Education About Asia

Butter Diplomacy: Food and Drink as a Social Lubricant in Dutch East India Company Trade with Japan

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Every year the monsoon winds of the Indian Ocean and South China Sea brought roughly half a dozen Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, VOC) ships to Nagasaki, carrying a valuable cargo consisting mainly of various types of silk and other types of cloth, and also Southeast Asian luxury goods, European “rarities,” and foodstuffs such as sugar and spices. After these VOC ships unloaded their precious and varied cargo, negotiations would begin to determine the price of the silk on the Japanese market. These negotiations were often fraught affairs consuming several days of what one can only imagine were tough, knock-down sessions in which each side tried to best the other in setting an advantageous price. The negotiations were also intense because the Japanese rules put in place to tightly regulate foreign trade allowed only a limited window in which to conduct business, so as the deadline for concluding trade neared, tempers flared, and the tension became palpable.

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