Chapter 4

My Observations of Life & Trade in Japan

DaCosta's final diary chapter, describing his life and observations while living as a trader in Nagasaki, Japan. He watches as Japanese society begins to close, becoming more dangerous for the Portuguese.

The São Catarina has arrived, after so many months, in the port of Nagasaki. The Yokoseura and Hirado-machi streets have a view of the harbour, while others look on the town. There are streets where we may rent rooms. As soon as we docked, the traders on my ship rushed off to secure these dwellings, using personal connections or the purse.

Their slaves and servants also secured accommodation, however lowly. For many months the Portuguese will eat and drink their way through Nagasaki. There will be no end to the deals and bartering. Menezes estimated that the traders will spend over 200,000 taels in the time we stay here; every month, more flows from their pockets to the Japanese.

It is no wonder the people of Nagasaki attend to us so carefully.

A festival occurred upon our arrival in Nagasaki; it was established and festive, full of life and color. Thousands of Japanese and Portuguese went together through the streets, singing and playing music on flutes and viols. There was much dancing. My men were glad to see the caboque on the streets. To have arrived safely from across the world is truly a cause for celebration. As the capitão mor, it was customary for me to prance down the avenues, followed by de Sousa carrying a huge brocade parasol. He performed the task admirably.

I saw some Japanese men painting our parade with small brushes; I must make an effort to meet them. I sent Fadrique, my cabin boy and servant, over to them with a drawing of mine; one of the translators went with him. He cannot speak a single word of Japanese, but has a bright face and trusting manner. Perhaps he can impress on them my interest in their art.


Festive Events

Comparing depictions of the Nagasaki procession by DaCosta and the Kano School

A Procession of Portuguese Men in Nagasaki

Based on the larger Namban paintings done by the Kano School, DaCosta’s illustration is clever in reinterpreting the Japanese view of foreigners into a self-portrait. The stylized pants, poses, and fabric patterns are seen repeatedly in other Japanese Namban work.

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Arrival of a Portuguese ship

A depitction of the Nagasaki procession, from the Japanese point of view

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When I arrived, Nagasaki was quiet—maybe 6,000 inhabitants. Now, there are over 15,000; the markets and warehouses are full of trade goods. Wares made for export to the Portuguese and Dutch are easy to find, especially porcelain.

The Japanese value craftsmanship, trade, and personal relationships above all. They can be inscrutable, and do look down on us, especially the white Portuguese and the Jesuits. They joke behind our backs of our foreign smell and bad diet. I cannot disagree, comparing ourselves to them.

The city is laid out very neatly. When we are given passes to travel out of the foreigners area, we see a city clean and orderly. The roads are narrow, but well kept; everywhere is laid with gravel and stone. The houses lining the streets are wooden, and make use of joinery and other intricate woodworking. I have taken the time to draw and paint one such scene; I happened on a vantage point while walking to a factory, and was able to quickly capture it. I should like to spend more time here, if it possible.

We marvel at the way they worship their Shinto gods, with elaborate ceremonies and the bose offering chants. The Jesuits are absolutely aghast; the sailors smile behind their backs at all the similarities with Christian rituals.

A family on our street sent their child to visit me with a present of Japanese apples, a sort of sweet fruit, and some other sweet cakes called muche. The girl also brought me some drawing and writing papers; there is much paper in Nagasaki. Japanese have great skill in manufacturing all kinds of drawing and writing instruments, especially brushes. I have yet to master their use, but I try.

I met some painters from the Kano School; that is also their family name. These artists made great effort to visit Nagasaki and see the Portuguese coming off the ships; they painted and sketched the events for the Emperor. Our Japanese translator and others in attendance treated them with great deference—it was clear they held a high rank in society. Imagine being paid handsomely to create images of the Emperor’s lands; it makes me laugh to think of the Portuguese King admiring my poor drawings.

One artist, named Kano Kaizen, was reserved and polite after meeting us, in a most Japanese way; his companion however, remained openly curious about our skin. His prodding of Fadrique’s dark hands became tiresome after a time. The other artists in his group tried to redirect his attention to a discussion of drawing and painting. It is not the first time this has happened. Some in Macao had a similar reaction, as did we. Smile, then quietly deflect.

These painters mainly use a wooden brush and black ink called sumi; it is prepared in a special way from a dry stone, rubbed with water to make their inks. This block would be especially useful to me on the ships, but mastering this brush is another task I must take up.

Perhaps Yousoke can show me some of the basic techniques.

