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The Merchant's Ark: Live Animal Gifts in Early Modern Dutch-Japanese Relations

Martha Chaiklin


     In 1594, the Kingdom of Korea sent the leader of a newly unified Japan, Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536–1598) the gift of a live tiger.1 The big cat was part of an attempt to open negotiations for peace after Japan's attack on Korea the previous year.2 Tigers were extinct in Japan well before the end of the Jōmon period (ca.13000 BCE to 300 BCE) but they had great cultural symbolism in part derived from Buddhism and other cultural transferences from the Asian mainland.3 Tigers and their pelts were highly valued by the warrior elite of Japan, who draped them over their armor because they represented ferocity and safe return from a perilous undertaking.4 General Katō Kiyomasa (1562–1611) was famous for hunting them with a spear during the invasion of Korea. This hobby has been amplified in the historical record in part because it demonstrated his courage and skill in battle on another plane. A live tiger extended and amplified the symbolic capital provided by a pelt. It was a valuable offering. [Figure 1]

Figure 1

Figure 1: Satō Masakiyo chosen ni ei mei o kagayakasu zu [Satō Masakiyo Conquers Korea] attributed to Utagawa Yoshitaka. 1874. Collection of the Library of Congress. Government censorship prevented dramatizations of political figures, so in kabuki plays, Katō Kiyomasa was referred to as Satō Masakiyo.


     The bestowal of gifts to smooth diplomatic negotiations, from ruler to ruler, and between envoy and ruler, was a common practice in most parts of the world until well into the nineteenth century. Even today, gifts between states are still common, although generally less personal. For example, the royal family of Thailand has made generous donations of musical instruments, traditional basketry, embroideries and Buddhist manuscripts to the Smithsonian and the Library of Congress.5

     In pre-modern times, both in the East and the West, animals were an integral part of this international exchange. Animal gifts were desirable because historically human relationships with animals were based in power and dominance, and it therefore is reasonable that this meaning should be transferred to the power and dominance relationships between states. Thus, Manuel I of Portugal sent a white elephant to Pope Leo X in 1516, or Louis XVI of France was sent eagles from the Governor of Kamchatka in 1787.6 Today this is often called "panda diplomacy" because China has so often used pandas to facilitate political relationships. Animal gifts appealed to rulers because the maintenance of wild, dangerous, and exotic animals was a concrete expression of their wealth, their authority and the reach of their power. They could take symbolic capital from the control of wild animals and concretely demonstrate it in the menageries they kept.

     For example, Korea, which was struggling against Japanese invasion in 1594, presented a desirable and symbolically loaded animal to please Hideyoshi and thus gain better terms for peace. In Korean myth, the tiger was terrifying but also had negative connotations as weak and deceitful, because in the Korean creation myth it had failed to maintain a fast of garlic and mugwort in its quest to become human. The gift was therefore loaded with different cultural meanings for the giver and the receiver.

     Although not the first animal gift to arrive in Japan, which will be the focus of the exchanges in this study, Korea's big cat set the tone for diplomacy during the first part of the early modern period, in which a greater variety of animals were brought with greater frequency than had ever occurred in the past. The increase in gifts of fauna was directly related to European, especially Dutch, expansion into Asia. The vast trading network of the Dutch East India Company stretched around the world. It provided access to animals and ensured regular visits to Japan. Although riskier and generally more labor intensive to transport than most gifts, shared perceptions of symbolic capital encouraged the selection of animals as gifts.

Ancient Practices in Japan

     In the broadest sense, gift-giving as a way to define and confirm social and political ties, which while no means unique to Japan, could nonetheless be called a defining element of Japanese society, based on the most ancient social and religious practices. Even today, offerings of sake and food are an important part of Shinto ritual. Offerings to gods are in essence one form of gift diplomacy, one that is transmuted and reflected in every day exchanges. In fact, according to William George Aston:

The outward signs of reverence are almost exclusively in the first place acts of reverence towards men. A man bows his head or makes presents to his superiors before he worships or sacrifices to a deity.7

     In other words rituals to create good relations with the gods evolved into a complex system of gift giving practiced on all levels of both private and public life to maintain good social relationships. At the pinnacle was the Imperial House, who, as direct descendents of the gods, was responsible for a number of rituals involving offerings and gifts. Many of these imperial rituals included animals. For example, in very ancient times, live horses were used in purification ceremonies performed by the emperor, which were donated for this purpose.8 This is most likely also the reason they were donated to Shinto shrines, a practice that has now been replaced with pictures on wooden tablets (ema). The live horses were not used in sacrifice, but maintained on shrine grounds.

     As a result of their importance in Japan and the greater cultural symbolism they embodied, gifts of live animals as part of diplomatic exchange in Japan go back almost as far as the written record. The Nihongi (Chronicles of Japan, 720) records a mission sent to the Korean kingdom of Paekche in 553 A.C. with gifts of " two good horses, two traveling barges, fifty bows, fifty sets of arrows and an Imperial message."9 The Nihongi is also peppered with references to live animal gifts from Chinese and Korean envoys, including peacocks, parrots, sheep, water buffalo, camels, magpies, roosters, white deer and white pheasants. Many of these gifts had an added auspicious symbolic meaning, especially the white deer and white pheasants. Records of what happened to these animals do not exist, but, although in very ancient times animal sacrifice seems to have occurred, this practice had died out well before recorded history.10 It is therefore likely that they were kept on palace, temple, or shrine grounds, as there are many later records of this practice. For example, John Saris, who was charged with negotiating permission for British trade in 1613, saw Hideyoshi's horse fifteen years after his death. It was being, " kept neare unto this hotoqui [hotoke or buddha], never having been ridden since, his hooves being extraordinarily grown with his age."11

Warrior Rule

     With the establishment of the Kamakura shogunate (1185–1333), there was an expansion of gift giving throughout the whole of Japanese society because rituals that had supported the Imperial throne were reproduced within the shogunate. The Edo period shogunate (1603–1868) was more centralized than earlier structures of warrior rule but it also reached a much larger geographical era. Established after a hundred years of internecine warfare, the resulting peace was a loose confederation based on loyalty to the Tokugawa shogun, who seized power after the death of Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Gift exchanges were therefore an expression of this loyalty, or at least an acceptance of the established order. Therefore, in some respects, early modern Japan could be interpreted as not one country, but as a series of allied states. The bonds between each of the han (domain) and between the han and the shogunate were much looser and weaker than those of, for instance, the state and federal government in the United States. This quasi-feudalistic structure demanded complex social ritual to ensure and improve the ties of loyalty. These ritualized actions were a form of diplomacy in a social structure with feudal trappings. Therefore, in addition to the rituals of the Imperial house, a new set of obligations was also incurred among members of the warrior class.

