Historic Gigster – The Pragmatism of Emperor Ieyasu

The Flourishing Port-city of Nagasaki, Hizen province, 1778, by Ōhata, Bunjiemon. Source: University of British Columbia Library - Rare Books and Special Collections.

The Flourishing Port-city of Nagasaki, Hizen province, 1778, by Ōhata, Bunjiemon. Source: University of British Columbia Library - Rare Books and Special Collections.

In 1543, the Portuguese traders Antonio da Mota and Francisco Zeimoto arrived in Japan. Being the first Europeans to reach Japan they sought to set up a trading post there. That was their original mission, but as all Portuguese overseas missions at the time, this mission was intricately linked to the spread of Catholicism. Religion and Commerce were seen as two sides of the same mission, you could not have one without the other.

The Japanese allowed the Portuguese to set up a trading post. At first Portugal did not have much that was of interest to Japan for trade, but as capable sea-farers they could ferry valuable silks and porcelain from mainland China. One commodity that the Portuguese did bring were firearms, and these were highly valued by the Japanese. Trade flourished for several decades while the Portuguese were unchallenged by other Europeans.

When Europeans did appear at the start of the 17th century, the Portuguese had also started an extensive, although not very successful campaign to convert the Japanese to Catholicism. The Portuguese Jesuit priest Gaspar Vilela even helped found the port-city of Nagasaki in 1571 to help facilitate trade and conversion – it was essentially considered a Christian city.

While the trade was welcomed, the effort to convert the Japanese to Christianity was less well received. It angered the Japanese nobility and also the Emperor Ieyasu. Christianity challenged their authority and this was problematic. In 1614, Catholicism was officially banned in Japan. The emperor still needed the guns and goods from China, but the Dutch (and English) were more than willing to sign trading deals without religious strings attached.

The Dutch in Japan

The Dutch, in particular, saw a unique opportunity to not only eliminate Portuguese influence in Japan, but also to grow their own trade to fill the void. At the core of this difference, though was the fact that for the Portuguese commerce could not be divorced from religion. The Catholic Church at the time was the wealthiest institution in the world and it owed its wealth to it’s vast colonial trade.

For the Dutch had fought a l300-year protracted war against the Catholic Church. They saw wealth as a corrupting influence on religion and so for them, the idea that trade and religion should be separate was perfectly acceptable. As a result, they took over all the Portuguese trade with Japan from that point on. The Emperor could not be more pleased and granted the Dutch exclusive trading rights.

For the Dutch this was a logical outcome of their history back in Europe. They are often portrayed as the masterminds behind this agreement, but it was simple practicality on the part of the Emperor. The Dutch appealed to his self-interest, but the Emperor also saw an opportunity in the needs of the Dutch. They were on the other side of the earth, fiercely competing with other European powers for trading rights, not to mention the risks imposed on trade from pirates, storms and simple logistics. The costs of this trade was also high for the Dutch, and so he also appealed to their self-interest. In a way, you could argue he made out much better from the trade deal than the Dutch did.

Lesson Learned

History often credits the Dutch for being pragmatic in their willingness to separate trade from religion. However, we could also look at this from another perspective. The Dutch were not necessarily in a position to lead the trade agreement as they had considerable risk and high costs to consider. In essence it could be argued that they had the weaker hand.

The Emperor, on the other hand, was holding all the cards. He could also turn to the English or any other maritime power. While the Portuguese left a void, it was the Emperor who would decide who would be allowed to fill it. The Emperor also didn’t need to travel to the other side of the world. It was he who was being pragmatic.

More to the point, perhaps we should give him credit for understanding that the history of religious wars in Europe created an ideal trading partner in the Dutch. Perhaps he carefully considered their logical understanding of separating trade from religion. If so, he saw in this a golden opportunity for Japan and he took it.


Sometimes the real motivation for someone to come to the negotiating table is not the obvious one. Having a broad understanding of where those motivations come from can be an extremely valuable asset. In the case of Emperor Ieyasu, understanding the historical context of the situation allowed him to better negotiate the trade agreement.

This kind of broad understanding isn’t always learned in “the school of life” which is often given as “the only education needed” in today’s fast paced, connected world. Sometimes it is also necessary to back that knowledge up with deeper, theoretical and historical learning – the kind done in the classroom. Emperor Ieyasu and his advisors were well educated, and this played a big part in how they negotiated with the European powers.

I’m not suggesting that every business leader needs to go back to school and learn theory and history, but perhaps it might behoove them to take it up as a hobby. If that is not possible, than consider hiring people who bring this knowledge to the negotiating table.

This blog post was simultaneously published in The Gigster 'Zine, a newsletter published by the Colégas Group discussing new and innovative part-time opportunities & success strategies for anyone with a college degree. To sign up for the newsletter, click here.

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