Building bridges to Japan

Erik Laxman met with some stranded Japanese sailors in Irkutsk 1789. The captain of the Japanese ship Kodayu Daikokuya and the crew hoped to return to Japan. Laxman spared no effort to assist them fulfilling their wish. Finally, Erik Laxman managed to provide opportunity for Kodayu Daikokuya to meet with Catherine the Great in order to ask for permission to leave the country. Russian Empire was keen to open trade relations with Japan after the 150 years self-imposed isolation of Japan from the rest of the world. Therefore, an official expedition was organized to return the Japanese sailors in 1782. The second son of Erik Laxman, Adam, acted as the leader of the expedition. This encounter lead to the first diplomatic contact between Japan and Russia and diplomatic exchange between the two realms.

Erik Laxman and Japan

When living in Irkutsk, Erik Laxman met with the Japanese in 1789 (Katsuragawa=Miyanaga 1988). These castaways were the crew of the ship Shinshômaru which had been shipwrecked in Russian territory.

Shinshômaru left Ise in West Japan as Edo (present day Tokyo) as its destination. Due to a storm, the ship drifted across the Pacific to the Aleutian islands where it shipwrecked in 1783. The crew roamed through Kamchatka, Okhotsk and Jakutsk to Irkutsk. Of the 17 men leaving Japan only six reached Irkutsk alive. They were Kôdayû Daikokuya, Isokichi, Shinzô, Shôzô, Koichi and Kyûemon. It took for them a year to arrive from the Aleutian islands to Irkutsk.

While the Japanese wanted to return, it was not a straightforward matter to obtain permission to leave Russian and transportation back to Japan that was closed to the outside world. Despite the efforts of captain Kôdayû Daikokuya they had failed to leave. Erik Laxman took to helping the Japanese out, teaching them useful things and supporting them financially. In return, he learned about Japanese language and geography.

Eventually, Laxman escorted the Japanese to St. Petersburg, where empress Catherine the Great in 1791 granted them permission to leave and gave orders for organizing and expedition to Japan to return the Japanese back home. Erik Laxman’s son Adam was nominated leader of the expedition. Erik Laxman himself accompanied the Japanese until Okhotsk where a ship left for Japan (Katsuragawa=Kamei, 1937). Altogether, Erik Laxman spent three years with the Japanese sailors. He started planning a new expedition to Japan but due to his death these plans did not materialize (Katô, 1974). Kodayu Daikokuya reported the actions and assistance of Erik Laxmanin to officials in the interrogations after his return.

The relationship of Erik Laxman and Kodayu Daikokuya are documented and well known in Japan and the goodwill and friendship still celebrated.

Adam Laxman and Japan

Catherine the Great ordered the expedition to be sent to Japan to return Kodayu Daikokuya and his crew to Japan and probe the possible contacts to Japan. Adam Laxman (b. 1766 in Russia) – the son of Erik – was nominated leader of the expedition (Heiska, 2008).

According to the diary of Adam Laxman, the expedition left Okhotsk on 13th  September 1792 and arrived in Nemuro on the 9th of October. According to the Gregorian calender the date of departure would be 24th of September and arrival in Nemuro 20th October (Yamashita, 2003).

A ship named Ekaterina (Catherine) carried the first official delegation from Russia to Japan. On board the ship there were altogether 42 persons (Nemuro City).

Adam Laxman’s assignment was to return Kodayu Daikokuya, Isokichi and Koichi home and negoatiate a trade agreement between Russian and Japan. Russia was controlling significant fur trade in East Siberia and wished to establish trade in foodstuffs with Japan.

The expedition waited in Nemuro for eight months for the official reception on behalf of Japan. There they built workshops and exchanged information with the local Japanese. Maps of Russia and Japan were prepared and exchanged together with other information. Also a model of a ship and a dictionary were prepared. Adam Laxman engaged in collecting plant samples and minerals to be brought to Russia. The Russians were also skating on the frozen bay which has been recorded as the first event of skating in Japan (Nemuro City).

According to his assignment, Adam Laxman sought a trade agreement with Japan and for this an official negotiation was organized at Matsumae in Hokkaido in 1793. Japan was closed at that time and the only countries that had trade agreements with Japan were China and Holland.