      To demonstrate loyalty and establish their place in the ruling hierarchy, a daimyo12 was expected to provide gifts for each season not only to the shogun, but also to numerous other officials in the shogunal government, the cadet houses (who had direct ties to the shogun), and other members of the power structure.13 There is much yet to be explored about these practices, but it can be generally stated that a portion of these gifts consisted of local specialties; so the Usuki clan in Kyushu might provide mandarin oranges (mikan), while the Matsumae clan in Ezo (Hokkaido) might provide hawks. Gifts of live fish, ducks and the like were intended for eventual consumption, and therefore are not significantly different from the gifts of consumables that were given between all classes as symbols of lateral and vertical relationships. The exchange of almost any other kind of live animal gift was almost exclusively an elite practice because this kind of gift was a luxury, not only in terms of the expense for the giver, but also because it required an ongoing expenditure from the recipient, like the proverbial white elephant, regardless of the species of the gift.

International Exchange

     The formation of a unified Japan in 1590 after a hundred years of civil war meant that foreign nations had to reestablish diplomatic relationships in the new power structure. Until then, relationships with local warlords had been sufficient to permit international trade. It was equally important for Hideyoshi and his successor, Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543–1616), to establish the legitimacy of their own rule both domestically and internationally through formal diplomatic ties.14 In East Asia, the Chinese tributary pattern predominated diplomatic interaction. Unlike modern diplomatic exchange where there is a presumption, at least superficially, of negotiation between equals, under the Chinese system there was only one ruler, the Chinese emperor. Other nations brought gifts, or tribute, in recognition of this, and as a result were entitled to trade with China. Japan participated in this system in varying degrees, refusing at some junctures and participating for political expediency at others. While gift traditions were indigenous, in the diplomatic realm they were also modeled in part on these Chinese traditions that required the establishment of a hierarchy.

     Many nations sent gifts, including a variety of animals, to establish, reestablish or ease diplomatic relations with the newly unified Japan. For example, in 1597 a ship from Luzon brought a "fine Spanish horse, richly caparisoned" and an elephant named Don Pedro as gifts from the Spanish governor Don Luis de Navarrete Fajardo. The elephant had been trained to trumpet on command. Hideyoshi, apparently pleased by the gift, fed the animal melons and peaches.15 Similarly, in 1608 Cambodia sent two peacocks, and in 1610 the state of Annam (in what is now central Vietnam) sent a peacock and a parrot to present to the new shogun.16 The need to legitimatize shogunal rule meant that on an official level, live animal gifts took on an even greater symbolic importance because they represented not only an acceptance of the new government, but were specifically tied to the power and dominance a new military government craved.

     When the Portuguese first reached Japan in 1543, modern forms of diplomacy in Europe were still rudimentary. Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527), often considered the father of political theory, for example, considered the best diplomacy to be that of a strong army. In his view, negotiation was merely a way to avoid overextending military resources.17 Moreover, because the first Europeans in Japan were not diplomats, but mercenaries, missionaries, or merchants, they generally adapted to Asian diplomatic practice.18 Attempts to operate outside this protocol were not very successful. Most of the members of the Portuguese embassy sent from Macao in 1640 to negotiate a reinstatement of trading privileges were executed. Future attempts were not as violent but no more successful. Nikolai Rezanov, heading an embassy from Russia in 1804, for example, was kept isolated on an isthmus for six months before being sent on his way without ever even succeeding in obtaining an audience with the shogun or any officials outside of Nagasaki.

Dutch Status in Early Modern Japan

     The Dutch were late in coming to Japan: by the time the first United Dutch East India Company ship had arrived in 1609, the Portuguese had already been there for more than a half century and the Spanish for thirty years. The English were hot on their heels, establishing a factory in 1613. The English soon left because they could not make their factory viable but the Spanish and Portuguese were both expelled because, in the simplest terms, they put missionary activity above diplomacy. While the Dutch certainly made mistakes navigating the complexities of the balance of power between retired shogun, shogun, and emperor; and experienced problems such as the Nuyts affair about activities on Formosa, which resulted in a temporary trade ban from 1628–1633,19 they learned from their mistakes, maintaining their presence in Japan with skillful diplomatic technique. These efforts included half-hearted assistance suppressing the rebellion in Shimabara (1637–1638) and convincing the shogunate of the anti-Catholic policy of the Dutch government. Chinese traders, who increased in number after the fall of the Ming dynasty (1644), did not have official diplomatic status. As a result, the Dutch East India Company and its successors had the longest and most frequent diplomatic contact with Japan of any foreign state throughout the early modern period.

