The Dutch East Indies Company vs. Sakoku: Background information when reading The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

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The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

A Novel

by David Mitchell

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell
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  • First Published:
    Jun 2010, 496 pages
    Paperback:
    Mar 2011, 512 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Amy Reading

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Beyond the Book:
The Dutch East Indies Company vs. Sakoku

Print Review

There are two nations with two utterly incommensurate notions of power at loggerheads with each other in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. On the one hand, the Netherlands is represented by the Dutch East Indies Company (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie or VOC in Dutch), a government-chartered company founded in 1602 to monopolize the Netherlands' trading in Asia. A chartered company allowed its shareholders to pool capital and dilute risk in order to embark on farflung missions. The VOC was the world's first multinational corporation and the first company to issue stock. Its rights far exceeded those of today's multinationals, because it was allowed to wage war, negotiate treaties, coin money, and establish colonies. The VOC, in other words, was the perfect embodiment of capitalism, fully formed and perfectly mobile. Its raison d'etre was exploration, the creation of new markets, and colonization.

On the other hand, Japan is symbolized by sakoku, literally "chained country," the Japanese foreign policy that made it illegal and punishable by death for foreigners to enter the country and Japanese citizens to leave it. Sakoku began in 1633 as a response to Spanish and Portuguese colonization of the New World. The Japanese empress who initiated the policy feared the encroachment of Catholicism, but soon it also became important to protect Japanese natural resources from depletion, and sakoku was continued for the way it slowed down trade. Sakoku persisted for the two centuries during which the other nations of the world knitted themselves together through commercial networks. Only in 1853, when Commodore Matthew Perry of the United States Navy threatened Tokyo with guns from the decks of his four warships, did Japan open its borders to international trade.

Dejima

Dejima and Nagasaki Bay, circa 1820 (click for larger image)

In the meantime, the VOC cracked open a small portal in sakoku on the curious site of Dejima, literally "protruding island," a miniscule artificial island in the Nagasaki bay at which VOC ships docked and unloaded their wares. The island housed about twenty permanent employees of the corporation, clerks and warehousemen as well as the ships' personnel while they were at anchor.

The only Japanese allowed on the island were the bureaucrats, inspectors, and translators who oversaw the Dutch, as well as select courtesans. Christian religious services were banned and spies reported every movement of every Westerner. The VOC's post was closed in 1857 and Dejima was eventually swallowed up in the expansion of the Nagasaki shoreline with reclaimed land, but the past two decades have witnessed a gradual restoration of its buildings and borders, with plans for its distinctive fan shape to once again be outlined in water.

This article was originally published in July 2010, and has been updated for the March 2011 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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