Spotlight: Dejima (Nagasaki)

It might seem hard to believe today, but Japan was once closed off to the world. Between the 1630s and 1868, the Tokugawa Shogunate essentially followed a closed-door policy – no one in, and no one out. Foreigners entering the country were strictly punished and even killed and Japanese who left were never permitted to return home on pain of death. Yet through it all, a tiny spit of an island in Nagasaki Harbor called Dejima provided Japan with its only link to the western world.

Dejima was once an outpost of the Portuguese, the first westerners to arrive in Japan. The Portuguese were both merchants and prostelytizing missionaries and their religious activities soon irritated the shogun enough to take drastic measures. An order was given to build a small island enclave in which to “contain” the Portuguese and their heretical Christian ideas. The creation of the island took so long, however, that in the interim, the shogun became so fed up that he expelled the Portuguese completely.

The Dutch, who had wisely kept their heads down through most of this, were now left as the sole Europeans allowed to stay in Japan. Still, free reign was not exactly permitted and by 1641, the Dutch East India Company had moved its factory to the harbor island. For the next 218 years, Dejima would be Japan’s only point of contact with the outside world.

A model of Dejima as it would have appeared several centuries ago

Nagasaki is currently in the process of restoring Dejima and visitors today can get a very clear picture of what this community might have looked like over 200 years ago. City trams stop right outside the steps that once led from Dejima’s door down to the harbor. The water is a good distance off these days, leaving the crescent-shaped island oddly landlocked. (There are grand plans to dig trenches around the site and make Dejima “float” again but that remains to be seen.) It makes the little enclave seem much more spacious than it actually is – I easily covered the entire community on foot from end to end in 7-8 minutes. Only 15 Dutchmen lived here permanently, though the numbers swelled when a ship came in. At that time, with special permission required from Japanese authorities to even set foot off the island, Dejima must have felt very tiny indeed.

You can visit the interiors of most of the buildings, from the storehouses to the quarters of the Chief Factor, the Dutch representative to Japan. Don’t miss the old garden patch, where the residents once grew European vegetables and grazed their small flock of livestock. The animals often ended up on the table on holidays, much to the curiosity of the vegetarian Japanese translators working on the island.

The restored streets of Dejima

Dejima lost its purpose when Japan opened its doors in the mid 1800s; after a harbor reclamation project in 1904, it was lost completely to Nagasaki’s urban sprawl. But thanks to the dedication of the Dejima Historic Site Renovation Council, future visitors might be able to see Dejima as it looked in the past. I highly recommend a visit to Dejima (and Nagasaki as a whole) if you’re in the neighborhood.

Nagasaki has a great website dedicated to Dejima – click here to explore more.

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