     The Dutch East India Company ships, while equipped with soldiers, relied on diplomacy as much as force. The merchants sought the most effective manner to induce trade and would use diplomacy when it was effective, perhaps a wise move for a small country. Moreover, in East Asia, Westerners did not yet generally have significant military advantage. In the seventeenth century, Asian trade had potential for enormous profit but an equally large potential for crippling losses. Even if one arrived safely after a long sea voyage, avoiding the hazards of disease, weather, piracy and damage to cargo, there were still the complexities of negotiating through local governments to obtain return cargo and avoid taxation. Therefore, the Dutch merchants in Japan were not able to impose European patterns, but had to fit into existing structures of interaction. In essence they were accorded the status of daimyo and had to demonstrate loyalty assurance through the same gift giving practices that the local powers did. Daimyo were required to spend half the year in the Shogunal capital Edo (now Tokyo) and the other half year in the their home province, a system known as alternate attendance (sankin kotai.) The Dutch, like the daimyo, made an annual journey to visit the shogun, which they called the "court journey" (hofreis). It was this privilege that demonstrated a difference in status from the Chinese merchants, the only other foreigners allowed to trade in Nagasaki and therefore was an important part of the interaction between these states.20

     Dutch gifts to the shogunate consisted of desirable commodities such wool and silk textiles, wonders of western technology such as clocks and pocket watches, and exotic animals, because these were their local specialties. One advantage that live animals offered over other kinds of gifts was that they added pageantry to procession. Although not as magnificent as the daimyo, who would travel in processions of hundreds, the Dutch representatives proceeded by land and boat with some pomp, stopping along the way in Osaka and Kyoto to give gifts the officials there. For example, the ostrich obtained at the Cape of Good Hope in southern Africa and brought in 1658 had to be transported in a large cage, which attracted crowds to come see the bird. Moreover, when animals were brought for official presentation they were dressed up in finery. A cassowary from the southern Indonesian archipelago offered in 1657 was presented with a collar of bells and yellow ribbons tied around its legs. A pair of rare white Bengali oxen that had been transported from India via Company ships to Japan were sent to the shogun in 1659 hitched to a decorated cart. The oxen's horns had been not only gilded but also " bedecked and betasselled with quite a few bells and ribbons attached to their horns." 21

The Most Favored Gifts

     The Bengali oxen excited a lot of interest among Japanese officials and many officials in Nagasaki, Osaka and Edo went to see them, but this gift was never repeated. With the exception of four young buffalo brought the following year for the daimyo of Ki province, there do not seem to be any other official bovine gifts.22 Japanese officials who had sufficient influence requested many things from the Dutch factory, ranging from mirrors to fire engines, through a system of special orders known as eisen. Most of these documents are preserved in the Nationaal Archief in the Hague. There was payment involved but it was often in the form of a counter-gift or an intangible favor. These eisen are therefore an excellent indicator of demand.23 Perhaps because the Tokugawa shogunate was a bureaucracy of men who perceived themselves as warriors, they were not as desirous of draft animals. Rather, military symbolism was valued among those who received gifts because military skill was part of the identity of the ruling elite. Hunting was seen as a way to maintain the skills of war so many of the gift animals reflect these preferences. Illustrations of professional hunters never show them with animals and legislation confirms this was a privilege of the ruling class. Horses, dogs and hawks were therefore valued both in general as expressions of dominance over the natural world, and specifically as expressions of military skill and the force of ruling power.24 These animals comprise the largest number and the most consistent type of live gift to Japanese officials from the Dutch merchants.


     Horses had, since ancient times, been valued not just for their symbolism, but as direct instruments for obtaining and maintaining power. They were the backbone of Japanese military organizations by the fifth century.25 Perhaps because of this importance, horse bones were used in very early religious ceremonies. Horses were thought to have supernatural abilities, communicate with the gods, and represented strength, fertility and speed. White horses especially, were believed sacred, which is why even in modern times the Japanese emperor always rides a white horse. Buddhism also contained complementary beliefs about equines. Sidddartha's favorite mount was a white horse named Kanthaka, which he rode when he saw the four sights that led him to renounce the world. In Buddhism generally, the white horse symbolized rapid attainment of enlightenment. 26

     Gifts of horses to establish diplomatic ties with Japan can be found as early as 679 when some were received from the Korean kingdom of Silla. Similarly, the Kamakura shogunate paid a tribute of horses to the Imperial house in lip service to their supremacy. Horses were only rarely used as draft animals in Japan. According to J.F. van Overmeer Fisscher, a member of the Dutch factory on Deshima for the decade of 1820 to 1830, "The Japanese farmer attaches little more worth to horses than oxen because the upkeep for horses is more expensive and requires more care." 27 Therefore, outside of the military the only other significant uses were as post horses (ekima, tenma) and packhorses (chūma) in mountainous areas that could not be reached by boat. A mount for riding was a symbol not just of samurai status, but elite status within the warrior class. As was generally true in all military establishments, the mounted warrior was superior to the ashigaru, or infantry.

     Even in the late seventeenth century, after three quarters of a century of peace, horses were described as "the most important tool for a warrior; they can climb tall mountains with ease and freely cross large rivers."28 Specialized horse veterinaries practiced, and taxes were exacted from some areas in horses.29 The Tokugawa shogunate, more aggressive than the Kamakura shogunate in usurping Imperial privilege, halted this tribute of horses to Kyoto, but as sort of a compromise a horse was gifted for hassaku, an annual gift-giving ritual on the eighth day of the eighth month.30 Thus, protocol was maintained but the Imperial house was reminded who was really in charge.

     Indigenous Japanese horses were small, however, and foreign horses were specifically imported to crossbreed with native animals to produce larger specimens. Crossbreeding with Mongolian and central Asian horses seems to have occurred from at least the fifth century. After Hideyoshi received the gift of a Spanish horse, interest appears to have arisen in crossbreeding with these larger horses. These imports came in the guise of gifts for the shogun and were usually directly requested rather than brought at the whim or diplomatic needs of the Dutch. Imports in the early modern period were nearly all designated in the documents as Arabians or Persians, which were generally very large and elegant. The first horse imported for crossbreeding was a Persian gifted to Shogun Iemitsu in 1633. Unfortunately the stallion was apparently sterile and no offspring resulted. Others were imported in the years that followed (1637, 1638, 1640), but there is no record of successful crossbreeding until 1668. 31Ironically, these two horses were almost rejected because the shogun had found their dappled gray coats inauspicious.32 Japanese interest in importing horses occurred periodically through the eighteenth century, ending when the shogun's son fell off an Arabian and died in 1779. This tragic accident seems to have dampened interest in the large and spirited horses. For the Dutch the horse was a loss too, because the accident deprived them of their anticipated counter-gift. The merchants were therefore not inclined to repeat the loss.33 [Figure 2]

Figure 2

Figure 2: Gekleurde tekening van hoofden van paarden [Colored Drawing of Horses Heads] Collection Nationaal Archief, The Hague, NFJ 1765. Japanese drawing of horses requested from the Dutch.