Japan received captain Kodayu Daikokuya and Isokichi on the same occasion. Koichi had died while waiting for permission to land in Nemuro. Adam was granted entry to Nagasaki in southern Japan, the only place foreigners (Dutch and Chinese) were allowed to visit.

The expedition left for Russia from Hakodatesta on 22nd August 1793 and returned to Okhotsk on 19th September 1793 (In Adam Laxman’s diary 11th August 1793  and 8th September according to the Julian calendar).

The visit of Adam Laxman was a significant event in the history of Japan. It marked the beginning of the systematic study of Russia in Japan. These event also prompted Japan to assess the significance of the North and the plan the defence of Northern Japani in a new way (Suzuka city, 2012).

Laxman in the land of the rising sun

The exhibition illustrating Adam Laxman’s journey to Japan was displayed at Riihisaari – Savonlinna Museum 29.4. – 14.8. 2022.

Laxman in the Land of the Rising Sun is an exhibition about the adventures Erik Laxman, his son Adam Laxman, and Japanese sea captain Daikokuya Kōdayū experienced in the late 18th century in Siberia, Saint Petersburg, and the almost entirely isolated empire of Japan.

The information found here is largely derived from the master’s thesis of Chikage Konishi-Räsänen, evaluated and approved by the University of Eastern Finland in September 2021.

While Erik Laxman himself never reached Japanese shores, his life’s work provides more than enough content for multiple exhibitions. In Fall 2023, a new exhibition at Riihisaari will be covering Erik Laxman’s childhood in Savonlinna and his work as a cleric, scientist, explorer and businessman.

  1. Japan in the age of isolation
  2. A chance meeting in Siberia
  3. Shipwrecked in the Pacific
  4. Summoned to the imperial court
  5. Adam Laxman heads for Japan
  6. Eight months in Nemuro
  7. Mind your manners
  8. Hands-on diplomacy
  9. The aftermath

1. Japan in the age of isolation

Ruled for many centuries by the shoguns, the high echelon of the samurai military class, the island nation of Japan had gone through alternating periods of intentional isolationism and eagerly embracing foreign influences.

Starting in 1543, Portuguese sailors, merchants and missionaries were the first westerners to reach Japan. The Dutch followed soon after. Initially, there was plenty of interaction between the Japanese and the Europeans, even though Japanese rulers were leery of the foreigners. Their suspicions were not entirely unfounded – Portugal was a major player in the slave trade, after all.

Under the Tokugawa Shogunate (1603-1868), Japan cut itself off from the outside world. Leaving the country was forbidden and those who did leave were not allowed to return. Relations soured with the Portuguese and they were expelled. By the mid-1600s Japan had very little foreign contact; only China and the Dutch East India Company were allowed to visit Japan, and even they were confined to the Nagasaki port of Dejima. Any non-Dutch Europeans found on Japanese shores were to be killed.

Still, it was not feasible to completely isolate an entire country, as proven by such cases as foundering Japanese sailors landing on the Kamchatka Peninsula. The first long-term Japanese visitor to Russia may well have been a fisherman named Dembei, who was shipwrecked on the Kamchatkan coast in the early 1700s and, with Russian assistance, managed to travel all the way to Moscow and Saint Petersburg..

Togukawa Ieyasu, the founder of the Togukawa shogunate. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons, CC-0, public domain).

2. Chance meeting in Siberia

Erik Laxman was born in 1737 in then-Swedish Savonlinna and rose to prominence in Russia as a cleric, explorer and natural scientist. In the winter of 1789, he ran into an interesting and quite unexpected group in the southern Siberian town of Irkutsk: A crew of Japanese castaways. Erik Laxman struck up a friendship with their captain, Daikokuya Kōdayū, and decided to help them get back home.

A map of the Russian Empire, 1747. Atlas Russicus, general map. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons, CC-0, public domain).

It’s no wonder Erik Laxman came to Irkutsk, having been working in Siberia for years, but how had the Japanese sailors found their way 1500 kilometres inland from the nearest coast?

