Namban Chest

Namban chest in lacquer with inlayed mother-of-pearl in a floral pattern. The metalwork is in engraved copper. The word “Namban” comes from namban-jinou “southern barbarians”, used by the Japanese to refer to the Europeans, especially the Portuguese. Namban art came about between 1500 and 1600. The Portuguese reached Japan in 1543 and forged a very intricate commercial relationship.

Initially, the Japanese weren’t overly fond of the Portuguese. They found them to be crude and dirty: they stank and ate with their hands, have no control over their emotions or themselves and are completely indifferent to Japanese culture in that they can’t understand written words. Their arrival however remains a revelation for Japan. It should be considered an encounter between two cultured and privileged peoples, both ahead of their time. Their customs may be different but they were both complex and developped.

The mistrust of the Japanese towards the Portuguese didn’t last. They quickly adopted many of the newcomers’ cultural practices and their technoloical advancements, notably matchlocks, brestplates, european-style ships… but these new imports also occur in the cultural world, in particular in decorative arts, cooking or in language. The Portuguese are the first to translate Japanese into a western language and to create a dictionary. The Nippo Jisho or Vocabulario de Lingoa de Japam compiled by the jesuit preast Joao Rodrigues was first published in Nagasaki in 1603. As a result, some Japanese words are actually Portuguese in origin. This is especially true for objects or practices which didn’t exist priorly in Japan such as boro-bolo (cake in the shape of a small pearl), botan-botao (button), furasuko-frasco (flask), kapitan-capitao (captain of a ship), etc.

The jesuite missionnary François Xavier was one of the first evangilists to reach Japan. The Catholics declared that they had performed around 200 000 conversions by the end of the 16th century. This attempt to convert the population is one of the reasons the Europeans found themselves expelled from the country around 1650. The Portuguese were also very interested by the cultural practices and ressources of the islands. They saw its inhabitants as being very well-cultured, with a sophisticated feodial system and well-developped technology. At the time, Japan was far more populated and more urbanised than any European country (during the 16th century, there were 26 million japanese, compared to 16 million Frenchmen and 4.5 million Englishmen). The country had an abundant supply of precious metals. It was a big exporter of copper and silver but the Portuguese especially admired their skills at metalworking. Japanese weapons were the finest in the world, their paper industry was without equal. In Japan, tissues were being used whereas in the West it was still the custom to blow one’s nose on one’s sleeve!

So what did the Portuguese take home from Japan? Silk, lacquered objects with inlayed mother-of-pearl, green tea, silver ore. They brought to the country: Chinese silk, porcelaine, coton and Indian spices.

Japan, Momoyama period (1573-1603), 16th century

Height : 6.1″ – Width : 8.9″ – Depth : 5.3″