     Dogs were also important accoutrements for the warrior class. Dogs had been used in Japan for hunting since the Jōmon period (ca. 10,500–300 BCE), and while there appears to be some evidence that they were eaten in ancient times, this practice ceased with the introduction of Buddhism in the fourth century, if not before. Dogs, of course, had a variety of uses in Japan besides hunting: pets, guard dogs, and in some areas, for sport fighting. The meat was used as hawk food and their skins used to make balls for kemari (a game in which ball is passed by kicking it in the air without bouncing), and stretched across drums and samisen. It was, however, the quasi-military application of hunting that made dogs desirable as official gifts. Hunting was encouraged as a way to maintain military preparedness during the extended peace of the early modern era.

     The Nihon shoki mentions gifts of dogs as early as 358 (from the Korean kingdom of Silla) to the emperor, and when the first shogunate was established dogs were also presented to this office.34 Even before the Dutch arrived, there is record of a small dog being given to the Satsuma daimyo from the Portuguese in 1584 and Japanese sources indicate imported dogs were popular from the seventeenth century. 35 While some lap dogs were also imported by individual request, most official Dutch gift dogs were for hunting. It is interesting that Japanese records seems to generally refer to these foreign dogs as mōken, or fierce dogs, while the East India company records often only indicate "hunting dog (jacht hond)." The trade documents are often vague as to specific characteristics, but both written and visual sources seem to indicate that the Japanese preferred what are termed sight hounds to scent hounds, either water dogs or those with speed, and not those traditionally used for warfare in the West like mastiffs.

       The only breed identified repeatedly in East India Company documents was the greyhound. Thought to have originated in Egypt, the Romans sometimes used these swift dogs in battle by attaching pots of Greek fire to their backs and having them charge enemy horses to sear their bellies. More significantly in terms of selection for export to Japan, greyhounds were considered a premier game dog. Their speed and agility made greyhounds the choice hunting dog of royalty. Before being confined to courses greyhounds were used to chase game into nets for mounted hunters and their assistants. In Japan, this type of hunting, termed oimono-i, had been popular since Kamakura times. While it faded from popularity under the Tokugawa, it remained a viable hunting tradition. The other breed mentioned in Dutch documents was Dalmatian, a breed renowned for their ease with horses. Illustrations in the Toransen mochiwatase choju no zu, an illustrated record of animal imports, suggest that some of the dogs that were called greyhounds may have in fact been kaffir dogs from South Africa. Similar in appearance to greyhounds, these dogs have been used for hunting for more than seven thousand years. As Dutch ships almost inevitably called at the Cape on their way to Asia, it would have been easy to acquire some of these dogs on the journey to Batavia. Taxonomic studies were as yet in their infancy, so Company scribes might easily have perceived them to be the same animal and called them greyhounds. Dogs were presented officially and unofficially throughout the Edo period and seemed to remain in fairly constant demand. [Figure 3]

Figure 3

Figure 3: Eis van de keizerlijke majesteit; tekening van een hond . Collection Nationaal Archief, The Hague, NFJ 1786. Japanese drawing of a dog requested for the Shogun.



     Indications that hawking was an ancient practice can be found in clay figures (haniwa) from the at least as early as the sixth century. Hunting with hawks was in fact restricted to the imperial house in the eighth century. This was one of the many rights usurped by the following military governments. By the Kamakura period we even see hunting with hawks as part of the ritual at some shrines.36 There are many anecdotes about hawks under the Tokugawa. For example, when Ieyasu died his two favorite hawks were released in the grounds of the shrine at Nikko.37 The hawk and dog were necessary companions for hunting, as the saying "a dog without a hawk (taka no nai inu)" suggests. This adage is used to refer to someone who is useless alone. The dogs flushed out the prey that was then attacked by the hawk so neither one was effective alone.

     Gifts of birds of all sorts were important in medieval Japan. Among the warrior class, those that were not actually hawks, falcons, or food for humans were primarily intended as food for the raptors. While hawks had enormous symbolic capital in early modern Japan because of associations with the past, the rights of the warrior class, and associations of military preparedness,38 the Dutch were unable to bring hawks. This is clearly recorded in an exchange from 1644 with the third shogun, Tokugawa Iemitsu (r. 1623–1651). He asked about falcons in Holland and whether they could be brought alive. The Dutch merchants responded that Holland was too far away and that the birds could not be transported alive.39

     Instead of hawks, significant numbers of exotic birds were imported as gifts and for sale.40 Most of these birds originated in the Pacific region, but there are some instances of birds coming from Africa and even South America. Some, like the peacock, had ancient connections through both gifts and religious traditions from the continent. Besides being beautiful, the peacock was the vehicle for perhaps the most important Buddha in Japan, Amida (Amitabha) Buddha of the Western Paradise. The eye was seen to signify wisdom. It was thus an auspicious bird. Others, like turkeys, which were not eaten, but paraded like peacocks were for the sheer exoticism. Extravagant and showy birds such as cassowaries, which can reach six feet, were imported, but more commonly cage birds like parrots, cockatoos, lories, finches and sparrows were imported as gifts and for trade.

     While it may seem a stretch to equate caged birds with hawks, in realms of diplomacy and symbolic capital, they served the same function even if they were useless on the hunt. Exotic birds were vivid examples of conspicuous consumption and thus served the purpose of promoting the right to rule by representing the reach of power by the distance the animals were brought from and the extent of wealth expended through the cost of maintaining and replacing them. In European menageries, birds were often the animal of choice because they were cheaper, less costly to feed, and easier to keep alive.41 Similar motivations may well have influenced these choices in Japan. Caged birds were much easier to transport than many other kinds of animals. These considerations would have had significant weight because the shogun was not the only official to whom the Dutch merchants were required to make gifts to. Gifts were given to officials in the shogunal government who were directly involved in trade and the daimyo of the domains also received gifts. Many animals were imported for this purpose, but as a group the most common by far were exotic birds.

