The Tale of the Lost Japonian Charter

Reginald Grünenberg
10 min readNov 25, 2023

Rethinking the History of Japan — Part I

The essays in this three-part series are offshoots of my Nippon Trilogy The Discovery of the East Pole, which covers the same topics in much more literary and appropriately dramatic detail.

The insights they contain are original and unprecedented. My ambition was to write a historical novel that rewrites history itself. By recounting real discoveries and debunking the myths of academic history through the medium of literature. Following Truman Capote, I call this new literary genre true historical fiction.

The history of nations is usually presented as a solid chain of causes and consequences. More generally, history as a reconstruction of events as they occurred is essentially an attempt to spirit away their real, inherent contingency. Sometimes, however, we stumble upon accounts of an event, a document, or a passage in a historical text, that undeniably opens the door to an alternative outcome, a juncture where history might have taken a different course over decades, centuries, or even millennia. This kind of potential history is a treasure trove for fiction writers because it gives them the freedom to craft the historical peripetia of their story at will. What if Nazi Germany had won the war in Europe or Hitler had died in 1936? Although neither scenario came close to realization, they have been a source of inspiration for writers and filmmakers. Let’s explore another hypothetical scenario, one on a seemingly smaller scale that feels more realistic: What if Japan had been opened peacefully by British merchants in the late 18th or early 19th century, rather than by American military force in 1854? To assess the likelihood of this alternative outcome, we need to identify a relevant event or document that encapsulates its potential. What might that have been?

The British merchant navy made numerous aggressive attempts to open Japanese ports during the late Edo period (1600–1863), as has been extensively documented. These efforts caused exasperation for the Japanese government and fear for its subjects.

Take, for example, Captain Pellew’s 1808 raid into Nagasaki Bay with the Phaeton disguised as a Dutch ship. The Napoleonic Wars had wiped the Netherlands off the maps of Europe, replacing it with the imposed, short-lived Batavian Republic. For more than a decade, the fan-shaped artificial island of Dejima, a virtual prison in the harbor of Nagasaki, heavily guarded by Japanese gatekeepers, was the last and only patch of ground where the Dutch flag was still flown. First, Pellew took hostage the Dutch delegates who had credulously boarded the ship. Then he demanded the surrender of the entire Dutch delegation and the island. The Dutch inhabitants of Dejima, after years of complete isolation from their homeland and surviving only on secret supplies of food from sympathetic Japanese natives, were in poor health and in terrible shape. But the brave Hendrik Doeff, head of their delegation and factory director, stood firm against this violation and appealed to the Japanese authorities for help. They immediately closed off the entire bay with all available vessels, from the sampan, small and fast rowing boats, to the huge, lumbering Chinese junks. In this situation, there was a risk that the Phaeton would be set on fire and burn down. Pellew had to give up.

View of the artificial island of Dejima and Nagasaki Bay, lithograph by Carl Hubert de Villeneuve, from Philipp Franz von Siebold’s principal work ‘Nippon’, 1832

He reached a face-saving compromise to have his supplies of food, water, and wood replenished. Then he had to withdraw from the shore. This event sent political shockwaves throughout the country to the bakufu, the military „tent government” of the shogun in Edo (now Tokyo), which had to face the evidence of its vulnerability. After all, the military dictatorship of the shogunate derived its legitimacy from the protection of the Empire of Japan against all foreign civilian or military forces, collectively referred to as „the barbarians”. The commissioner of the port of Nagasaki was forced to commit suicide along with seven of his subordinates. In anticipation of future incidents, a massive iron chain was laid secretly across the entire bay, just below the surface of the water.

This was neither the first nor the last time that British merchants attempted to break the iron grip of the Tokugawa’s sakoku policy of total isolation. By 1854, there had been a total of eight unsuccessful expeditions, some of them just as nasty as the one above. The Japanese government combined these experiences with information about British colonialism in China and India, leading to a terrible perception of the British as the most egregious of intruders. Was such a deterioration of British foreign policy toward Japan necessary? Japan was indeed a low priority for the Crown. It is also clear that the official attempts to open-up the country diplomatically for trade relations were lukewarm, at best. But there was a desire to make a breakthrough. The repeated failures of merchant naval powers, especially the East India Company, were a major blow to the Empire’s pride and could have inspired greater efforts.

In reality, the opening of Japan was within reach and could have been accomplished quickly. The accidental discovery of a stunning document in 1985 by Hayashi Nozomu and Izumi Tytler opened the door to an alternative history of foreign relations between Britain and Japan. It even had the potential to thwart the fabricated „opening of Japan“ by U.S. naval forces in 1854, which proved disastrous (more on this topic in the second part of my essay series, Rethinking the History of Japan). In 1990, Derek Massarella provided a detailed account of this find, calling it „one of the most interesting archival discoveries“ (The Japonian Charters. The English and Dutch Shuinjō, Monumenta Nipponica 2/1990, Vol. 45, pp. 189–205).

What kind of document could have changed centuries of history and the fate of the Japanese nation? Nozomu and Tytler discovered a well-preserved handscroll of thick creped Japanese paper in a long, narrow box at the Bodleian Library in Oxford. They experienced a mixture of amazement and disbelief as they perused it. The document clearly outlined the trading privileges that all Japanese authorities were to grant to the British East India Company. Signed by shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu himself in 1613, the document’s vermilion seal conferred immediate legal authority. It is one of the original two copies of the shuinjō 朱印状, the Japonian charter governing trade with England, that John Saris, commander of the Company’s Eighth Voyage, had received from Ieyasu. The privileges exceeded those previously granted to the Dutch in 1609 and were much greater than those Admiral Perry had extorted from the bakufu in the Treaty of Kanagawa in 1854.

