Looking back at Hirado's heyday
Travelers to Nagasaki Prefecture have a lot to choose from when it comes to visiting historic sites. A short list would include the site of a Mongol invasion in the 1200s, trading posts of the 1500s and 1600s, and naval shipyards from the 1900s. European traders gravitated to what’s now Nagasaki Prefecture and it’s in Hirado that the Dutch, who became the only Europeans allowed to trade in Japan for two centuries, set up shop for the first time in the island nation.
Hirado’s heyday came with the first permanent Dutch trade outpost or “factory” in 1609 and went with the policy of national isolation and the moving of the Dutch to Dejima in 1641, but the little town has made the most of its past with rebuilt structures, monuments, memorials and the still standing Matsuura home.
Its success as a trade port had three elements: The Dutch and British merchants who opened their factories here, William Adams or Miura Anjin, the English samurai and advisor to the shogun who helped set up these trade agreements and the Matsuura clan who ruled Hirado and allowed it all to happen in their domain.
Though it’s the home of the first Dutch and British Japanese factories, the Dutch were not the city’s first brush with foreign commerce. The Matsuura clan, self-proclaimed descendants of Emperor Saga, began as pirates who operated from the island and preyed on Chinese and Korean ships, bringing in commerce the old fashion way during the 11th century. Hirado’s first European contact came with a visit by Portuguese merchants in 1550, which traded here for a time. The Matsuura clan tolerated their presence and allowed them to trade and their missionaries to preach, hoping that it would encourage greater outside trade.
Portuguese trade in Hirado ended after the Miyonomae Incident, which left several of their sailors dead and gave them a dislike for the local samurai. Besides, the Matsuura may have tolerated Catholics but the neighboring Omura clan became Catholic and it was in their domain they found a new harbor that fit their needs. Nagasaki welcomed its first Portuguese trade ships in 1571.
Despite the unpleasant episode, the Matsuura remained open to trade and this openness paid off with the establishment of the Dutch factory in 1609 and the English factory in 1613.
Of the trading companies, the one with longest history and most surviving artifacts and ruins is the Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (VOC) or Dutch East India Company. When their mission landed in Hirado they met with Matsuura Shigenobu, the “retired” head of the clan and his interpreter, Miura Anjin, the Englishman formerly known as William Adams.
The Dutch took to Hirado and even after the arrival of the English were seen favorably by Matsuura. Their compound grew and was a distinctly European feature to an otherwise normal Japanese town. Unlike their later tenure in prison-like Dejima, they and the other foreigners were free to enjoy Hirado as they would have enjoyed their own homelands and interacted with the locals who became accustomed to living alongside exotic strangers and even marrying them.
In honor of this, and also possibly to maintain the old Matsuura-Omura rivalry, Hirado rebuilt the largest of the VOC warehouses in 2009, a few years after Nagasaki decided to recreate old Dejima. The original warehouse was built in 1639, during the twilight of the VOC’s presence in Hirado. A solid stone structure with a strong wooden frame, the original storehouse had one fatal flaw- its Christian year of construction was inscribed on the building and that provided the shogun justification to order it be torn down just one year after its construction. This was shortly before the entire VOC factory was shut down and operations forcibly moved to Nagasaki’s man-made island of Dejima, where the foreign taint could be entirely controlled yet still allow Japan a small peephole to the outside world.
Following on the trend of reconstruction using original materials and methods seen in the newer rebuilt castles, the warehouse is built on the site of the original and like the original, complete with a wooden frame, but with some updates for modern safety standards. Otherwise, it’s a typical Dutch warehouse of the same kind of could see in Dutch trading posts all over the world which is an aspect that appeals to me.
The warehouse is named “Hirado Dutch Trading Post” and the museum inside tells the Dutch trade story. There are also lots of artifacts, art and replicas for pieces that do not have. The written narrative is in English as well as Japanese. The museum is small, but it’s creatively put together and tells its story well in an easy to follow narrative. While the rebuilt Dejima has far, far more to see, I think this museum does a better job of the VOC presence here than Dejima does.
Heading away from the water and up the hill can be done walking the original steps along the still standing Dutch wall. This wall separated the trading post from the rest of the town and especially their other foreign counterparts. Made of sandstone, basalt and plaster, the wall and stairs are in good shape and lead up the hill where the rest of the compound used to be, before the path gives way to Sakikata Park, which houses the grave of Miura Anjin as well as a memorial to St. Francis Xavier, the Jesuit who brought Catholicism to Japan in 1549 and had visited Hirado. In May, visitors can attend a memorial service that is held for Anjin near the anniversary of his death.