I showed them some of my drawings, and they were overjoyed at the detail and my ability. Through crude sign language and our jurebasso, or interpreter, we had a long discussion on Portuguese painting, though I only knew some small details. I was fascinated to hear about their methods for crushing and preparing their inks, and how color was applied to large walls and movable doors, called biobu and fusama. Often painting directly on gold leaf, they use it instead of pigment or underpainting.

I managed to trade a few drawings with them for a bit of Japanese paper and inks, which are of great quality compared to what I brought from Portugal and found in Macao.


Namban Screens

Painted screens depicting African, Indian, and White Portuguese sailors as they visited Southern Japan. The majority of these screens were produced around the 1600s, as trade grew between Japan and Europe.

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The temples in Nagasaki are similar to the Catholic’s in Portugal, in the way all religious buildings are similar. There is much pomp and decoration inside, a confusion of angles and joints in the rafters. The Japanese shrines, and in fact most public buildings, are wooden and carved in strange shapes. When inside the shrine, I saw many boses chanting, endlessly; other times, attendants carry themselves slowly through the buildings. There are lamps everywhere. Gold abounds.

I went with Gonçalvo Pinto to see some of the larger buildings. Our translator demanded we wash our hands in a small rock basin before we entered the grounds. We looked inside one of the wondrous shrines and came away amazed, again, at the wealth of this nation.

There are some places that foreigners and common Japanese alike cannot enter, but how is this different than any other sacred place? On the temple grounds, there is always movement in the shadows, goods being brought in and out, attendants sweeping the grounds. The religious visit through the day.

Worshippers approach the front of the temples, clap their hands together a few times, then bow. They burn a strong incense. I have not been able to speak with a Japanese about the meaning of this. Prayer looks the same in any language, but there is a reverence and repetition about it that I admire.

One of these temple complexes was especially beautiful. Carefully constructed, it reminds me of the artistry put into ship joining. The wooden buildings were set in the woods, closed up within hills. Our translator explained briefly that these temples worship a kami and the Buddha and are to be built together. The main temple itself is around the height of three men, covered with a packed straw hatch. The roof is somewhat like the thatch roofs Africans build on the Gold Coast, but of a thicker construction.

A bell hangs at the front, framed by a large twisted grass rope. We stood awhile, watching the comings and goings of Japanese and their priests. As we watched, an old woman came up, rang the bell, and offered a sort of prayer to this god. I very much wanted to draw some other details: the cloth banners hanging from various places, ornate windows framing the green forest. The wooden lattices in the front of the building made it hard to see inside, but I am promised the god is in there, nonetheless.

At least the Jesuits and the Shintos make the same promises.



Art, illustrations, and other art depicting Japanese life and culture.

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August, 1601

Welcome Companions

The white Portuguese sailors can be a rough bunch. They are lewd in public, often abusing the trust of the Japanese as they did the peoples in Mombassa, Cochin, and Macao. Their behavior does not change greatly from on the ships to the land. The Jesuits implore all of us to act as men of God, to respect the Japanese and their customs. The Portuguese sailors’ public drunkenness and heathen behavior does not bring in more Christian converts, only fools parted with their money. Among the Japanese, of course a poor image of foreigners has formed over the years.

Others of us take more care to build connections: Japanese who can provide the best trade deals. To act a nuisance does not make much money on these islands.

On this, I must mention the constable Alfonso. He was recently accused of killing another man’s dog by kicking it, forcing me to intervene and pass quick judgement. Alfonso is friendly enough, but he despises dogs, having been bitten before. He told us as much once, while we worked to unload the ship in Nagasaki harbour. In the event, a price was agreed with the Japanese owner for the loss of his dog. It was a small amount to make him whole. Privately, Alfonso said he is happy the beast is gone; he doesn’t need to watch out for the teeth anymore. I had some of his wages stripped, as a message to the other constables. We must remain in the good graces of our hosts.

Translators are a godsend in Nagasaki. We have been introduced to a group of Christian men and women who act as language tutors and guides. They pay special attention to sailors who have patience, and coin. These people belong to the Church, having been converted by missionaries over the past 30 years. As such, they are honest and goodly in their dealings with us. Polite but curious of the lascarim and Africans in my crew, these Christians take special effort to converse with them and ask questions of their background. No hatred of men with dark skin is in their hearts; we relax around them. Much curiousness is about my position as a ship captain, something Nagasaki does not see often. Their term for us is kurobo, or black man. If it means we are granted kindness the white men cannot stand to offer, we can stand it.

