Deshima Revived

This media-project about the tiny but fascinating peninsula of Deshima in Nagasaki, will be broadcasted as a documentary in two parts by Dutch National Radio in December 2016.

For two centuries, Deshima was the one and only door between Japan and the Western world. This narrow but significant connection was symbolised by the small bridge which connected the enclave with Nagasaki. Despite its modest physical dimensions, large amounts of important knowledge about the West and vice versa were exchanged over this bridge between 1641 and 1853. When the special relationship ended, Deshima lost its importance. Gradually its distinctive contours disappeared in the architecture of the growing city, but Deshima has never been forgotten by the citizens of Nagasaki.

Plans for the reconstruction of this place once inhabited by Dutch traders has started is 1951. The first fifty years were needed to acquire pieces of the former island. At the start of this century, the actual rebuilding of Deshima could finally make a start. In 2017 the reconstruction of the enclave will be finalized with the placement and inauguration of a new bridge, designed by a Belgian architect. The total costs of the restoration count up to 100 million euros, of which 10 million has been collected by the local people on their own initiative: a impressive sum for a city with hardly half a million citizens.

Dutch Japan-expert Prof. dr. Matthi Forrer regularly visits Nagasaki as advisor regarding the restoration of Deshima. While in Japan, Forrer often lectures about the history of this artificial island for considerable audiences. On these occasions, the Japanese – being proud of their heritage – often ask him if the facts about Deshima are also taught and alive in the Netherlands. They can hardly believe Forrer, when he tells them this is not the case at all.

Clearly, Deshima marks an important chapter in our shared history. In the Netherlands, it is also is a prime example of Dutch entrepreneurship. According to former Dutch prime-minister Peter Balkenende, this tiny artificial island illustrates the Dutch mentality of the old days. By saying so, he referred to the VOC – the Dutch East Indies Company. This made a lot of Dutch uneasy, who regard the VOC as a controversial company which was connected with slave trading. On the other hand: Deshima is undeniably part of Dutch legacy, and as a symbol and gateway much more important than just a former trading post of the VOC. The first lecture of Prof. dr. Forrer in Nagasaki was called: ‘Our Deshima’. By which he not only pointed at our mutual history, but also at growing Dutch awareness: ‘Deshima is a part of Dutch history, and nothing to be ashamed of’.

So what is the significance of this unique place? What does Deshima mean for the modern Japanese – living in a still relatively isolated country, and for the Dutch – half a globe away? Could Deshima develop into the bearer of new meaning and importance for both Japan and the Netherlands? Perhaps even as a powerful symbol of the importance of growing cooperation in this world, by nations opening their doors?

WEBSITE: Marten Minkema (NL)

Photo: Collection from the Historiographical Institute of the University of Tokyo