     Birds perhaps more than any other animal were the imported exotic animal that the greatest number of people came in contact with in a living state. This can be seen in an advertisement from an Osaka birdfood seller in 1758. It offers the attraction of flock of performing birds that the merchant had acquired from a moneylender. The moneylender had seized these treasured possessions from the Nagai of Takatsuki castle in Settsu province (near Osaka) for failure to repay a loan.42 Some species, like Java sparrows and canaries, were eventually bred in Japan. As ownership of these birds spread to other levels in society and became common they lost popularity as gifts, but they were replaced by other species.

The Dog Shogun

     There were fifteen shoguns during the Tokugawa shogunate, but the fifth, Tokugawa Tsunayoshi (1647–1709, r. 1680–1709), the last direct descendent of Tokugawa Ieyasu, demands special attention in any discussion of animals because he is known to posterity as the "Dog Shogun (Inu Kubo)." Tsunayoshi, who was born in the zodiacal year of the dog, was supposedly advised to take care of dogs in order to right the karmic wrongs he had committed in previous lives. Tsunayoshi was responsible for the "Laws of Compassion." This series of edicts were issued from 1685 until just two months preceding Tsunayoshi's death in the first month of 1709. Tsunayoshi sought to protect animals through measures such as a ban on hawking and forbidding the use horses and cows as beasts of burden. Although many of the Laws of Compassion did deal specifically with dogs, more recent research has suggested that these laws were a result of Tsunayoshi's ardent Buddhist beliefs.43 Buddhism seeks to free all sentient beings from suffering. The Laws of Compassion were therefore meant to be expressions of this concept, although they did seem to value animal over human suffering.

     Tsunayoshi, who exhibited such concern for the welfare of animals, did not receive them as gifts.44 If understood in the context of his Buddhist beliefs, he would not desire to manipulate animals for diplomatic dominance or private pleasure. The Dutch were clearly aware of this because there is no record of animal gifts of any sort during his reign. The Dog Shogun did not even get a gift of dogs, so that conversely it was his personal power as shogun that brought a temporary halt to this practice.

Large Animals and reciprocity

     In Japanese diplomacy, gifts had a greater meaning than merely creating receptiveness in the opposing party. Gifts were not bribes; they were an indicator of willingness to negotiate. Again this is not unique to Japan. François de Callières author of On the Manner of Negotiating with Princes, a treatise from 1716 that is often considered the best work on diplomacy ever written, discusses this issue in a section entitled "The Power of the Purse." Callières wrote that "[Gifts] must be made by a careful design; and wherever large gifts are offered, the giver must take care beforehand to know that they will be received in the right spirit and above all that they will not be refused."45 This could have just as easily been a Japanese discussion on how to navigate the rituals of reciprocity. In essence, if the shogun accepted gifts then a relationship was established. When the shogunal government refused gifts, it was because they did not want to enter negotiations or contract an obligation that had to be repaid.

     Drawing on their Indian Ocean trading networks, the Dutch sporadically brought extravagantly large and exotic animal gifts throughout the Edo period, including two tiger cubs (1614) an ostrich (1658), elephants (1813, actually brought by the British)46 and camels (1646, 1821). Some of these large animal gifts were accepted like the ostrich, which was received with great pleasure by Shogun Ietsuna (1641–1680), and some, like a pair of camels brought in 1821, were refused and ended up living out their lives in Japan as a source of income for the Dutch factory head's courtesan, who reputedly made a fortune by charging an admission fee to see them. [Figure 4]

Figure 4

Figure 4: Rakuda no zu [A Pair of Camels]. By Utagawa Kuniyasu. 1824. Collection of the Library of Congress. The text gives a description of the camels including their size, what they eat and that they come from Arabia. This print must have been drawn from the pair brought in 1821.



     While we have already discussed the importance of gifts in establishing power relationships, in early modern Japan taxes were also paid in kind and, as in the case of foreign trade, often termed gifts. In the seventeenth century these lines were somewhat blurred, but there gradually came to be a distinction between the predetermined gifts for taxation and those that were presented to, in Callières' words, "assist in opening [the negotiator's] road." As gifts in the form of taxation gradually settled into a payment structure consisting primarily of wool and silk textiles, animals came increasingly to be used specifically to gain friends and influence people. The Dutch East India Company animal trade has been largely unrecognized, but in fact they supplied exotic animals to much of Europe from the sheds they had built on the Amsterdam docks.47 With expertise and demand, it is no surprise the Dutch should have fallen into the role of animal supplier. The ever-apt Callières also noted, "there are not countries where no great art is needed in the matter of giving gifts. In such a country they are no longer gifts but bribes…" To our modern sensibilities the whole process smacks of ethical impropriety, but the rules were generally understood and gifts that were perceived as inappropriate were declined.

      Indeed, there are very few gifts that don't inherently have some sort of expectation of return, even if it is merely the civility of a "thank you." In his classic work on gifts, Marcel Mauss recognized the reciprocity of gifts, but only looked at them as social exchange in pre-monetized societies. He was expressing the Marxist view that divided gifts as distinct from commodities. 48 Claude Levi-Strauss has argued that all social life is exchange and reciprocity is an essential part of this process. Levi-Strauss looked at the process of gift and counter-gift on a personal level.49 In shogunal Japan it was both personal and institutional. The alliance of daimial fiefs required personal oaths of loyalty to the shogun. The gifts involved were therefore expressions of personal loyalty directly to the shogun. On the other hand, the rituals that evolved around gift giving became institutional, standardized, and commodified.

     The actions of the Dutch traders in Japan reflect at least some understanding of this process. Although not always the case, spectacular gifts, animal or otherwise, were generally given with the hope of obtaining some sort of concession, such as the increase of the copper quota.50 When they were refused, it indicated a refusal or inability to accommodate the request. For example, an official in Nagasaki refused gifts of a mechanical picture and cellaret in 1829 because he had been unable to achieve the requested reduction in the copper tax 51 Because it often made more economic sense to sell these refused animals than bring them back, this is one way that urban Japanese were exposed to exotic animals. They reinforced the idea that there was a larger world on all levels of society.

