–156.

19 IOR E/3/ll, f.78v ff.

20 IOR E/3/11 ff. 207–210v, esp. 207v–208v; Pratt, History of Japan II, 119–126. On the nihonmachi in Batavia see Seiichi, IwaoJapanese Emigrants in Batavia during the Seventeenth Century’, Ada Asiatica 18 (1970) 125.

21 IOR E/3/11 f. 97v; Algemeen Rijksarchief The Hague, Koloniaal Archief (Kol. Arch.) 11722, 60–61, 62, 63, 79.

22 Kol. Arch. 11722, 279–280.

23 Caron, François and Schouten, Joost, A True Description of the Mighty Kingdoms of Japan & Siam, with Introduction, Notes and Appendixes by C.R. Boxer (London 1935) xvixxvi; Yoko, Nagazumi, ‘Japan's Isolationist Policy as seen through Dutch Source Material’, Acta Asiatica 22 (1972) 21.

24 Boxer, C.R., The Great Ship from Amacon (Lisboa 1959) 115122.

25 Ibidem, 117, 126; Innes, Robert LeRoy, ‘The Door Ajar: Japan's Foreign Trade in the Seventeenth Century’ (unpublished Ph.D. thesis; University of Michigan 1980) 380, 390, 391–392; Seiichi, Iwao, Shuinsen bōeki-shi no kinkyū (new edition; Tokyo 1985) 127, 381.

26 On the situation in Europe see Israel, Jonathan, ‘A Conflict of Empires: Spain and the Netherlands 1618–1648’, Past and Present 76 (August 1977) 3474; Idem, The Dutch Republic and the Hispanic World 1600–1661 (Oxford 1982).

27 Chaudhuri, K.N., The English East India Company (London 1965) 57.

28 Two journals from the Hoseander-voyage survive, one written by Ralph Coppindale, the cape merchant (IOR L/MAR/A/XXIII), the other by Rowland Thomas, the purser (BL Egerton MS 2121).

29 C[alendar of] S[tate] P[apers Colonial Series], East Indies, 1625–1629, 261, 266, 267, 276, 359, 571, 599.620, 656, 666; 1630–1634, 34.

30 IOR B/7, 235, 280, 283–284, 292–293; Pratt, History of Japan II, 127–129; CCM 1635–1639, 119; Bassett, ‘Trade of the English East India Company in the Far East’, 40; Chaudhuri, East India Company, 58–59; Ashton, Robert, The City and the Court 1603–1643 (Cambridge 1979) 127129.

31 Pratt, History of Japan II, 129–131. Cf. Bassett, ‘Trade of the English East India Company in the Far East’, 40.

32 Pratt, History of Japan 11, 131.

33 Temple, R.C. ed., The Travels of Peter Mundy in Europe and Asia 1608–1667 (5 vols.; Cambridge 19071936) 111, 154, 294–295, 439.

34 This is treated more fully in Massarclla, Derek, ‘“A World Elsewhere”: Aspects of the Overseas Expansionist Mood of the 1650s’ in: Jones, Colin et al. eds., Politics and People in Revolutionary England (Oxford 1986) 141161.

35 CCM 1655–1659, 281–283, 286, 290, 300 & n.

36 IOR G/21/4, 5 pr. in Bassett, D.K., ‘The Trade of the English East India Company in Cambodia’, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society (1962) 5561, esp. 57. There is another reference to a Briton, a Scot, who visited Japan, in 1670 as a crew member of a Dutch ship; doubtless other did so as well (BL Harleian MS 4254, f. 21 v–22).

37 CCM 1655–1659, 282–285; 1668–1670, 105.

38 Ibidem, 1655–1659, 289; Bassett, ‘Trade of the English East India Company in the Far East’, 145–146.

39 Pratt, History of Japan 11, 133–134.

40 IOR E/3/11, f. 210; CSP East Indies, 1625–1629, 372.

41 Pratt, History of Japan II, 135–137.

42 IOR G/21/4, 1;Pratt, History of Japan 11, 14I.

44 Ibidem, 153–157.

45 IOR MS Eur.D41, 141, 7; Pratt, History of Japan II, 141, 153–157.

46 IOR Court Book 30, 319;CCM 166S–1670, 63, 105.

47 Ibidem, 105, 111; Pratt, History of Japan 1, 469–482; II, 143 n.; Murakami, N. ed., Diary of Richard Cocks. Cape Merchant in the English Factory in Japan, 1615–1622 (2 vols; Tokyo 1899) II, 361370.

