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Art Through Time: A Global View

Converging Cultures Art: Namban (“Southern Barbarians” in Japan)

» Kano School, Japan

Namban (“Southern Barbarians” in Japan)

Namban (“Southern Barbarians” in Japan)
Artist / Origin: Kano School, Japan
Region: East Asia
Date: Edo period, 17th century
Period: 1400 CE – 1800 CE
Material: Ink, color, and gold on paper
Medium: Painting
Dimensions: H: 60 ¼ in. (153 cm.), W: 130 ½ in. (331 cm).
Location: The Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC
Credit: Courtesy of the Freer Gallery or Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC

Namban (or nanban), which literally translates as “southern barbarians,” was a term commonly applied to the Portuguese traders who began arriving in Japan in the mid-fifteenth century.

The moniker referred to the trade route the Portuguese took traveling north from Macao to Nagasaki. Along with the goods they carried for sale in Nagasaki, the Portuguese brought with them European missionaries in search of converts. The presence of these Christian proselytizers eventually led to the erosion of Portugal’s relationship with the Japanese. The missionaries were formally expelled from Japan in 1614, and by 1639, the Dutch had assumed control of European trade there.

The presence of European merchants and missionaries impacted the arts of Japan in several ways. In some cases, European iconography was combined with Japanese production techniques. In others, items associated with Christian worship were decorated in Japanese styles. With their unusual garb and strange habits, the Europeans themselves also became fodder for Japanese artists, who represented them in both narrative scenes and as stand-alone figures. This screen depicts the landing and disembarkation of a Portuguese merchant ship at the port of Nagasaki. The caricature-like Portuguese in their bright and baggy pantaloons and red hats are clearly distinguishable as foreigners, as are the Jesuit priests in their black robes who populate the scene to the right.

So-called namban screens like this one were produced in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries by artists of the Kano school, an influential lineage of painters founded by Kano Masanobu (1434–1530). Although the image on this screen shows some attempt to suggest depth, particularly in the rendering of architecture, heavy gilding and an emphasis on patterns—both characteristics of Kano painting during the period—indicate that elegance and decorative effect were valued over the illusion of three-dimensionality. Such screens functioned primarily as ornamental furnishings in the grand homes of affluent Japanese patrons, including military lords and government officials.

Expert Perspective: Jay Levenson, Director of the International Program, Museum of Modern Art, New York

“There was an old tradition in Japan of showing foreigners, different traders who had reached Japan, as exotic peoples. So strangely enough, as exotic as the Asians were for Europeans in this period, the Europeans were just as exotic to Asian observers.

The Japanese called the Portuguese namban. It’s a phrase that means ‘southern barbarians.’ They were barbarians simply because they weren’t from the Japanese world. And they were southern because they were sailing to Japan from Macao; so they were coming from the South. At some point early in this trade, the Japanese began to create images of the Portuguese ships.

We really can’t tell whether it’s Goa. It’s just made up. The Japanese wouldn’t have known what the foreign port looked like. And then the second part of the screen will show the arrival of the Portuguese ship in a Japanese port, the Portuguese trade objects, mostly in cases, sometimes exotic animals in cages, being off-loaded from the ship, and then the procession of the Portuguese captain and his crewmembers with all the trading objects with European priests usually Jesuits, marching into the Japanese city. What’s most interesting about the images is that they are really caricatures.”

Additional Resources

Department of Asian Art. “The Kano School of Painting”. In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Web site. (October 2003).

“Encompassing the Globe: Portugal and the World in the 16th and 17th Centuries (June 24–September 16, 2007).” Arthur M. Sackler Gallery exhibition. Smithsonian Institution. Freer & Sackler Galleries Web site.

Namban (‘Southern Barbarians’ in Japan).” In Japanese Art Collection. Smithsonian, Freer & Sackler Galleries Web site.

Levenson, Jay A., ed. Encompassing the Globe: Portugal and the World in the 16th and 17th Centuries. Washington, DC: Smithsonian, 2007.

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