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1 / Converging Cultures

Namban (“Southern Barbarians” in Japan)
Namban (“Southern Barbarians” in Japan)
Artist / Origin Kano School, Japan
Region: East Asia
Date Edo period, 17th century
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

expert perspective

Jay LevensonDirector of the International Program, Museum of Modern Art, New York

Namban (Southern Barbariansin Japan)

» Kano School, Japan

expert perspective

Jay Levenson 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.” 

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