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[Kimono Style] The History of Nagasaki Celebrated on Beautiful Fabric

Kimono celebrating the history of Nagasaki, which maintained contact with the outside world during sakoku, continue to evoke a romance for the past.



An obi depicting Dejima, with the Dutch flag flying high. This hand painting on black satin obi was popular in the Taisho period. (© Sheila Cliffe)

The city of Nagasaki has a very interesting history. It is just about the only city in Japan that had continuous, officially recognized contact with other nations during sakoku, the Edo period of isolation. Portuguese galleons arrived in 1571, and having settled there, the Japanese saw opportunities for trade and contact and moved in, making the beginning of the trading settlement. Chinese traders also came to Nagasaki, so it has a long history of internationalism. 

However, the Portuguese were zealously trying to spread the Catholic religion, which the Tokugawa shogunate did not want to spread. The solution was to build a small island, the shape of a fan, to house the Portuguese. 

The island was called Dejima and was completed in 1636. The Portuguese were only permitted to trade for another three years. However, the Dutch East India Company, which arrived in 1609 and was trading at nearby Hirado, was moved into the now-empty Dejima island in 1641. The Dutch occupied the island for over 200 years. 

An obi depicting a galleon. This hand painting on black satin obi was popular in the Taisho period. (© Sheila Cliffe)
An obi depicting Dejima. (© Sheila Cliffe)

Cultural Exchange in Nagasaki

Nearby, in present-day Kannai Machi, a similar walled settlement was built for Chinese traders, who far outnumbered the Dutch. It was completed in 1689 and housed up to 2,000 people. The Japanese continued to trade with the Chinese throughout the period. They imported a lot of Chinese silk and silk thread for kimono, amongst other products. About 12 or 13 Dutchmen lived on Dejima and they lived a year at a time, and then left on one of the two ships per year that were permitted to land.

There was a lot of cultural exchange going on in Nagasaki. The dragon dance and the lantern festival are still continued today, as is a kind of kabuki performance with Dutch characters. The Dutch imported pottery, glass, textiles from India and Indonesia, and many books and modern utensils. There are records of them carrying San Tome, a fine cotton striped fabric from the trading port of St Thomas in India. This was carried to the Kanto region and was a popular fabric for everyday kimono. 

Obi depicting "nanbanjin", or foreigners from the south, which actually meant Europeans. (© Sheila Cliffe)
(© Sheila Cliffe)

Treaty Ports Open 

Later, Japan would import cotton threads from Manchester and continue the production of what came to be called Touzan, especially in the Kawagoe area. The Chinese brought medicine, silk, brushes, paintings, sugar, and minerals. They also exported silver, copper, abalone, sea cucumber, squid, and various seaweeds. Towards the end of the Edo period, Japan restricted the outflow of silver, and it also became self-sufficient in the production of silk. Trade with the Dutch was no longer very necessary or profitable. But it gave the Japanese a window into Western culture and was valuable for that reason.

At the end of the Edo period, everything changed. Five treaty ports were opened in 1861, allowing ships from Western nations to trade in Japan. Thomas Glover arrived in Nagasaki from Scotland via Shanghai as an agent of the British company Jardine, Matheson and Co in the autumn of 1859. He set up his own company in 1861 and worked tirelessly for the modernization of Japan. Although his presence in 1859 was technically illegal, as was some of his trade in weaponry and ships to various clans, Glover was a pioneer. Against all odds, he managed to set up the first large-scale dock at Kosuge, the Takashima mine, and the first steam railway in Japan to carry goods to the mine and dock. 

Europeans are depicted on this yuzen-dyed kimono. (© Sheila Cliffe )
A close-up of the kimono. (© Sheila Cliffe)

Thomas Glover and the Choshu Five

Several ships ordered from Aberdeen became the start of the Japanese navy and eventually, he sold the dock to Mitsubishi. The huge cantilever crane on the Mitsubishi dock was ordered from Aberdeen and is still in good working order. Glover was also instrumental in helping the Choshu Five escape Japan and go and study in London (leaving Japan was a capital offense) at the end of the Edo period. These five men go on to be key people in the new government and include Ito Hirobumi, who would go on to become prime minister four times. 