A most interesting people.


African Ambassadors

Depictions of foreign emissaries to Europe from Africa.

Portrait of Don Antonio Manuele de Funta, Ambassador of the King of the Kongo to the Pope

Part of a Congolese delegation to Europe. During this time, artists started promoting the vision of a cosmopolitan and international Europe. It was during this period that the convention was introduced of including a black African as one of the three foreign kings in images of the Adoration of the Magi.

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Dom Miguel de Castro, Emissary of Soyo

Dom Miguel de Castro is depicted in his role as ambassador from the Kongo province of Soyo to Holland’s colony of Dutch Brazil. De Castro’s 1642 mission on behalf of Soyo’s ruler, Daniel da Silva, was to strengthen ties with the Dutch in order to assert independence from Kongo and counter Portugal’s increasingly aggressive presence in Central Africa.

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September 1601

The Foundling

My friendship with the family Minatoya has progressed satisfactorily. They are named Sute and Kamezo. Sute manages the shipping trade and financial arrangements, while Kamezo is a master in sourcing materials and goods. They have taken me almost as an older brother, teaching me about the island and the language. I am happy to be known as their friend. My skill with the Japanese language continues to improve, though people are still surprised every time I speak it.

I sit with them occasionally in the afternoon as business is being completed. We speak on many things. Sute told me a story about her childhood, and an incredible thing that sometimes happens here. The Japanese, as with all other peoples I have met, believe strongly in the power of spirits. In a family, when many of their children die at a young age, they feel it wise to break the spell of bad luck.

When another girl is born, she is taken to an empty field or the forest, and left alone. The family pays another person, of no relation to the family, to pretend to find the child alone in the field. He then brings the child back to the parents home, asking if they will not have mercy and take it into their home.

As is their way, the child is taken back in, and given the name Sute, or Foundling. In this way, her family hopes to trick any evil from falling on their babies; they prevent it from taking yet another of their children. Sute explained this happened to her, hence her name. Her parents had three daughters, but they died at a young age, years before she was born. This was the first I’ve heard of pretend abandonment.

January, 1602

A Small Purchase

By chance, a fine inlaid box, of the type Luis Menezes of Macao was seeking, came into my possession. I will not tell much of how I received it. With the current attitudes toward foreigners here, it would mean trouble for us all if the box were discovered. My position as a captain grants me certain liberties; sailors trust me with some delicate things.

Menezes will be very pleased with this present for his wife, and it has not cost much.

It is roughly square, a little longer than two hand-lengths. Over the top and sides is an inlaid pattern of white pearl, made into birds, leaves, and some assorted flowers. Items such as this bring great prices in Macao and Portugal. Some days ago, I visited a small shop where they are made. The Japanese craftsmen make them slowly. It is very detailed work; men sit hunched over the pearl pieces for hours on end, shaping and working images together. Our interpreter told us the birds on the box are not all found on these islands; instead they have been recreated by looking at our European and Indian drawings.

December 1602

Gifts from Friends

Some time has passed and too many letters are left unwritten. The seasons have changed, and the ships continue to come and depart for Macao and Portugal.

I have made some friends among the captains. Capitão Botelho of the Amaro gave me a small blue China bottle, covered in delightful paintings of birds. I thought of Menezes and his household. Capitão Fernandez and Pestana sent me a large amount of black velvet, three pieces of black tafetta cloth, and 12 pieces of satin cloth, along with some silk stockings. Martines offered a present of citrus fruit, visiting a while at the Minatoya house. He offered his services for any future voyage.

The life of a trader is still new to me. I am a sailor first, but have my head about me and a crude grasp of the Japanese language. Almost without deciding, I remain in Japan. The reasons are hard to write; words elude me.

All these years, I looked for a way to escape from the heavy hand of my Portuguese masters. First I freed us on the São Catarina. Now I free myself, again, by staying in Nagasaki and living with my Japanese friends. I no longer hear the constant sigh of the angry ocean, or the moaning of dying men. There is no murmuring of the Jesuits below decks. Instead, it is the constant sigh of the quiet harbour, the moaning of insects in the summer months. Now, there is only the murmuring of Nagasaki and her daily life.

Even so, foreigners are targeted every day. Any association with the Jesuits and the Portuguese means my life is in danger; my black skin makes it impossible to go unnoticed. Others of us have been beaten and accosted on the street—we move closer to each other now, into the district. And yet, I have chosen this over the ocean.

