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Japan's 400 year old lessons hold good

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Export, Japan

I am indebted for this blog to the wonderfully-named and wonderfully-enthusiastic Professor Timon Screech, who is a Professor of the History of Art at the University of London’s School of Oriental and Africa Studies. Professor Screech has been researching the very first trading voyage from the UK to Japan, which arrived in Nagasaki Prefecture 400 years ago, in June 2013. And if ever there was any doubt about whether history holds any lessons for us today, this story ought to dispel it.

It turns out that the expedition, led by John Saris, was based on 3 fundamental errors - all of them pitfalls that could still trip up the unwary today. The Far East was still pretty much unknown territory back then, and there were no reliable maps, just some very sketchy representations courtesy of the Portuguese and Dutch traders who'd already found their way to Japan. Sketchy being the operative word - Japan was shown as being roughly the size of India - 8 or 9 times its actual size. No wonder the British were keen to start trading - that's one significant market!

The map was misleading in another way: it had Japan lying much further north than it is in reality. Most of Britain's trading partners at the time were in southern Europe, the Middle East, Africa, India, South-East Asia...  Spot the common link? All rather hot countries - which was a problem given that Britain's main export commodity at the time was wool. So the idea of a large, northerly market whose citizens must surely be waiting, shivering, for some nice warm woollen cloth, was tempting indeed. Sadly, though, the temperature when John Saris landed in Nagasaki  was probably about 23 degrees, and would have climbed steadily over the ensuing months. As he sweated his way through the humidity of a Japanese summer he probably realised pretty soon that he might find it hard to shift the bales of wool he'd schlepped across the seas for the past 2 years.

Mistake number 3 could also have been avoided if only they'd had the benefit of Google Maps. The East India Company, who were in the vanguard of developing these new eastern markets, had reckoned on there being a northerly sea route into Japan. They'd got it all nicely mapped out: their ships would leave England laden with wool and cloth, pop over the top of Russia into Japan, sell all their cargo then continue south into South East Asia where they could use their earnings to buy up the spices that were in such demand back in Britain and reload the ships for their journey home. Great plan! Except that the northerly route was icebound all year round - though as global warming takes effect that may eventually change.

You've got to admire the determination and the pioneering spirit of these early traders. And thank them for providing a nice handy checklist of what to do if you're thinking of exporting to a new market: (1) check the size of the market (2) check whether your product is likely to meet local needs (3) figure out the logistics of getting your product there. The UKTI team in Japan can help you with all of these things - if only we'd existed 400 years ago we could have saved John Saris a whole lot of trouble!

The voyage had its bright spots though: the telescope that John Saris brought with him as a gift from King James I to the Shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu, ensured that from the very early days of our contact with Japan Britain had a reputation for developing the latest technology. And the lacquerware and folding screens that they took back with them to London appeared at the first ever art auctions to be staged in London - the start of a business for which the UK remains renowned to this day.

There are all sorts of events taking place around the UK this year to mark the 400th anniversary of UK-Japan trading relations: see for more details. And if you'd like to follow in the footsteps of John Saris, but perhaps with rather more success, do get in touch with us on

Sue Kinoshita, Director, UKTI Japan 


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  1. Comment by kame posted on

    Professor Timon Screech, not Simon...

  2. Comment by Jason James posted on

    Good one, Sue! Both educational and eminently practical!

  3. Comment by ukti-admin posted on

    Typo corrected, thanks for bringing this to our attention