3. Shipwrecked in the Pacific

The Japanese ship Shinsōmaruhad been caught in a storm in the North Pacific and ran aground on the Aleutian island of Amchitka in July of 1783. Four years later, a Russian ship picked up the castaways and delivered them to the Kamchatka Peninsula. Only nine of the Shinsōmaru’s seventeen-man crew were still alive by that point. A further three Japanese sailors perished in Kamchatka. The last six survivors were escorted by the Russians to the southern Siberian town of Irkutsk in February 1789.

Depiction of travel in Siberia according to a Japanese document. Photo: Daikokuya Kodayu Memorial Museum, Suzuka.

They wished to return to Japan, but crossing the Russian border required the proper documentation. Erik Laxmann leant his assistance in this matter, drafting three separate official requests for the necessary paperwork. No travel permits were granted, however.

The routes of the castaways in Siberia and the ship Yekaterina: Daikokuya Memorial Museum, Suzuka

4. Summoned to the imperial court

In late 1790, Erik Laxman was ordered to bring samples of the plants and minerals he’d discovered in Siberia back to the Russian capital, Saint Petersburg. He decided he would also bring captain Daikokuya to the capital, introduce him to Catherine the Great, and ask the Empress herself for permission to go to Japan. While Laxman’s own travel expenses were covered by the state as official business, Laxman paid for Daikokuya’s trip with his own money. It was on January 15, 1791, that they set off on the over-5000-kilometre trek from Irkutsk to Saint Petersburg. The vehicle of choice was a covered sleigh, or kibitka, usually drawn by eight horses, but in the most challenging sections requiring more than twenty. After a gruelling month of travel, Laxman and captain Daikokuya arrived in Saint Petersburg on February 19, and were housed in the quarters of the imperial summer residence’s seneschal.

Portrait of Catherine the Great and the dagger presented to Daikokuya by the empress. Japanese document.
Picture: Daikokuya Kodayu Memorial Museum, Suzuka.

Erik Laxman and Daikokuya Kōdayū met empress Catherine the Great at her summer residence in Tsarskoye Selo on 28, 1791. In the fall of that year, she gave Daikokuya and his crew permission to travel back to Japan, along with a Russian expedition tasked with gauging the possibility of establishing trade relations with the Shogunate.

5. Adam Laxman heads for Japan

In January of 1792, Erik Laxman and Daikokuya Kōdayū returned from Saint Petersburg to Irkutsk, where they would wait out the winter and prepare for the coming journey to Japan. The expedition set off from Irkutsk in May and arrived at the Russian Far Eastern port of Okhotsk in August.

It was here, by the Sea of Okhotsk, that Erik Laxman and captain Daikokuya parted ways. Erik would not depart for Japan; instead, his son Adam was appointed to lead the expedition. Their sea journey aboard the ship Ekaterina spanned two thousand kilometres in the fall of 1792, until October 20, when they arrived at Nemuro, on the island of Hokkaido.

Yekaterina. The ship that transported Adam Laxman and the castaways to Japan. Japanese manuscript c. 1792. Nemuro City Museum. Nemuro, Hokkaido, Japani. Photo: Wikimedia Commons, CC-0, public domain.

A Russian ship coming into a Japanese port was unusual to say the least, seeing as for nearly two centuries, only the Dutch and Chinese had been allowed in the country, and even they were confined to a single port in Nagasaki. Authorities made an exception for the Ekaterina and the castaways she was bringing back home.

Ultimately, only three of the seventeen castaways ever returned to Japan: captain Daikokuya and two crewmates named Isokichi and Koichi. Koichi never made it ashore, but died aboard the Ekaterina in the harbour of Nemuro. Apart from them and the others who had died previously, two of the Japanese sailors had decided to remain in Russia.

6. Eight months in Nemuro

Adam Laxman and the expedition spent the winter of 1792-1793 in Nemuro. Temporary housing was built near the harbour, obviously including a sauna, and with accommodations being sorted, their focus shifted to cataloguing local flora, fauna, and minerals.

The accommodations of the expedition in Nemuro. Photo: Daikokuya Kodayu Memorial Museum, Suzuka.

Apart from research, the Russians spent the months preceding the trade negotiations exchanging information with the locals and observing Japanese culture. Adam Laxman presented Japanese officials a large globe and a world map, which the Japanese copied. Adam made note of their copying technique: “The Japanese placed a very thin sheet of paper upon the map and drew on it skilfully with a brush.”  