Rangaku, the study of natural history, and animal imports

     Imported animals took on new meaning with the rise of rangaku, a term that literally meant "Dutch learning" but referred to the study of western science. Yoshimune, who was shogun from 1716–1745 but remained in control until his death in 1751, is usually seen as responsible for promoting the study of western sciences. When isolation was imposed by the third shogun, Tokugawa Iemitsu (1604–1651), in the 1630s there was a decline in the flow of knowledge because there was little clarity about what was acceptable. For example, mathematical texts on trigonometry and geometry in Chinese, which Japanese scholars could read, were banned because they had been translated by the Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci (1552–1610). Yoshimune lifted some of the more restrictive measures on book imports, which eventually allowed the study of Western sciences, rangaku, to grow.

     Yoshimune himself was apparently interested in natural history. He brought out the seminal work on natural history by Jan Jonstonus, Historiae Naturalis,52 that had been moldering in the shogunal library since it had been presented in 1663. A Japanese translation of this book (Oranda kinjū chugyozu wage) was competed in 1741 by Yoshio Kōgyū (1724–1800), which provided a list of animals in Dutch, Latin and Japanese. It is this interest, and perhaps the fact that Yoshimune is often regarded as the last strong shogun, that might explain why more gifts of horses, dogs, and birds were given to Tokugawa Yoshimune than has been recorded for any other individual. He also requested accoutrements like whips, horse brushes, and saddles. The Dutch traders were easily aware of these preferences because he himself made many requests.

       Yoshimune was an avid hunter and was interested enough in the military arts to study both Western and Chinese equestrian styles. According to the Dutch records, a total of twenty-four dogs and twenty-seven Persian and Arabian horses were imported for Yoshimune,53 in addition to others imported from China, reflecting his personal dedication not only to hunting but also to improving and maintaining the military nature of his government. On the other hand, his gifts also appear to reflect his personal interest in birds because he received some almost every year. The interest might have been aviculture, as the peacocks, turkeys, munias and mynahs indicate, but there also seems to have been scientific interest, as suggested by a pair of cassowaries and an outstanding request for an ostrich that the Dutch were unable to fulfill because the birds kept dying on the journey from Cape Town.

    Nevertheless, zoology, relatively late to develop in the West, also lagged behind botanical studies in Japan, because initial interest had been pharmacological. It was not until the last quarter of the eighteenth century that rangaku became professionalized into a discipline in the modern sense. The study of animals was incorporated into general explorations of the world within and outside of Japan. To a great extent, these studies were conducted through books and a few preserved specimens, such as pickled caimen, but live animal specimens were requested as well. Those who were connected and dabbled in natural history could get access to imported animals. Shimazu Shigehide (1745–1833) of the powerful and wealthy Satsuma fief was notable in this pursuit. Although the daimyo of Satsuma was not normally allowed the privilege of requesting things from the Dutch, Shigehide was exceptionally well connected because his daughter was married to the shogun. He used his influence to obtain animals such as porcupines and caimans, and natural history specimens such as ostrich eggs. This interest in natural history and the collection of research specimens parallels the beginnings of scientific study in curiosity cabinets filled with exotic objects in Western Europe. These natural history specimens were not strictly diplomatic gifts, but were obtained through diplomatic channels.

Diplomatic professionalism and the decline of animal gifts

     As the nineteenth century progressed, the import of animals declined sharply. This was due to both internal and external factors. In Japan, the power of the office of shogun had steadily declined after the death of Yoshimune in 1751. There was little need to impress or cater directly to the whims of the shogun. Rather, the Dutch merchants had to work through the council of elders (rōjū) who advised him. As a result, gifts were given to a wider range of officials. These officials still received gifts of animals, but not animals that were so blatantly connected to power. Since many of the animals were purchased by these officials to give to others, the impoverishment of the shogunate gave them less disposable income for such expensive gifts. Debt among the entire warrior class was endemic. Some animals that had been imported, birds such as peacocks and Java sparrows in particular, were now bred in Japan and the need for imports declined. Thus, interest remained high but demand had declined.

     In the West, the rules of diplomacy had changed, and while in the eighteenth century it was acceptable for ambassadors to exchange extravagant gifts with the rulers they negotiated with, by the mid-nineteenth century this was no longer the case. For example, in the United States government bureaucrats were expressly forbidden from "accepting any present, emolument, office or tile of any kind whatever from any King or foreign state" in Article VI of the Articles of Confederation of 1781. The Congress of Vienna in 1814–1815 was a significant part of this process of professionalization. The purpose of the conference was to redefine Europe after the fall of Napoleon. However, because it was a meeting of many nations, a "revision and regulation of established diplomatic practice" occurred.54 Moreover, this conference was significant for the Netherlands because it was reestablished as a unified nation under the House of Orange.

     Therefore, while under the purview of the Dutch East India Company, no governmental envoys of any sort went to Japan, only representatives of the Company. The Company collapsed in 1799, in part due to the Napoleonic War. The situation in Japan, however, remained on old terms, with merchants acting as envoys. For the first seventeen years of the nineteenth century, the terms of trade differed significantly. When King Willem II (1792–1849, r. 1840–1849) sent a missive in 1844 suggesting that Japan open to free trade, it was accompanied by presents that included a vase, crystal candlesticks, books, maps and field artillery but no animals.55 The accessories of diplomacy had changed significantly by the mid-nineteenth century.

Conclusion and Implications for World History

     With a few notable exceptions, there is a decided practical bent to the animals the shogun and other Japanese officials accepted as gifts. Animals that had curiosity value but were expensive or difficult to keep were either rejected or sent to temples after a brief, polite waiting period.56 For the most part, only animals that fit into the accepted cultural norm, rather than those that were exotic, were universally prized. Thus, horses, dogs, and songbirds rather than lions, giraffes, or orangutans were the official gifts that were valued the most. A gift, however political, is still designed to please the receiver. While some animals were easier to transport than others, more significant in gift selection was the likelihood of positive reception.

