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A Sense of Distance - the historic link between Japan and South Africa

Posted by Marius Visser on

Fifteen hours by plane, fifteen thousand kilometres: There is a lot of water between South Africa and Japan.

For generations people from both countries have perceived each other as far removed in distance and psychology – and little has changed in the 21st Century.

There is very little precedent for focussed, active contact.

Very little precedent, but the little there was, came surprisingly early. In 1650, a trade administrator of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) named Jan van Riebeeck, who had visited Japan a few years earlier, suggested trading animal hides from South Africa with Japan.

One wonders if this suggestion lead to him being sent to establish a trading post at the Cape of Good Hope two years later, in 1652. It is, however, safe to say that the Japanese, at that time, must have already started planning their World Cup victory over South Africa in 2015.

When Van Riebeeck visited Japan, he went to the Dutch trading post in Nagasaki Bay, an artificial island called Dejima. From 1641 only Chinese and Dutch ships were allowed to come to Japan, and Nagasaki harbour was their only allowed port of entry.

Japanese officials watched the small island of Dejima at all times, to prevent unwanted incursions by foreigners onto Japanese soil.

Besides their official trade, the private VOC employees also did brisk trade in knowledge: They sold their personal books, eventually more than 10 000 of them.

These books became the basis for the radical scientific and industrial modernisation of Japan. It led directly to the Japanese concept of “Rangaku”, that today means “Western Knowledge”, but literally translates as “Dutch Learning”.

Jan van Riebeeck might also have sold a book or two during his time in Dejima, to which I say: You’re welcome, Japan. But at some point we might need it back.

Map of Dejima

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