Spotlight: Dutch Trading Post (Hirado)

If you’re familiar with Japanese history, you might know that Japan was essentially a closed nation from the early 1600s until the mid-1850s. The only contact with the outside world was through the Dutch trading post on the fan-shaped island of Dejima in Nagasaki Harbor.

What most people don’t realize, however, is that Dejima wasn’t the first European foothold in Japan. Before the Tokugawa shogun became all paranoid and isolationist, most European trade was conducted through the relatively open port of Hirado, located on an island just off the northwestern edge of Nagasaki Prefecture. The first ship – a Portuguese galleon – arrived offshore there in 1550 and by the early 1600s, both the Dutch and the British had set up trading posts in the town.

Hirado Harbor as viewed from the town's castle
Hirado Harbor as viewed from the town’s castle

Not much remains of the original buildings, but a fantastic recreation of the Dutch warehouse has recently been opened to the public. Unlike some museums in Japan, the English information on the exhibits here is superb. I pored over exhibits like a 1669 Dutch atlas of Japan, old figureheads that used to grace Dutch sailing ships and faded cloth letters once written by Japanese wives and children of foreign merchants after their own government expelled them to Batavia (present day Jakarta, and the capital of the Dutch East India Company in Asia). There are even a number of examples of Dutch porcelain that were used on the tables of the Hirado Dutch community.

Part of the reconstructed Dutch Trading Post
Part of the reconstructed Dutch Trading Post

The restored Dutch trading post stands at the mouth of Hirado harbor, within easy walking distance of downtown Hirado and other sights like the Dutch wall, Dutch well and the street of statues erected to commemorate Hirado’s celebrated foreign and Japanese residents. There’s even a castle nearby. Hirado is a small town and not really convenient to any other tourist towns in Nagasaki. However, if you have any interest in Japan’s early trading history with Europe, this is a worthwhile detour.

The city of Hirado provides an excellent English language website on the Dutch trading post and other sights.

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