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“Southern Barbarians” on Japan’s Shores

In the 1540s, Portuguese and Spanish colonizers began establishing footholds in south and Southeast Asia. Commerce and conversion to Christianity were the tandem goals. The Japanese knew about ongoing colonization elsewhere and wanted no part of it. A century later, fearful of these Nanbanjin, or “southern barbarians,” the Japanese expelled all foreigners (besides the Dutch, who were interested solely in trade) from their borders.

In the meantime, Japanese artists had painted numerous six-fold screens depicting Iberian missionaries and merchants on Japan’s shores. Until recently, Westerners typically viewed these screens as iconic images of their own technologically remarkable contact with distant lands. Westerners also assumed that the scenes were based on first-person observation.

Recent research, however, suggests a more complex interpretation. Most scholars today assert that these panoramas are pastiches of a previously popular genre depicting Japanese ships. After all, these paintings weren’t created for Westerners; more likely, they were commissioned by owners of major Japanese trading houses or of the ships themselves. Scholars also suggest that the Iberians in the screens are based more on adaptations of Buddhist figures than on observation.

While an image of a ship might imply “adventure” or “exploration” to a Western viewer, it takes on different symbolism in Japan. The takarabune, or treasure ship, for example, transported the seven gods of good fortune, who arrived at the New Year to distribute blessings of prosperity—a visual echo of the treasures being loaded into the ships on the screens. Rather than images celebrating international encounter and the brilliance of European outreach, Japanese viewers may have seen these paintings simply as messages of bounty and blessings.

Above: detail, "Southern Barbarians" on Japan's Shores, Japan, Edo period, 17th century; one of a pair of six-panel folding screens; ink, color, and gold on paper; Purchase   F1965.22–23


“Southern Barbarians” on Japan’s Shores “Southern Barbarians” on Japan’s Shores