A tale of two islands: England, Japan and 400 years of shared history

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We gave them ships and woollen cloth, while their cultural exports still beguile us today, from sushi to manga. Next week it is 400 years since the first Englishman stepped ashore in Japan – marking the start of a beautiful friendship, writes Peter Popham.

Four hundred years ago this week, the ends of the earth met: England and Japan, destined to become the two wealthiest island nations the world has ever seen. Both stubborn, eccentric, monarchies, both rejoicing in the fact that they are entirely surrounded by water – which had saved them from the plundering, raping scourges that had turned their adjacent continents upside down century after century – with all the ceremony and protocol their protocol-conscious elites could summon, they met.

This year, that historic encounter is being marked in both countries by Japan400, a loose alliance of diplomats, journalists, academics and Japanophiles, and its programme of events that celebrate the culture each nation encountered, the treasures they exchanged, and documents that bring to life how the first Englishmen in Japan set about trying to trade there.

It was the English, of course, who covered the distance to get to Japan, rather than the other way around. The Japanese were stay-at-homes, like their vast neighbour, China. The English, those European laggards, who only a few years before got the travel bug that had previously bitten the Portuguese, the Spanish and the Dutch, were now storming around the world, making up for lost time.

But as the Japan400 events bring out, the cultural traffic is today very much in two directions. Japan makes its mark on London this summer in diverse ways: Yokof Ono directs this year's Meltdown Festival of music and ideas at the Southbank Centre; the diversity of contemporary Japanese visual art is indicated by a stunning exhibition of Japanese 'Outsider Art', at the Wellcome Collection in north London, created by residents and attendees of social welfare institutions across Japan; and the up-and-coming architect Sou Fujimoto will construct the summer pavilion at the Serpentine Gallery. His design both celebrates and fosters the spirit of discovery and mutual regard that, it is safe to say, now characterises the Anglo-Japanese relationship.

Four hundred years ago, the two countries were not always so open-minded: a gift of shunga, medieval Japanese erotic art, brought home by those first visitors, was publicly burnt by the scandalised English authorities after they docked. This summer, the British Museum is righting that wrong with a special exhibition of shunga.

The name of the ship that sailed into the harbour of Hirado, near Nagasaki, in the southernmost main island of Kyushu on 12 June 1613, said it all: Clove. The Indies, as Asia was then known, were all about the spice trade, the clove being the Holy Grail of the spices. The name of the ship was also the object of the journey. But the Governor of the East India Company had been side-tracked from that objective by a letter sent years before from Edo, the capital of the Japanese shogunate, by a singular Englishman, William Adams: the Kentish seaman who went on to become the first Western samurai and the inspiration for an epic feature film and a TV series.

Adams is undoubtedly the hero of this anniversary, the man without whom the encounter of the two nations would probably not have happened until much later. His remarkable life is celebrated in September at the annual William Adams Festival in his home town, Gillingham – last year it drew 10,000 people – while over in Japan, where he is known as Miura Anjin or 'the Pilot of the Miura Peninsula', his adoptive town, Ito, throws a party in his honour in August.

Adams, an expert ship-builder and navigator by trade, had survived a nightmarish journey around the world in a Dutch ship, and when they limped into Nagasaki in 1600, the only other Europeans present in Japan, who happened to be Portuguese Jesuits, said they were pirates and called on the Japanese to crucify them.

Fortunately for Adams, Japan's then ruler, the shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu, the greatest of his line, saw in the rotting wreckage of Adams's ship the seeds of the future, and in Adams, to whom he took a liking, the man who could sow them. Under Adams's instructions the Japanese built their first Western-style ship, and a great relationship was born. Adams rose ever higher in the shogun's favours. When he learnt that his countrymen had established a trading-station in Java, he got a letter to them. He sang the praises of his adoptive country in terms that could hardly be improved today:

"The people of this land of Japan," he wrote, "are good of nature, courteous above measure, and valiant in war…" He boasted how, thanks to him, the Dutch had obtained trading concessions "as the Spaniards and Portingals could never get in this 50 or 60 years in Japan," as a result of which "the Hollanders have here an Indies of money."

Yet Clove's appearance in Japan in May 1613 was a massive anti-climax and led practically nowhere. William Adams and Captain John Saris seem to have taken an instant dislike to each other. Adams had gone native, Saris complained, praising Japan so highly that "it isf generally thought amongst us that he is a naturalised Japaner": he wore kimono and carried two swords, declined to share the Englishmen's accommodation, and intimidated them by his fluency in Japanese. Clove had taken two years to reach Japan, but it was hardly worth the effort: Adams looked askance at the mouldy wool, the broadcloth, the Cornish tin and the cloves with which they had packed the holds. "Such things as he had brought," he wrote, "were not very vendible…" When it was all over, he declined Saris's offer of a passage home.