One of the sadder stories from this whole drama is that of the Hirado women who loved these foreign men. When Hirado was closed and the Dutch sent to Dejima, 32 Japanese wives and mixed-heritage children of European traders were banished to the VOC outpost in Jagatara (Jakarta) and never allowed to return. It wasn’t until 1660 they were allowed to send letters home. Some of these letters are on display at the Hirado Dutch Trading Post and there is a memorial to the “Jagatara Girls” on the waterfront.
Unlike the Dutch and the rebuilt warehouse there are no remains of the other company in town, the British East India Company. There are however markers denoting where their trading post stood, where William Adams lived and another memorial to the company, which I ran down like a game of stone marker Pokemon because you gotta catch ‘em all. I recommend getting a city map in English from the tourism center or castle to do this and find all the little spots of interest in old downtown Hirado.
Doing this scavenger hunt, along with seeing the still standing sites, helps give one some perspective on the size of Hirado in the 1600s as nothing is that far apart. The Matsuura lived on the hill just over their domain and the factories were on their separate sides of town, all of which is hemmed in by the hills surrounding Hirado making it all feel rather cozy.
The British East India Company first approached Japan hoping to find a new export market for English woolen goods. Their ship, Clove, arrived in Hirado in 1613 to a warm welcome. Miura Anjin was on hand to inform them that trade required a trip to Edo so as to obtain permission from the shogun. This trip brought the English into contact with Japan’s post roads, bustling cities and temples. After this trip the Englishmen sent back a suit of armor, now on display in the Tower of London, as a gift from shogun Tokugawa Hidetada to King James I as well as letters describing this wondrous civilization. This led the Scottish king of England to declare them the “loudest lies I have ever seen.”
The British and Dutch peacefully co-existed for several years in Hirado until 1618, when the Dutch brought a captured English ship, and English prisoners, to Hirado. Things worsened until 1620 when the Dutch attacked the English factory after Anjin rescued a few prisoners from the Dutch. The attacks were stopped by Matsuura troops that were ordered to protect the English.
Soon after the British and Dutch came to an agreement, the companies set aside their differences, became close and celebrated their new found ‘not being enemies-ness again’ the traditional Hirado way, by engaging in piracy together against the Chinese. They brought back silks they’d plundered from Chinese vessels on the route from Manila to China to Hirado.
The alliance didn’t last long after Miura Anjin’s death later that year, so bad neighbors combined with few ship visits and scarce trade, the Englishmen discovered belatedly that attempting to sell a product they themselves refused to wear wasn’t a great marketing tactic, found Japan to be not worth the effort and closed their factory in 1623.
The period of occupation was short, but it did have one long term effect on the English language. In 1615, a company representative in Hirado wrote to their representative in Portuguese Macao for a pot of the ‘best sort of chaw [cha] in Meaco [Macao].’ The company employees and sailors were drinking tea regularly in Hirado almost a half-century before it became fashionable in their homeland. For their part, the English also introduced the sweet potato to Japan.
All of this trade was made possible in part because of William Adams/Miura Anjin. He came to Japan a ship’s navigator, but died in Hirado as a samurai.
He was born in Gillingham, England in 1564 and in his early years as a mariner served in the Royal Navy during the Anglo-Spanish War under Sir Francis Drake, who was also famous as an explorer and adventurer. He began working for VOC in 1598 and took part in an expedition that spanned four continents, ultimately ending in Japan.
The expedition started with five ships, but after nineteen months and a horrifically arduous Pacific crossing only one ship remained. The Liefde, which Adams navigated to Japan despite the inadequate charts, made landfall at Kyushu’s Oita Prefecture in 1600. The ship was picked over for useful bits by the local daimyo’s men before Liefde and her starving and sick surviving crew was sent to Osaka Castle to met Tokugawa Ieyasu, the man who would soon be shogun and rule all of Japan. Adams impressed Tokugawa, who eventually made him a samurai with the name Miura Anjin. If any of this sounds familiar, it’s because James Clavell modeled his “Shogun” protagonist on Adams.
His contributions to Japan include the construction of the first Western-style sailing ship, teaching Tokugawa Ieyasu Western mathematics and geometry as well as translating and advising him in foreign trade matters concerning Europeans. He was involved in the opening of both the English and Dutch factories at Hirado as well as the expulsion of the Spanish. He also organized and participated in Japanese trade missions in the East Indies and Southeast Asia.
The price of his success was that he was forbidden to ever return home, where he had a wife and two children, though after the beginning of regular trade with the East India Company he was able to send money to support them. Essentially that was the end of the Englishman William Adams. The samurai Miura Anjin spoke Japanese and observed the nation’s dress and customs, was the lord of a fiefdom on the Miura Peninsula (modern Yokosuka) and had a Japanese wife. He died of illness at Hirado in 1620.
