In 1643, during the early days of the Tokugawa Shogunate (1603-1868), a party of Dutch sailors from the yacht Breskens were captured on northern Honshu and repeatedly interrogated by Japanese officials.
Each time the men from the Breskens had been interrogated on a certain topic, they were first asked the main questions informally. Later, these were repeated on a formal occasion before the councilors and in the presence of the shogun himself. In other words, the interrogations were rehearsed beforehand. When the group first arrived in Edo, the main question had been whether they had been in league with the second Rubino group [of Jesuit missionaries in disguise], which had just arrived off Kyushu. They were first confronted with the Jesuits on 26 August at Inoue’s mansion in Hitotsubashi, and later on 5 September, before the shogun and his councilors at Hotta’s country mansion in Asakusa. On both occasions, the Dutchmen established their enmity toward the Roman Catholics to the satisfaction of their Japanese judges, and it was clear that the two groups had not been in cahoots….
All the interrogations revolved around the same theme: were the Dutch in league with the Portuguese and Spanish or not? This must have been [Shogun Tokugawa] Iemitsu‘s particular obsession. Were the Dutch in the pay of the Iberians to bring priests ashore, or to spy for good places to do so, or as the vanguard for a joint attack on Japan? Iemitsu may have considered the recent truce between Portugal and Holland as the first step toward such an alliance directed against Japan. The reports of ships firing their guns off the Japanese coast, together with the capture of a group of determined Jesuit priests off Kyushu for the second year in a row, may have been perceived by the shogun as indicative of a grand European design–headed by the Pope and the King of Spain and supported by Portugal and Holland–to dethrone him in revenge for the persecutions of Christians in Japan and the execution of the delegation from Macao in 1641.
The discussion within the bakufu pivoted on the following questions: Was Holland preparing to ally itself with Portugal? In that case, the shogun had reason to fear their combined sea power. Was Holland willing to become Japan’s vassal? Then the prisoners needed to be treated with care. The less factual support there was for the idea of an evil alliance between Holland and Portugal, however, the more awkward it became for the Japanese side to admit that they had arrested their own “friends.” It was, therefore, necessary to establish the existence of some other illegal act that could serve as the reason for the arrest. Hence the insistence, during the interrogations, that the shooting of guns off the Japanese coast had been contrary to the shogun’s laws.
Although there are no Japanese sources left that report this discussion, we find all the arguments of the anti-Dutch side reflected in the questions asked of the prisoners from Nambu during their inter- rogations. However, the eventual release of the prisoners and the continuing relationship with the Dutch East India Company are clear evidence that the pro-Dutch side within the bakufu finally carried the day.
In theory, the shogun’s power was supreme in Japan, but the resolution of the Breskens affair shows that even Iemitsu’s megalomania had its limits. In spite of all the insinuations of a Portuguese-Dutch partnership, in spite of the resemblances found between Catholicism and Protestantism, and between the Spanish city of Manila in the Philippines and the Dutch city of Batavia on Java, in the end common sense prevailed over paranoia. For this containment of the shogun’s suspicions, it is clear we can primarily credit three men: Sakai Tadakatsu, Matsudaira Nobutsuna [who with Dutch ships suppressed the Shimabara Rebellion in 1638], and Inoue Masashige (ex-Christian holding the post of inquisitor). And with this realization we have also defined who among Iemitsu’s top advisers were principally responsible for Japan’s foreign policy during the reign of the third shogun.