February, 1603

A Dangerous Climate

About four years ago, 26 men and boys were crucified here in Nagasaki by the daimyo Hideyoshi. Those killed were Japanese, Spaniards, an Indian, and a man from the New World. They were Franciscans and Jesuits, put up on crosses and impaled for all to see. For some time now, the practice of Christianity has been outlawed; here in Nagasaki, there are still many Christians, but their numbers get smaller every year.

After Hideyoshi’s death, the new daimyo Ieyasu has less time to persecute Christians. I have made it clear to all those remaining with me to keep their religion to themselves. People watch us constantly.

After the crucifixions, Martines asked if I now wanted to leave Japan; the climate has gotten much worse the past few years. There are edicts from the government asking people to turn in Christians and their sympathizers. Japanese and foreign Christians have been killed or forced back to our district. I worry for my safety, and for the safety of my friends Sute and Kamezo. Perhaps I will speak with Botelho and Fernandez about obtaining passage to Macao.



Religious artifacts and art from the Age of Exploration

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March, 1603

Visits by Japanese

A man brought a present of sweets today with his two daughters. I had little to give in return, so I brought out a small piece of paper and drew their faces. The girls were delighted, asking for me to draw their father and mother as well. I do not know the purpose of their visit, but having a family here was a welcome reprieve.

On a rainy spring evening, I returned to our house after a day with the Minatoya family. The roads were empty, as men and women alike stayed inside and out of the weather. When I opened our door, I saw an extra pair of shoes, ones I did not recognize. Voices laughed from inside, near the fire; a visitor had come calling with a gift of Japanese wine. They make it with rice here, as with so many other things. I was not in, so he shared the bottle with Fadrique, my boy. When I returned, they were in a merry mood, and clearly Fadrique’s tongue was loosened by the drink; I did not know his grasp of the Japanese language was that much improved. Bowing apologies, the man left soon after I returned.

What Fadrique told the man of my affairs, I do not know. The climate surrounding us namban and Christians is getting more dangerous. It is lucky that I did not leave any of my papers out in the open, though I do not think the Japanese man can read Portuguese, or even my handwriting. I am increasingly worried; it is only a matter of time before we are targeted. This island, my freedom, is not all I dreamed of.


Views of Portuguese Fashion

Comparison of how Portuguese traders fashion and clothing was depicted

Gunpowder flask with Portuguese man

Gunpowder flask, decorated with figures in Portuguese dress, wood, covered in black lacquer, with hiramaki-e and takamaki-e lacquer decoration; copper spout, 19th century.

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Portrait of a Portuguese Mughal

This painting is unlikely to be a contemporary portrait of a 17th-century European visitor to the Mughal court, it is likely that the Mughal artist used a painting as his model for this work. The details of his dress, such as his pinked boots and the open-fronted ruff, are seen in European portraits of the 1580s, while the hilt of his rapier probably dates from as early as the 1560s.

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November, 1603

An Attack

I should have listened to Martines. The wonderful Fadrique was killed some days ago; I was unharmed and managed to escape.

On a fall day, he accompanied me to the Minatoya home; we hoped to acquire some porcelain and handmade goods to trade. The stone road was wet after a recent rain, and the November clouds brought an unusual chill to Nagasaki. We carefully stepped around and through large puddles of water in the road.

Some of the homes along the road were known to be black market silk dealers. Fadrique, looking down at the ground so as to avoid the gathered rain, walked squarely into a man carrying a bale of silk. We both knew enough Japanese to apologize deeply; we bowed again and again. Thinking the matter settled, we continued on our business for the day. What I thought was simply a misunderstanding later was revealed as a provocation.

When we returned home late in the afternoon, we found the man and his accomplices waiting before our door. I yelled for Fadrique; terrified, we both turned and ran for the Hirado-machi street. I ran ahead of Fadrique. I heard him scream briefly, then the street was quiet except for the sound of wet footsteps running after me. I fled for my life, managing to hide in the entrance to a friend’s home until late that night.

Fadrique was cut down by a catan; his killers remain unknown. So too have my dreams of a new life been cut away from me.

May he rest in peace.

November, 1603

All Good Things

I remain here in Japan, fearful and restless. The land of my escape has become yet another cage. It is my wish that this diary remain with the Minatoya household, in the event of my death. In all ways, I have tried to capture the true nature of my travels across the oceans; if there is fault in what I have written, let it be with my memory, not my spirit. Friends and enemies alike I lost to the water, to sickness, to the sword. May all our memories live on.

Done in the year 1603.