Dejima through the eyes of Kawahara Keiga

Kawahara Keiga
Dejima, Japan
32° 44′ 37″ N, 129° 52′ 23″ E

Kawahara Keiga offers through his paintings a glimpse of the mixed and circumscribed universe in Dejima. This island was the only entry point for Dutch ships to Japan during the Edo period.

A Japanese painter among foreigners

Kawahara Keiga (1786-1860) was a Japanese painter of the late Edo period. He is mainly known for his paintings of plants and landscapes in Edo, Kyoto and especially Nagasaki. Indeed, thanks to a special permission of the Emperor, Kawahara Keiga was allowed to paint in Dejima, as its oficial painter. Between 1811 and 1842 he documented the daily life of the Japanese and Dutch inhabitants and workers of this artificial island. If Keiga’s plant painting production is so important it is because he was commissioned between 1823 and 1829 to draw the Japanese fauna and flora by the botanist Philipp Franz Balthasar von Siebold. He commissioned him to draw the almost 1000 plants he cultivated in his small botanical garden on Dejima. Siebold, one of the few westerners who was able to get out of the Dejima perimeter, also allowed the introduction of Western medicine in Japan. Another westerner, Carl Hubert de Villeneuve, had a great influence on Kawahara Keiga. He came to study, draw and paint the Japanese fauna but took time to taught Keiga the fundamentals of Western painting techniques. These relations illustrate well the cultural exchanges which took place on this island.

The Dejima enclave

Kawahara Kaiga was at the heart of the restricted exchanges between foreigners and Japanese, an influence that can be felt in his paintings on wood and silk, and in his watercolors pencil drawing. It is only the special situation of the Dejima island that made this exchange possible.

Dejima (出島, “exit island”), located in Nagasaki Bay, is an integral part of Japan’s history and its place in the world. Built in 1634, the island illustrates the isolationist policy of the country which lasted until 1854. The isolationist policy began during the Edo Period with the expulsion of Christian missionaries and the limitation of the ports open to draggers (mainly westerners in fact). Diplomatic and commercial relations were thus extremely controlled and mainly concentrated on the island of Dejima, an outpost built on purpose. It was an enclave where the Portuguese (1624-1641), then mainly the Dutch (1641-1853) traded with the Japanese. During this period, westerners other than the Dutch of the Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie or VOC) were not allowed to trade with the Japanese archipelago. While the latter were not allowed to leave the artificial island on which they were settled. The island was 120 by 75 meters (9,000m²), controlled by the Dutch and only connected to the mainland by a bridge. When a ship arrived in the bay, it was systematically inspected, its sails were seized and religious books and weapons were confiscated. The island was provided with houses and sheds for sailors, official housing for Japanese officials and a number of interpreters financed by the VOC. All the foreigners where contained in this artificial tiny community. A mixed and very restricted place where Kawahara Keiga also evolved.

Dejima Deshima Kawahara KEiga Nagasaki

In this 1820 painting Keiga depicts the Nagasaki Bay with the arched island of Dejima on the left and some ships flying the Dutch flag.

Dejima Deshima Kawahara KEiga Nagasaki
Dejima Deshima Kawahara KEiga Nagasaki
Dejima Deshima Kawahara KEiga Nagasaki

A depiction of a party in the house of the Dutch chief of Dejima. It has been a custom for a long time to invite the Japanese interpreters and civil servants from Nagasaki to a dinner party on January 1st. 

Painting showing Philipp Franz von Siebold with a telescope, Dutch personnel and Siebolds Japanese wife Kusumoto Otaki with their baby-daughter Kusumoto Ine watching an incoming Dutch sailing ship at Dejima. The ship is towed by many stringed rowing boats.

Dutchmen with a servant, around 1820-1830

An imagined bird’s-eye view of Dejima’s layout and structures (copied from a woodblock print by Toshimaya Bunjiemon in 1780 and published in Isaac Titsingh’s Bijzonderheden over Japan (1824/25)


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