     The decline in these large animal gifts is in inverse proportion to the personal power of the shogun. After the death of Yoshimune in 1751, large animal gifts are almost non-existent. The elephant brought in 1813 was declined even though previous gifts of elephants had been positively received. The camels, which had been such a success two centuries previous, were similarly declined in 1821. The last animal gift recorded was a tiny marmot in 1844, a far cry from the pageantry offered by an ostrich or a white bull with gilded horns. Thus, as priorities shifted to military technology in the nineteenth century, the final quarter century of Tokugawa rule was bereft of animal gifts. Although interest had expanded beyond the personal to the scientific, the nature of shogunal politics and the nature of diplomacy had changed in such a way that extravagant personal gifts were no longer natural.

     Nevertheless, animal diplomacy is by no means extinct. Even today gifts are exchanged between countries, but are no longer considered personal property.57 Animals still make their way into the diplomatic ring. In February of 2011, two pandas were offloaded as a five-year loan to Japan from China, apparently in the hopes of smoothing the tense relations between the two countries in yet another attempt at Panda diplomacy. Prince William and Kate received a herd of cattle from South Africa and a penguin adoption as wedding gifts. While these animals are no longer such naked extensions of power as they were in the pre-modern world, they still offer powerful national symbolism. Animals still express human diplomatic goals, but between states and institutions rather than between individuals, and with as much hubris as accompanied the tiger from Korea.

     This examination of exchange in diplomatic relations can be used in a number of ways to illuminate the early modern world. The evolution of diplomatic practices as a relationship between states helps explain how these relationships are constructed, particularly in the context of the East/West dichotomy. The introduction of various types of fauna to Japan presents a fascinating example of the myriad forms of exchange—often ecological—that characterized the early modern world. The animals themselves represent the transmission of knowledge but also provided symbolic capital . Although hinted at rather than highlighted, this article can also be used to discuss environmental history and how transporting animals such as Java sparrows had a direct impact on environment. Finally, the article hopefully shows that conventional wisdom, which is nevertheless remarkably persistent, that Tokugawa Japan was a "closed country," is a faulty premise that has nonetheless long influenced world history surveys.

     For Instructors seeking a model or framework, as well as exercises for furthering classroom discussion of this subject at all levels of instruction, see Marc Jason Gilbert, "Deshima Island: A Stepping Stone between Civilizations," in World History Connected, vol.3, no.3 (July) 2006.

Martha Chaiklin is an Assistant Professor of Japanese History at the University of Pittsburgh. She is the author of Cultural Commerce and Dutch Commercial Culture: The Impact of European Material Culture on Japan, 1700–1850 and a number of articles on Japanese material culture and interaction with the Dutch. She is also the translator of the forthcoming memoir of C.T. Assendelft de Coningh, The Pioneer in Yokohama. She is currently writing a book on ivory trade and consumption in early modern Asia. She can be reached at


1 Isono Naohide and Uchida Yasuo, Hakurai chōken zushi (Tokyo: Yasaka shobo, 1992), 133.  From the Yoshikawa ke monjo. Korean tigers are usually called Siberian or Amur tigers today and are the largest of all cats.   

2 There was a garden called "Valley of the Tiger" in Fushimi castle. Tiger meat was also valued by Hideyoshi as medicine.

3 They represented West in the four directions.  They are also part of the zodiac.  In Buddhism, tigers appear in the Jatakas, when in a previous life, the Buddha sacrifices himself to save others.  The tiger therefore represents compassion and generosity.

4 Oda Nobunaga was known to be fond of tiger skins. They were also used to make sheathes for weapons. Moreover, the claws were also thought to protect from evil, and the powdered skin, to cure illnesses.  See T. Volker, The Animal in Far Eastern Art (Leiden:  E.J. Brill, 1975), 162167.

5 Lisa McQuail, Treasures of Two Nations-Thai Royal Gifts to the United States of America (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1997), 43.

6 See Silvio Bedini, The Pope's Elephant (Nashville: J.S. Sanders, 1997) and Louise E. Robbins, Elephant Slaves and Pampered Parrots-Exotic Animals in Eighteenth Century Paris (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002), 20.

7 William George Aston, Shinto: the Way of the Gods (London:  Longmans, Green and Co., 1905),  37.

8 Herman Ooms, Imperial Politics and Symbolics in Ancient Japan (Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2009), 55.

9 William George Aston,  Nihongi:  Chronicles of Japan from the Earliest Times to A. D. 697 (London:  K. Paul Trench, 1896),  68.

10 Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney discusses how animal sacrifice was not related to transition of power in Japanese kingship, a role that rice took.  Rice as Self (Princeton: Princeton, NJ, 1994), 6062.

11 Ernest M. Satow, ed. The Voyage of Captain John Saris to Japan, 1613 (Millwood, N.Y.: Kraus Reprint, 1967), 141.

12 In the Edo period (16031868) this was a regional ruler who controlled land with the production capacity of 46,000 bushels (10,000 koku) and swore a fealty oath to the shogun.

13 See, for example, Ego Michiko, Inkyo daimyo no edo kurashi (Tokyo:  Yoshikawa kobunkan, 1999), describing the obligations of the Usuki family. 

14 See Ronald P. Toby, State and Diplomacy in Early Modern Japan (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), Chapter 3.

15 Reported by Bernadino de Avila de Girón in Michael Cooper, ed. They Came to Japan-An Anthology of European Reports on Japan, 15431640 (Berkeley:  University of California Press, 1965), 113114, 125.

16 Isono and Uchida, Hakurai chōken zushi, 133 and Tsūkō Ichiran, 4:488.  There was also unidentified bird called rinkei, possibly some sort of chicken. 

17 See in Peter Constantine, ed. The Essential Writings of Machiavelli (New York: Random House, 2007), "Florentine Histories" Section 27, 323324 and "Discourse on the Affairs of Germany and its Emperor", 373374.

18 See Holden Furber, Rival Empires of Trade in the Orient, 16001800 (Minneapolis:  University of Minnesota Press, 1976), 311314.

