Dr Joshua Batts gave an invited talk “Silver Obstacles: Negotiating Exchange During Tokugawa Japan’s ‘Spanish Decade’ – 1598-1613,” at the EHESS/Fondation maison des sciences de l’homme (FMSH) – Paris Comparative Economic History Europe and Asia seminar, on 15th November 2022.
This paper reassesses the frictions and opportunities defining Tokugawa Japan’s relationship to the Spanish Indies at the turn of seventeenth century. Familiar accounts of the relationship emphasise Iberian Catholic outreach falling prey to Japanese authorities’ persecutory impulses. However, I argue that Tokugawa Japan set the pace and scope of engagement, and that missionary matters were not the only impediment to relations. During a “Spanish Decade” covering the first fifteen years of Tokugawa Ieyasu’s (1543–1616) rule, the shogunate invested more in its relationship with imperial Spain than with any other European community. Japanese leadership saw in the Spanish Indies the potential to bring foreign trade to Eastern Japan, to extend commerce across the Pacific Ocean, and to make available valuable mining technologies at a time when Japan’s production was booming. However, these same opportunities doubled as sources of tension, as actors and intermediaries struggled to reach agreement on the volume of trade, the geography of exchange, and how, if at all, to share expertise. This paper explores those tensions with additional emphasis on the complications presented by silver. Though the precious metal facilitated or anchored long-distance trade in other contexts, here it exemplifies Tokugawa outreach, Spanish caution, and the struggle to bridge the gap between the two.