48 IOR E/3/87, 472–485; Wild, Cyril ed., Purchas His Pilgrimes in Japan (Kobe 1939) 156157, 219–220.

49 CCM 1668–1670, 53, 376. The documents, the Hirado Dagh Register for 1663 and 1664, were poorly translated. Extracts from the translations are given in Pratt, History of Japan II, 104–117, 245–258.

50 There are a number of versions of the journal kept by the Return at Nagasaki, all with minor differences (P[ublic] R[ecord] O[ffice] CO 77/12 ff. 232–247, 250–260v, 262–269; IOR G/21/4, 118–130; IOR Home Miscellaneous Series 456a, 369–422). Printed versions, shorn of the dates, exist in Kaemphcr, Engelbert, The History of Japan (2 vols.; London 1727–1728) second appendix; Murakami ed., Diary of Richard Cocks, 374–394; Paske-Smith, M., Western Barbarians in Japan and Formosa in Tokugawa Days, 1603–1868 (repr.; New York 1968) 7081. See also Boxer, C.R., ‘Jan Compagnie in Japan 1672–1674 or Anglo-Dutch Rivalry in Japan and Formosa’, Transactions of the Asiatic Society of Japan second series 7 (1930) 138203.

51 On Japanese foreign trade at this time see Seiichi, Iwao, ‘Japanese Foreign Trade in the 16th and 17th Centuries’, Acta Asiatica 30 (1976) 1213;Kazui, Tashiro, ‘Tsushima' s Korea Trade, 1684–1710’, Ada Asiatica 30 (1976) 85105; Idem, Foreign Relations During the Edo Period: Sakoku Reexamined’, Journal of Japanese Studies 8, 2 (1982) 292300; Innes, ‘The Door Ajar’, chapter 3, esp. 306–315; Glamann, Kristof, Dutch-Asiatic Trade 1620–1640 ('s-Gravenhage 1981) 5758, 62–63, 68–69, 116–117, 165–182; Prakash, Om, The Dutch East India Company and the Economy of Bengal 1630–1720 (Princeton 1985) 122141.

52 PRO CO 77 /12, f. 260v. Even if the Dutch did give the Japanese a 'sweetner’, and this is possible, it would have had no bearing whatsoever on the outcome.

53 IOR G/21/4, 110.

54 IOR E/3/88J.68.

55 CCM 1674–1676, xx–xxi; Pratt, History of Japan II, 192–193; Chaudhuri, Trading World of Asia, 216–217. In the statement of accounts for 1671–1678 the figure was revased to £ 40,000, but it was stressed that the expenditure was ‘not altogether fruitless’ for it had laid the foundation for a profitable trade (CCM 1677–1679, 340).

56 Records of Fort St. George, Despatches from England 1681–1686 (Madras 1916) 97. I n fact the era of high profits from Japan was over (Prakash, Dutch East India Company, 131–141).

57 Records of Fort St. George, Despatches from England 1686–1692 (Madras 1929) 175.

58 Despatches from England 1681–1686, 116.

59 Montunus, Arnoldus, Atlas Japannensis: being Remarkable Addresses by way of Embassy from the East Indies Company of the United Provinces to the Emperor of Japan, translated by John Ogilby (London 1670). Montanus published a similar Atlas Chinesis which was also translated by Ogilby and appeared in 1671.

60 IOR E/3/56 O[riginal] C]orrespondence] 6988.

61 IOR E/3/62 OC 5955.

62 IOR B/7, 348–349; William Foster, 'samuel Purchas’ in: Lynam cd., Richard Hakluyt, 56.

63 Lach, Asia in the Making of Europe I book one, 214; Stcelc, ‘From Hakluyt to Purchas’, 80–81; Crone and Skelton, ‘English Collections of Voyages and Travels’, 67. A concern to maintain business secrets is evident from 1615 (IORB/5, 468n. 34).

64 IOR Home Miscellaneous Series 722, 25.

65 Royal Society MS CP.19.42; Philosophical Transactions 109 (14 December 1674) 201, 205–206; Boyle, Robert, General heads for the Natural History of a Country great or small (London 1692) 92.

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‘The Loudest Lies’: Knowledge of Japan in Seventeenth-Century England

  • Derek Massarella (a1)


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