19 Pieter Nuyts(15981655), Governor of Formosa antagonized an already strained relationships with Japan by imposing taxes on traders.  Irate merchants took Nuyts hostage. The shogunate responded to the events by banning trade with the Dutch from 1628 until 1633.

20 The  hofreis continued annually until 1790, when decreasing profits and the impending collapse of the Dutch East India Company caused the  them to successfully petition to have this burden reduced to once every four years. 

21 Cynthia Viallé and Leonard Blussé, Deshima Dagregisters  vol. XVII (Leiden: Institute for the History of European Expansion, 2005) 290, 334338, 377.

22 Ibid, 451.  The merchants were annoyed because they had to feed these animals for nine months before the daimyo arranged for their pick-up.

23 See Martha Chaiklin, Cultural Commerce and Dutch Commercial Culture, The Influence of European Material Culture on Japan, 17001850 (Leiden: CNWS, 2003), Chapter 4.  Records of these orders can be found in the VOC and Factorij Japan archives at the Nationaal Archief in The Hague. 

24 See Tsukamoto Manabu, Edojidaijin to dōbutsu (Tokyo: Nihon edita sukuru shuppan, 1995), 4348.

25 See Karl Friday, Hired-Swords, The Rise of Private warrior Power in Early Japan (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1992), 3540 and William Wayne Farris, Heavenly Warriors- The Evolution of Japan's Military, 5001300 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992), 5759.

26  This tradition is fairly widespread. Hence the naming of the White Horse Temple in Loyang China in A.D. 68. The emperor dreamed of the monks who brought Buddhism to China on white horses and established a temple.

27 J.F van Overmeer Fisscher, Bijdrage tot de Kennis van het Japansche Rijk (Amsterdam: J. Müller & Co, 1833), 216. 

28 Asakura Haruhiko, ed. Jinrin kinmō zui (1690)  Tōyō Bunko no. 519 (Tokyo: Heibonsha, 1960), 67.

29 E.g. Denmachō and Kodenmachō in Edo.  As the Edo period progressed, these levies were gradually set at cash value.

30 Saitō Shōji, Nihonjin to dōbutsu (Tokyo:  Yasaka shobo, 2002). 44.

31 See Iwao Seiichi, Meiji izen no yōba no yunyū to zōshoku (Tokyo: Nichiran Gakkai, 1980).

32 Cynthia Viallè and Leonard Blussè, The Deshima Dagregisters Volume XIII 16601670 (Leiden: The Institute for European Expansion, 2010), 249251.

33 See G.F. Meijlan, Geschiedkundig Overzigt va den Handel der Europezen op Japan (Batavia, Batavianasch Genootschap van Kunsten en Wetenschappen, 1833), 373375.

34 Kashima Takao, Nihon dōbutsushi (Yasaka shobo, 2002), 487489.

35 Ibid.

36 Ibid, 427.

37 Narushima Motonao and Kuroita Katsumi, ed. Tokugawa Jikki 10 vols. (Tokyo: Yoshikawa kobunkan 19811982)

38 Brett Walker, The Conquest of Ainu Lands-Ecology and Culture in Japanese Expansion, 15901800 (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 2001), 100109.

39 Deshima Dagregisters,  XI, (Leiden, 2001), 143.

40 See Martha Chaiklin '"Exotic Bird Collecting in Early Modern Japan," chapter 4 in JAPANimals, edited by Greg Pflugfelder and Brett Walker (Ann Arbor: Center for Japanese Studies, University of Michigan Press, 2005).

41 Eric Baratay and Elizabeth Hardouin-Fugier, Zoo: A History of Zoological Gardens in the West (London:  Reaktion Books, 2002), 33.

42 Yoshikawa Miki, Misemono no rekishi (Tokyo: Yuzankaku 1970), 162. 

43 Beatrice Bodart-Bailey, The Dog Shogun (Honolulu: University of Hawaii. 2006)  Chapter 9

44 The eisen were not available for most of these years, but the Tokugawa Jikki did not list any gifts of animals at all during these years.

45 François de Callièrese, On the Manner of Negotiating with Princes, A.F. Whyte, trans. (Boston:  Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000). 16.

46After the final collapse of the Dutch East India Company, the Netherlands was invaded by Napoleon. During this time Great Britain occupied Dutch possessions in East Asia.  From Batavia, they replaced Dutch trade in 1813 and 1814.  Thomas Raffles hoped to impress the Japanese with the elephant.

47 Baratay and Hardouin-Fugier, Zoo, 22.

48See Karl Marx, Das Capital. Volume 1  Chapter 26 "The Secret of Primitive Accumulation."

49 Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Elementary Structures of Kinship (Boston: Beacon Press, 1969) Chapter 5. 

50 For the importance of Japanese copper, see e.g. Kristof Glamann, "The Dutch East India Company's Trade in Japanese Copper, 16451736," in The Scandinavian Hitory Review, 11, 1953, Carlo Cipolla, Guns & Sails in the Early Phase of European Expansion, 14001700 (London: Collins, 1965),  Om Prakash, The Dutch East India aCoamny and the Economy of Bengal, 16301720 (Princeton: Princeton Univeristy Press, 1985),  and Ryuto Shimada, The Intra-Asian Trade in Japanese Copper bgy the Dutch East India Company  in the  Eighteenth Cnetury (Leiden: Brill, 2006)

51 VOC 13552

52 The book was a Dutch translation.

53 VOC 13512 to VOC 13529.

54 Keith Hamilton and Richard Langhorne, The Practice of Diplomacy (London: Routledge, 1994). 89. 

55 Greene, "Correspondence between William II of Holland and the Shogun of Japan A.D. 1844, Transactions of the Asiatic Society of Japan  Series 1 XXXIV (June 1907), 114. J. A. van der Chijs, Neêrlands streven to openstelling van Japan voor den wereld handel  (Amsterdam: F. Muller, 1867).24.

56 The temples would show the animals to make money.

57 In the United States, most gifts are donated to the National Archives.  If they are kept, the value must be stated as income and taxed.  The Komodo Dragon sent to George Bush in 1990 was given to the Cincinnati Zoo. The pandas received from China in 1972 went to the National Zoo.


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