At the same time that Captain Saris was hacking his way round Madagascar, Yemen, Sumatra, Ceylon and Java to reach Japan, the East India Company was spreading its tentacles around the rest of the continent. By contrast, the Japan adventure went nowhere. Only three more ships made the endless journey; their merchandise was no more spellbinding to the Japanese than the Clove's had been. In 1923 the English factory was closed, anticipating by 20 years the turning-in of Japan.

That first encounter illuminates the curious nature of this long, though much-interrupted, relationship. The stuff the English brought to sell neither interested nor impressed the Japanese. The technology that brought them there, on the other hand – the design of the English ship – bowled them over. And thirdly, without the extraordinary relationship between Adams and Ieyasu, the English may never have been enticed to sail to Japan at all.

Two centuries passed during which the British built an Empire while Japan gave up the gun and had as little to do with the outside world as possible. But once Japan had been prised open by the American Commodore Perry and his Black Ships, another Briton arrived in the country who ended up playing an uncannily similar role to Adams.

An austere-looking Scot from Aberdeen with a handlebar moustache, Thomas Glover arrived in Nagasaki from China in 1859, in the thick of the uproar that accompanied Japan's decision to open its ports. Like Adams, he won the confidence of the local samurai, illegally supplying them with arms in their fight against the ailing Shogunate in Edo. He had backed the right horse, and after the Meiji Restoration of 1868, Glover, established in Japan's first ever Western-style house overlooking Nagasaki Bay (it is now a museum) became the single most important conduit of industrial technology into a country now hungrier for it than Ieyasu had ever been, racing to avoid being carved up by European powers like the rest of Asia.

Glover helped the Japanese acquire their first modern, Aberdeen- built warship, he imported Japan's first steam engine and track, established the first Japanese shipbuilding company and the first dry dock, the first modern coal mine and the first brewery, now called Kirin; the moustache on the beer's trademark dragon is said to be a homage to the founding father. His relationship with the Japanese woman who bore him the son he had long hoped for is often claimed to be the inspiration for Madame Butterfly.

Glover's enterprise – he died in Tokyo in 1911 – set the stage for that extraordinary period of almost 20 years in which Britain, the mature maritime empire and Japan, the budding Asian one, came closer than ever before or since; when the failed exporters of tin and broadloom cloth and the avid students of Western technology, saw each as a mirror of the other and hence as natural allies: both of them outriders, prickly in their estrangement from the continent yet eager to trade and, where possible,f to dominate. Britain was deeply involved in China and many other places, Japan was soon to occupy Korea, and both feared the consequences of the enmity of Russia and the US. The Anglo-Japanese Alliance of 1902 yoked them together for the first time, and gave Japan diplomatic cover for its stunning victory over Russia of 1905.

It is a largely forgotten interlude because what followed after the treaty's termination in 1921 was, for both powers, so cataclysmic: the Japanese stampede, post-Pearl Harbor, through South-East Asia, stripping Britain of its Asian empire right up to the gates of India, the fight back which saw British POWs put through hell and nearly every Japanese city reduced to ruins, with Thomas Glover's own city erased by an atom bomb.

But even those horrors could not destroy the strange affinity between countries so different and so far apart, the affinity first experienced by William Adams. Even as that nightmare approached a crescendo, another in this line of Orient-loving oddities gave voice – in the most extraordinary way – to what bound Britain and Japan together.

Reginald Horace Blyth was a vegetarian and a pacifist from Essex, imprisoned as a conscientious objector during the First World War, who fell under the spell of Japan when he moved to Korea in 1925 to teach English. He married a Japanese woman and moved from Korea to Japan in 1940, but his timing was atrocious: when Japan declared war, he was interned as an enemy alien, his large library was destroyed in an air raid, his efforts to acquire Japanese citizenship were rejected.

Unlike Adams and Glover, Blyth was not interested in teaching the Japanese the products of English ingenuity, but doing something that was almost the reverse, immersing himself in Japan's culture – the culture which had had such an impact in Britain during his youth, in the years of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance – and bringing it to life for his countrymen. While in Korea he had discovered Zen Buddhism and begun to practice meditation, now in the Japanese town of Kanazawa in 1941, where he worked as a school teacher as the war clouds loomed, he wrote his idiosyncratic masterpiece – a book which ransacked the Japanese and English classics to find what, in his view, they held in common: the intuitions and the wisdom voiced by both.

Long out of print and largely forgotten, Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics remains an extraordinary work. The late Robert Aitken, one of America's most influential Zen teachers, who got to know Blyth when they were both interned in Japan, wrote of it, "I suppose I read the book 10 or 11 times straight through. As soon as I finished it I would read it again. I had it almost memorised and could turn immediately to any particular passage… it set my life on the course I still maintain. I trace my orientation to culture – to literature, rhetoric, art and music – to that single book."

