No.122 A Witness to History
A photographic introduction to items from the collection
"Folding screen depicting the arrival in Japan of Nanban"
|"Folding screen depicting the arrival in Japan of Nanban"
gold on paper, a pair of six panel folding screens. Right-hand screen: 151.4 x 321.5 cm. Important Art Object
Many folding screens on the theme of the manners and customs of the Portuguese who came to Japan by ship were produced from the Momoyama period through to the Edo era. Since one major motif is the arrival in port of Nanban ships, such folding screens were also referred to as "pictures of the arrival of Nanban" and "pictures of the arrival in port of Nanban ships". Today such screens are generally called "Nanban screens". Classified in terms of the history of art, these screens come under the category of fuzokuga (genre pictures of manners and customs) from the early part of the Early Modern period, though it goes without saying that the themes of this genre are notable for not only their depiction of the manners and customs of Japanese people but also for their depiction of those of Westerners. The production of approximately 70 screens has been confirmed to date. Given that there are approximately 60 extant folding screens dating from the early part of the Early Modern era depicting views from Kyoto, we may conclude that among these fuzokuga from this period the Nanban screens are comparable to Kyoto screens in terms of popularity.
Nanban screens are generally classified into one of three categories. The first category, which accounts for approximately half their number, depicts in the left-hand screen a scene of a Nanban ship anchored at port with goods being unloaded from the ship, while depicted in the right-hand screen are a Christian church and Christian priests, opposite which there is a procession made up of the ship's captain, who also served as the governor of Macao, and others as well as Japanese onlookers who are watching these people with curiosity. In the second category, the scenes depicted in both screens belonging to this first category are contained in the right-hand screen, while the left-hand screen depicts a foreign port from which Nanban ships are departing. In the third category, scenes depicted in the second category are depicted in the right-hand screen, while the left-hand screen is composed of a scene depicting a building in a foreign country with Nanban people on a terrace.
|Left-hand screen of "Folding screen depicting the arrival in Japan of Nanban"|
The screen held in the museum's collection depicting the arrival of Nanban in Japan belongs to the first category, although its depiction of two Nanban ships arriving in port is extremely rare. Just as most of the main themes of fuzokuga dating from the early part of the Early Modern period were composed by painters from the Kano school who were accomplished painters, the involvement of the first-rate painters Kano Mitsunobu, Naizen and Sanraku in the origin of the categories of Nanban screens has been suggested. Although the artist who painted the screen held by the museum also remains unknown, judging from elements such as the stability of composition, sophisticated brushwork and high quality paints, it is thought that it was painted by a highly accomplished painter who had considerable training in Chinese painting. Recently, it has also been suggested that it was painted by Togaku, a disciple of Hasegawa Tohaku (Yamane Yuzo, "Nanban Screens of the Hasegawa School", "Kokka", No. 1258, 2000).
One point of interest when viewing Nanban screens is the glimpses it affords of the understanding that the Japanese at that time had of the West. The image of Westerners with their tall stature and large noses has carried through to the present day.The previously mentioned terms of "foreign ports" and "foreign buildings" in place of the use of "West" and "Western" is probably due to the inclusion of Chinese elements in the portrayal of Nanban manners and customs and architecture. In this screen too, the scene of the ship's captain sitting in front of a screen made of ink drawings follows the form of Chinese painters and the manners of foreign women gazing out at ships from a building at the edge of the port are also extremely Chinese in style.
It is interesting to note that the reason why the Nanban screens mentioned above became popular is thought to be because they were regarded as symbols that brought good fortune (engimono) in the same way as takara-bune (sailing ships carrying all sorts of treasures). This is borne out by the fact that many of the former owners of these screens were merchants from Sakai and the Japan Sea coast engaged in the shipping business. It is said that this screen also belonged to an old-established family that lived near the port of Mikuni in Echizen Province, which was a base of marine transport on the Japanese Sea. Even after Japan's period of isolation had put an end to Nanban trade, while the production of Nanban screens did decrease the fact that they did not disappear altogether is most probably attributable to the perception that they were good luck symbols and not because of any relation between their subject matter and Christianity.
Museum Science Department, National Museum of Japanese History