Adams played a visible role in facilitating foreign trade here but there’s another party that needs a lot of credit for hosting the red-haired barbarians and that’s the Matsuura clan.
The Matsuura are interesting in part because of their “samurai of the sea” origins and also because they ruled here for centuries. They were never the most powerful clan but at the same time they were never wiped out or lost control of their territory, which spanned from Hirado to what’s now Sasebo. Even supporting the losing side in the Battle of Sekigahara, which decided who would rule over all of Japan, they managed to not be replaced by another family. They outlasted all of their overlords, the shoguns until the end of shoguns, daimyo and feudal Japan itself.
Because of this there is a straight line of continuity here and the Matsuura mansion, built in 1893 but in the traditional style that one saw during the days of the British and Dutch, is home to the Matsuura Historical Museum. It’s collection of artifacts and art stands out from other museums because the collection is personal, it all belonged to the same family which passed them down over generations. Sadly I could only appreciate the quality and appearance of the displayed heirlooms as very little was in English.
Lords like to look down on their domains so the home is on the same set of hills as Sakikata Park and the high location feels right for the picturesque manor, especially when visiting the garden and thatch-roof traditional teahouse. For a small fee I sat quite painfully on my knees and took tea the proper way. It’s a simple tea ceremony and the peaceful setting in the house amidst the garden was most pleasant. After tea, the lady who served it took me on a tour around the small tea house, showing off the 1893 structure’s traditional construction.
The most visible sign of Matsuura authority is the castle on the hill across the bay from Hirado. Hirado or Kameoka Castle sits on a high point where it both looks out to sea like a protective bulwark against attack but also a reminder to the town below who owned them. The original was built in 1704 on the site of an earlier castle that Matsuura Shigenobu, who had supported the losing side at the end of the Warring State period, burned down in 1613 as a show of loyalty to Tokugawa Ieyasu. Tokugawa let the Matsuura keep Hirado Domain, which they controlled from the 1100s until the abolition of the han system in 1871.
The original castle was mostly dismantled around that time. The current castle is a steel-reinforced concrete replica that was built in 1962. It’s rather small, but the little donjon overlooking the sea has a complete set of defensive walls including rebuilt towers. The showiest parts are replicas, but the stone walls, a gate and a tower are original from the 1704 castle.
As far as castles go, it’s about average for rebuilt 1960s replicas and the museum inside is an annex to the Matsuura museum in Hirado proper. Replica building, but original armor and weapons makes it worth the visit. The collection is nice because a lot of it is composed of family heirlooms, things the Matsuuras owned and cared for over generations. Sets of familial armor are displayed alongside swords and guns from the days of daimyo and shoguns. There are other non-military artifacts but I’m a guy and they had me at guns and armor. One of the best and rarest artifacts is a sword with a ring in the pommel, the Kanto-no-Tachi, which is roughly 1500 years old and is believed to have been used in a Korean invasion. Made in the Asuka period, its odd design with the ring pommel, straight water buffalo horn hand guard and almost straight blade make it different than almost any Japanese swords one sees on display in museums.
For those not interested in samurai or other cool things, the trip to the castle is worth it for the view of Hirado from the top floor. Looking over the daimyo’s domain of hills, sea and islands, it’s a poignant place to end a trip to this historic island.
It looks daunting but the trip up from town to castle isn’t that bad and is a short walk. I recommend going over the stone “Dutch Bridge” which was erected in 1702, well after the Dutch left, but made in their style.
I hope you enjoy visiting Hirado and can appreciate what you see, no matter how big or small. The history shared here may not be perfect, I’ve discovered I can read about the same event in three different sources and get three different versions that don’t perfectly line up with each other, so I have done the best I can to give an honest account with the sources I’ve had to work with.
Getting to Hirado from Sasebo via train can be accomplished by riding the Matsuura Railway from Sasebo to Tabirahiradoguchi. This is NOT a JR line train so the entrance to Matsuura Railway is up the stairs beside the Raffine Spa inside Sasebo station. Matsuura is a local train and take 90 minutes to reach Tabirahiradoguchi. Once there a bus or taxi can be taken to Hirado itself, I recommend asking the driver to take you to Hirado-jo (Hirado Castle) or the Hirado tourism information center on the waterfront if you want to start your Hirado tour with the Dutch ruins and warehouse and work back to the castle.
David Krigbaum is a U.S. Navy mass communication specialist assigned to Commander U.S. Fleet Activities Sasebo Public Affairs. He enjoys travelling to see historic sites and World War II artifacts.
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