I knew that Glover was exporting silk and I was eager to ask the honorary director of The Glover Garden, Brian Burke-Gaffney about this trade. Unfortunately, Glover left very little documentation and no details about this business venture have been found.

Glover has, on almost no evidence, become cited as the source of the Madame Butterfly legend, perhaps because his Japanese wife Tsuru is seen in a photograph wearing a kimono with a butterfly crest. Such a crest is not uncommon. During the occupation, the American military used his house and it came to be known as Madame Butterfly House, perpetuating the myth. 

Statues of Madame Butterfly and Giacomo Puccini are in the garden of the property, the abandoned Butterfly and her son looking towards the horizon. Glover himself did not leave Japan. In his later years, he lived in Azabu, and he was influential in setting up Japan Brewery, which later became Kirin Beer. He was awarded the Order of the Rising Sun (second class) by the Meiji Emperor in 1908. This made him the most highly honored British citizen in Japan.

Thomas Blake Glover (1838 – 1911)
The Choshu Five

Nagasaki Portrayed Through Kimono

Tagawa Akemi, who runs a small antique and rental kimono shop in Nagasaki China town, Beppin Kimono, has collected kimono on several themes related to the history of Nagasaki. Most of them are from the early 20th Century, but they celebrate the international history of the city of Nagasaki. She also collects war-related imagery and modernist imagery on kimono.

The first one is a formal yuzen-dyed kimono depicting a ship in the bay, presumably Portuguese, and several figures on the shore, with a dog. They are wearing hats, lace collars, capes, and breeches. The design goes onto the inside of the kimono, showing that no expense was spared in making this piece. The accompanying obi has a view of Dejima painted on it, with the Dutch flag flying high. On the back of the obi is a large galleon. This hand painting on black satin obi was popular in the Taisho period.


Another obi, also yuzen-dyed, shows a galleon docked at Dejima. Some figures can be seen on the deck of the ship, and also in discussion on the Dejima side. The ships' cargoes were subject to strict customs inspection before they could land. A samurai guard can be seen standing with the European figures in Dejima. 

Motifs from the Past

One obi shows a ship from a later date. It appears to be an early steamship and the cargo is on the deck. This includes a tiger in a cage. The Dutch traders had to go to Edo regularly to present gifts to the shogun in order to be permitted to continue trading. It is known that they brought large animals: elephants, camels, buffalo, and horses. But there is no record of them having brought a tiger, so maybe this scene did not actually happen.

A kimono depicting a Chinese lady. (© Sheila Cliffe)
Dragons on a kimono. (© Sheila Cliffe)

A formal kimono depicts a Chinese lady or princess sitting by her writing desk, with an attendant who is bringing her tea. They wear voluminous gowns with large sleeves, but they are not kimono. The lady is surrounded by chrysanthemums. And in the distance, the blossoms of cherry or other trees can be seen as an impressionistic background. Dragons were also a popular Chinese-inspired motif and it appears on both kimono and obi. Chinese figures are finely embroidered and are seen with dragons on a blue satin ground. Peonies and bats are featured on another satin obi, which also shows Chinese designs seen on architecture and other items.

An obi depicting a tiger at Dejima. (©Sheila Cliffe)
An obi featuring peonies and bats. (© Sheila Cliffe)

The theme of nanbanjin, or foreigners from the south, which actually meant Europeans, continued to fascinate. It is still sometimes depicted on contemporary kimono or obi. The interesting shape of the clothing gives opportunities for decorative freedom and galleons on the sea evoke a romance that remains popular today.


Author: Sheila Cliffe

Read other columns on kimono by the author.

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