The West’s first contact with Japan

With Marco Polo’s arrival in China, the West received very superficial information about the existence of an island with unknown treasures that Kublai Khan later tried to conquer, an unsuccessful undertaking since his ship was destroyed by a strong windstorm: this fact is which gave rise to the expression “kamizake”. More than a century later, in the 16th century, recent sea trade routes allowed the first Westerners to reach Japan and Europe was stunned to discover that that civilization, existing for more than fifteen hundred years, had a culture totally unlike anything else. which until then was known.

Source: The book of Ser Marco Polo – the Venetian concerning the kingdoms and marvels of the East (1903). Internet Archive Book Images, 2021.

This was because Japan is an island and, due to its geographical location, it was almost untouched during all that time, although its history spans two thousand years of achievements and transformations. As the few cultural and technological influences suffered by the country came from eastern nations, its local beliefs and habits evolved into very particular cultural manifestations.

The first contacts of the West (specifically with Portugal and Holland) with Japan took place during only a century. At the beginning of the 17th century, with the advent of the shogunate (governor authorized by the emperor to govern) Tokugawa, the archipelago was culturally isolated until the second half of the 19th century, when Westerners were expelled from Japan.

Source: This is a topography and bathymetry map of the Japanese archipelago with outlined islands. It shows the land and the seabed of Japan. All significant Japanese owned and controlled islands are outlined with a solid line such as Minami-Tori-Shima, Okinotorishima, Yonaguni and the Senkaku islands. The northern territories (kuril islands) and Takeshima have a dashed line. Credit: Reto Stöckli, NASA Earth Observatory

However, it did not take long for Western contacts with Japan to be recovered, streamlined by faster exchange of information, which facilitated culture shock, although this flow of information has not remained constant over the last century and a half. As Japan allied itself with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy during World War II, several countries cut their diplomatic relations with that country and once again Japanese culture was confined. But when peace was restored, Japanese culture again became a source of curiosity and fascination.

Source: Eikan-dō Zenrin-ji is the head temple for the Seizan branch of Japan’s Jōdo-shū (Pure Land) Buddhist sect, located in Kyoto. It is famous for its fall foliage and for its prominence in the past as a center of learning. Martin Falbisoner, 2021.

Thus, the imagination about Japan is very large because its beliefs and cultural manifestations are very particular, in a country full of traditions with deep cultural differences from Western countries. With a rich history and strong traditions, whose culture is based on respect, this made the Japanese one of the best educated people in the world and the country generated a unique complex of arts, traditions, craft techniques, shows, music, of a unique cuisine and even an internationally respected fashion. Faced with so many attractions, this post is justified, since the Japanese cultural and artistic manifestations raise curiosity and the desire to know more deeply about the culture of its elite and its people due to the strong traditions respected there.

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