Adam Laxman’s expedition introduced ice-skating to Japan. A Japanese drawing of a skate and a skater. Photo: Daikokuya Kodayu Memoriol Museum, Suzuka

There was some leisure time amidst all the work as well. The Japanese were quite astonished to see the Russians’ strange foreign pastime – skating on the frozen sea. Adam Laxman was also invited to the Japanese New Year’s festivities in February of 1793.

7. Mind your manners

The question of how the Russians would get to the town of Matsumae for negotiations with the Japanese was itself grounds for a meeting with Japanese officials in May. The Japanese government was unwilling to let the Russians sail to Matsumae, suspecting they would instead head for the capital city, Edo (nowadays known as Tokyo), which was absolutely forbidden to all foreigners. Eventually they agreed to let the Laxman expedition first sail to Hakodate, on the southern coast of Hokkaido, from where they would make the 100 km overland journey to Matsumae. Working out this arrangement took an entire month.

The camp of the Laxman Expedition in Nemuro
Photo: Daikokuya Kodayu Memorial Museum, Suzuka

Another issue raised by the negotiations was how the Russians would comport themselves. The Japanese tried to teach them the expected greetings, including removal of footwear and bowing while seated on the floor, but Adam Laxman was unwilling to follow local customs. After an extended discussion, both sides agreed to greet one another as dictated by their own traditions.

The Russo-Japanese delegation departing for diplomatic consultations to Matsumae. Detail of a Japanese document.
Photo Daikokuya Kodayu Memorial Museum, Suzuka

8. Hands-on diplomacy

Once an understanding had been reached regarding the formalities, the Russo-Japanese negotiations could begin. Taking place over multiple meetings in July and August of 1793, the proceedings were also joined by two Japanese officials from the capital, Edo. At the first meeting, the Japanese gave gifts to the Russians: three swords and some rice.

The details of the negotiations were planned meticulously. Diagrams of the setup of defence of the negoniations venue in a Japanese document. Photo: Daikokuya Kodayu Memorial Museum, Suzuka

At the second meeting, Adam Laxman intended to hand over a letter from governor of Irkutsk Ivan Pihl, but the Japanese refused to accept it. They did allow the letter to be read aloud, however, and later on one of the bureaucrats from Edo asked the Russian interpreter to make a secret copy of it, which Laxman condoned. The second meeting was also where the Japanese formally welcomed back their wayward countrymen, Daikokuya Kōdayū and Isokichi, neither of whom Adam Laxman would ever meet again afterwards.

Laxman wanted to speak with the local governor as well, but that was not possible. He did manage a personal meeting with the two men from the capital and gave them gifts of pistols, drinking glasses, mirrors and thermometers. He also asked them to take some of his father Erik’s Russian research equipment back to the scientists in Edo.

9. The aftermath

Following the conclusion of the negotiations, Adam Laxman returned to Hakodate to prepare his expedition for the journey home. They departed in late August, and after a few weeks of sailing, arrived back on Russian soil at Okhotsk on September 19, 1793.

As a result of Adam Laxman’s expedition, Russia became the third nation in the world to be given permission to dock at the port of Nagasaki, albeit with only one ship at a time, and have their sailors come ashore.

Adam Laxman in a Japanese drawing, 1793. Hakodate City Central Library, Hakodate, Hokkaido, Japan. Wikimedia Commons, CC-0, public domain.

This did not really translate into any immediate economic benefits, however. Russia entered a time of turbulence after the Japanese expedition’s patron, Empress Catherine the Great, died in 1796. Her successor, Paul I, was unpopular among the aristocracy and was assassinated in 1801. Russia was also simultaneously embroiled in a war in Europe, which diverted even more attention away from the Far East.

On the other hand, the Laxman expedition’s reports, journals, maps and drawings did raise awareness of Japan in Russia. The artefacts and samples Adam brought back from Japan were appended to the collection of the Kunstkamera, Saint Petersburg’s museum of anthropology and ethnography, and Russia’s first public museum.

Author: Chikage Konishi-Räsänen and Riihisaari museum.

Sources for the references can be found in the bibliography.


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