Facsimile of the original shuinjō 朱印状 granting unequaled trading privileges to the British East India Company, signed by Tokugawa Ieyasu in 1613 (Credit: Bodleian Library)

These privileges were later restricted by the Japanese and neglected by the English, but they have never been revoked. How could they since they were granted by the deified founder of the dynasty! But why didn’t the British use this document in their various attempts to open up Japan in the first half of the 19th century? It is well known that neither the English authorities nor the trading companies were careful with legal documents. In this case, the British East India Company is to blame for being so careless as to inadvertently place the shuinjō in the section for Chinese documents because the librarians could not identify its contents as Japanese. So the answer to why Britain didn’t resume exercising the privileges it had been granted is simply that the Japonian charter was lost in the libraries and forgotten.

Could such a document really have influenced the course of history? Massarella is skeptical. He reminds us that after the English left Japan in 1623 due to commercial failure, a new English expedition was sent in 1671. Its leaders hoped to convince the bakufu with a translated and shortened transcript of the original shuinjō. The Japanese authorities, of course, were unimpressed. „Yet even had the English brought the original shuinjō with them […] they would still not have been readmitted to trade in Japan.”

Massarella argues that the Dutch, alarmed at the prospect of English competition, informed the Japanese that Charles II, King of England, was married to the Portuguese princess Catherine of Braganza, descendant of Japan’s Catholic archenemy in Europe. A little later, he mentions another earlier move by the Dutch to heal souring relations with the Japanese, the forced removal from Hirado to Dejima in 1641 and the severe restrictions that governed the delegation’s life on the island. To this end, they presented their own original shuinjō. „The Dutch hoped that a document bearing the revered Ieyasu’s seal would command the same respect and obedience as if it were his voice speaking from beyond the grave.” The attempt failed. Japanese officials „were genuinely impressed with the care that the Dutch had shown in preserving such a hallowed document […] but, while listening, they turned a deaf ear to the Dutch demands.”

Would it really have been the case that this unique document of a once living God would have been condemned to total powerlessness and insignificance in the face of history? I believe that this assessment is profoundly wrong. Massarella supported his argument by referring to the earliest period of Tokugawa rule. The first shoguns of this dynasty, especially Tokugawa Iemitsu (1623–1651), were absolute monarchs with extremely strong personalities. They would have had no problem, coming almost naturally to them, to challenge the written will of Ieyasu. How different in the late Edo period! It is inconceivable that the bakufu under the much weaker Ienari (1786–1837) or Ieyoshi (1837–1853) — the whole Tokugawa system of policed public order and absurd economic rules had become unpopular, bigoted, and outdated — would have treated an original shuinjō of Ieyasu’s as their early predecessors had.

Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543–1616)

But how does one prove this supposition, which stands in complete contradiction to Massarella’s conclusion? With an eyewitness account from someone whose expertise in the field is unquestioned. And who could that be? None other than Philipp Franz von Siebold, the German physician, explorer, “Humboldt of the East,” hero of my true historical fiction novel, and certainly one of the fathers of Japan’s own modernity.

Philipp Franz von Siebold, Portrait by his Japanese draughtsman Kawahara Keiga, 1826, from Siebold’s principal work ‘Nippon’, 1832

During his stay on Dejima between 1823 and 1830 in the service of the Dutch Ministry of Colonies, he established a small university and taught his Japanese students a wide range of the latest Western sciences. Many of these fifty or so people later laid the foundation for Japan’s modernization, which was based not on mathematics and physics as in Europe, but on medicine. Back in Europe, Siebold introduced Japan to European societies in many ways. Fully aware of the plans of some Western nations to open Japan by military force, he fought tirelessly for a peaceful opening of Japan. It was in this political atmosphere, in 1851, that the librarian Thomas Rundall showed him a facsimile of the 1616 translation of the shuinjō, which was kept in the library of the British Museum. Siebold, well aware of Britain’s previous aggressive attempts to open up Japan, was simply furious to see the golden opportunity so clearly documented that England had missed. In a lone and completely overlooked document of only 34 pages, written in German and published in 1854 at the author’s expense under a terribly obscure title, Siebold expressed his utter frustration with American and especially English aggression toward Japan. After enumerating England’s fruitless incursions and tentative invasions of Japan, and then pointing to the existence of an old Japonian charter, the original of which must be somewhere in England, he clearly stated:

“The Japanese government has become more suspicious than ever. For England, this dubious behavior is all the more prejudicial, as her subjects who traded with Japan in the years between 1613 and 1618 were favored with privileges similar to those of the Dutch by the same shogun, the deified Ieyasu, whose laws and edicts are irrevocable. Such ancient charters would make a deeper impression on the Japanese government and pave the way for a friendlier reception than a certain letter of recommendation in the Morning Chronicle (October 20, 1846), which tried to win over Japanese hearts and minds by emphasizing the English preponderance in the balance of world domination”.

Facsimile of the front page of Siebold’s forgotten 1854 essay Authentic Account of the Efforts of the Netherlands and Russia towards the Opening of Japan for Navigation and Trade for all Nations

Siebold was deeply convinced that the way Japan had been forced to end its seclusion was all wrong. And he was right. The arrival of Admiral Perry’s Black Ships marked the beginning of a tragic and disastrous aberration in Japanese history, leading to a complete militarization of society and a fatal imitation of the colonialist patterns learned from Europe and the U.S. From his early years in Nagasaki until his death in 1866, Siebold worked for the alternative solution, a progressive opening of the country through fair trade on equal terms and an exchange of culture and science. He failed dramatically in his time, but today we should give him credit for being above reproach with his liberal beliefs and cosmopolitan ideals.



Reginald Grünenberg

I am Reggie from Berlin/Germany. Here I write as a novelist, political scientist, philosopher, and astrophysicist.