William Adams and Thomas Glover were resolutely practical, business-like Brits. Reginald Blyth was the other sort: a man who taught himself Spanish to read Don Quixote, Italian to read Dante, German to read Goethe and Russian to read Dostoevsky, who built an organ at the school where he taught in Japan on which to play his beloved Bach. But he was more than a crank. Like Adams and Glover, he was adopted by Japan's political leaders as a man with important things to offer; he was, for example, the present Emperor of Japan's English tutor. And his insistence that Japan's culture was not exotic but full of wisdom, is still moving today. In his enthusiastic way, Blyth forced extraneous poetic elements together rather like what happened inside the bomb that devastated Glover's town. The effect in the mind of Aitken – and many others since – was comparable:

"As Mrs [Elizabeth Barrett] Browning says in Aurora Leigh:
'The cygnet finds the water, but the man
Is born in ignorance of his element.'

"Dogen (1200-1253), founder of the Soto school of Zen Buddhism, expresses this more poetically:
'The water bird
Wanders here and there
Leaving no trace
Yet her path
She never forgets…'."

Blyth, immune to the fear and loathing that poisoned Anglo-Japanese relations for many years after Pearl Harbor, remained in Japan after the war and died in Tokyo in 1964, by which time yet another corner had been turned in the twisting story of relations between the two countries.

Brought down to earth by defeat – Blyth helped draft the declaration Emperor Hirohito made, informing his people that he was not divine but human – Japan re-invented itself with the diligence and aptitude shown by the students of both Adams and Glover.

But along with the transistor radios, tummy TVs, the Honda motorbikes and Datsun cars, all brought in vast quantities to the West in ships made by Mitsubishi, the firm Glover had helped set up, came the more evanescent, mystical message of Blyth, carried in his own books of haiku translations as well as in the works of his friend and teacher Daisetz Suzuki. A generation of American beat poets including Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder got their start from reading him. Who is to say, in the longest perspective, which will endure better?

Big in Japan How they see us now

By David McNeill in Tokyo

Two island nations with cobwebbed monarchies, lively pop cultures, a history of imperial bullying and reputations among their neighbours for being stuck-up, buttoned-down and sometimes a bit hard to like. Japan and Great Britain share lots in common, despite viewing each other as exotic, distant places with weird customs.

Japan may have copied Britain's navy and post office system, but in the 400 years after the arrival of the ship Clove in 1613, our influence has waned. Japan was long ago pulled into the orbit of America's enormous economy, and its political and military ties with Washington are deeper.

Perhaps for that reason, British cultural symbols in Japan have a frozen-in-amber feel. Ersatz pubs and shops trade in dog-eared Brit paraphernalia: Union Jacks, red phone boxes, bulldogs, poker-faced Queen's guards, Princess Diana, The Beatles.

Food

We might love sushi, but to the Japanese, British food is fish and chips and shepherd's pie, served almost exclusively in pubs. Baked beans and Brussels' sprouts have to be ordered on specialist websites for homesick expats. Some Japanese think the English still have high tea and cream scones in the afternoon. "To be honest, many Japanese people say British food isn't very good," says office worker Takashi Arita, with typical Japanese understatement. Scotch whisky, however, is a major passion among many Japanese.

Fashion

British fashion still punches above its weight in Japan, which has long looked to London for creative trends. Paul Smith is huge, with over 200 stores across the country, as is Burberry. Stella McCartney has just opened her second boutique in Tokyo and was mobbed like her Beatle dad Paul when she visited last week.

Manners

A cliché, perhaps, but the British are known in Japan for their good manners. Politeness, reserve and modesty are qualities associated with both cultures, and Japanese are always shocked when the image is challenged, notably during the 2002 World Cup by a TV-fuelled moral panic about the famously violent British football hooligan.

Business

British businesses have endured mixed fortunes in Japan. Some of the biggest (Boots, Tesco) have failed to crack this fragmented, hyper-crowded and competitive consumer market – bigger than Germany and France combined. But the niche or the quirky (handmade cosmetics company Lush, designer-wear firm Paul Smith) have done very well.

Celebrities

One way to gauge the rating system of foreign celebrities in Japan is to watch who comes over to make daft but lucrative advertisements. American stars invariably top the list. By contrast, the UK celebrity standing tends to be spotty: David Beckham, Orlando Bloom and Daniel Radcliffe, who has just signed on to make a Tokyo-set movie, lead the current pack.

Sport

Unsurprisingly, for most Japanese, British sport means football, a game Japan has only begun to really take seriously since the 2002 World Cup. Golf, the default game of executives, is out of reach for most. Rugby is played mainly by posh boys at universities. By far the most popular sport in Japan is – you guessed it – baseball. A query about cricket is likely to be met with a blank look.

Royals

Wartime Emperor Hirohito (pictured in British Army uniform, right) once went to London to meet King George V, who stunned the forbiddingly formal Japanese monarch by appearing in suspenders and slippers. It was the start of an unlikely bi-national love affair. Many Japanese know more about the British royals than they do about their own cloistered imperials, and depressed Princess Masako has often been compared to the tragically doomed Princess Diana.

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