Some points on Swedish-Japanese contacts of the past
At the Yokohama Foreign General Cemetery there is a tombstone with
the inscription CAPT. J. WILSON. However, the buried person was a
Swede, previously named Fredrik Wahlgren. Like many other
Scandinavian seafarers of his time, he became acklimatized in the British
merchant navy. There they got much better pay, and also much better food
than the notorious Swedish pea soup. In 1883, John Wilson married a
Japanese lady, Naka Yamazaki, who changed her name to Sophia Wilson.
For a period of time, they settled in Nagasaki.
John Wilson became instrumental in the building up of NYK, Nippon
Yusen Kaisha. Today, NYK Line is one of the leading shipping companies
of the world. Most Stockholmers are unaware of the fact that this giant
shipping company has its reefer division on Katarinavägen, Stockholm.
During the First Sino-Japanese war of 1884, John Wilson made a
heroic effort on the Yalu river between China and Korea. For this one and
other exploits, the emperor awarded him the Order of the Rising Sun. Of
course, John Wilson is remembered at the NYK Maritime Museum in
Wilson was acquainted with a Swedish compatriot and master mariner
colleague, named Peter Hallström, who also made a career in Japan. I don't
know much about him, except that he's buried in Kuchi no tsu on the
southern main island of Kyushu. He's also said to have received the Order
of the Rising Sun for bravery in Japan's wars of that time against China
Our treaty of 1868 was the very first one concluded by the new Meiji
leadership. Like the earlier ones - signed by the old Shogun government
with other western powers - it was in fact an unequal treaty to the
disadvantage of Japan, but I leave to scholars to elaborate on this subject.
It's also important to keep in mind that the treaty was not just between
Japan and Sweden. It was concluded between the Empire of Japan and the
United Kingdoms of Sweden and Norway. That also counts for the
diplomatic relations until 1905, when the Scandinavian couple divorced.
Even before then, the Norwegian ships outstripped the Swedish ones in
Japanese ports. During 1901, 182 Norwegian ships but not a single
Swedish one called at Japanese ports. In 1905, there were 16 Swedish and
1.200 Norwegian ships' calls at Japanese ports.
At the Yokohama Foreign General Cemetery, another tombstone is
marked William Copeland. Locally he's known to have been an American
who had settled in Yokohama. In 1869 or 1870 he started the very first
Japanese brewery, named Spring Valley. As a matter of fact, he was a
Norwegian seaman, previously named Johan Martinius Thoresen. Later on
he sold the brewery to new German and British owners, who from 1888 on
labeled his beer Kirin. In a way, the leading Japanese beer brand is also a
fruit of the treaty between Japan and Sweden-Norway! Every year on the
day of Copeland's or Thoresen's death, the 11th of February, the Kirin
company honors him in front of his grave.
NYK Line and Kirin Brewery are both parts of the company group
Mitsubishi. This name means "three water chestnuts"; originally a crest - in
Japanese mon - of the founding samurai family. In a stylized form, three
water chestnuts are still the corporate symbol of Mitsubishi.
Swedish industrialists were very eager to establish trade relations with
Japan. Trading houses like Gadelius and Elof Hansson were pioneers. In
1907 the Swedish East Asia Company was founded for this purpose.
Exactly 50 years ago, I was working on one of the beautiful white ships of
this company, with the Swedish three crowns as its funnel mark. The ships
had names like Fujisan, Hakone, Hirado, Hokkaido, Hondo, Japan, Kyoto,
Nagasaki, Nara, Nihon, Nippon, Tokyo and Yeddo. Unfortunately, the
Swedish East Asia Company was discontinued in 1978.
Another important shipping player is the Swedish company Wallenius
Lines. This shipping company, founded in 1934, is still going strong. For
the last several decades Wallenius Lines has had its focus on transportation
of new cars and other vehicles around the world. Wallenius invented
special ships for this purpose. As a matter of fact, during the nineteen
sixties the Swedish flag Wallenius ships took care of most of the
increasing Japanese car export. Wallenius is still a very important player in
export of Japanese vehicles. The main office is in Stockholm, in front of
Much has been written about the scientific explorer Adolf Erik
Nordenskiöld, and rightly so! But far less is written about the Vega captain
or commander Louis Palander and his crewmembers, although the trip
along the Northeast Passage first and foremost was a nautical exploit
through unchartered icy waters. When Vega arrived at Yokohama on
September 2nd 1879, almost exactly a year after parting from the escort
ship Lena, Palander could go ashore and cable the very first sign of life to
the outside world. In my opinion, most of the credit of the expedition
should be given to the professional seafarers onboard.
However, Vega wasn't the first Swedish vessel to call at a Japanese
port. Most probably the steamer August Leffler became the very first one
when she called at Yokohama back in 1873. The previous year she was the
very first Swedish ship to pass through the Suez Canal, which was
inaugurated in 1869.
In 1791, a Russian expedition under the leadership of the FinlandSwede Adam Eriksson Laxman sailed to Nemuro in Ezo. (That is the
northernmost main island, which was renamed Hokkaido after the
restoration). On behalf of Russia, Laxman tried to establish trade relations
with seclusive Japan, then under sakoku isolation since more than 150
years. It was to no avail, even if he was treated politely. It might be a bit
far-fetched, but as a Finland-Swede, Laxman also belongs to the prolonged
Japanese-Swedish mutual history. At the time, Finland was a part of
Translated to English, the title of a book on the Swedish nobleman
Frederick Coyet is "The first Swede in Japan". But it's not true. He arrived
at Deshima in Nagasaki on November 4th 1647 as a colonial official in
service for the Dutch. Already on August 8th 1647, the Swedish seafarer
Johan Olofsson Berg arrived at Deshima with another Dutch East India
Company ship. Little is known about his stay in Japan, but he deserves the
credit of being the very first Swede known to have visited Japan. The
reason for the inaccuracy might be a traditional Swedish disregard for
seafarers. As compared to our very sea minded Norwegian neighbors, we
were a quite rustic people. Later on Berg was raised to the nobility with the
name Bergenstierna, due to his exploits in several naval battles back home.
Other early Swedish visitors in Japan were Anders Toresson, Nils
Mattsson Kiöping, and Olof Eriksson Willman. Perhaps also an elusive
person named Peter Salan, who is said to have been exiled from Sweden
for some offence. Like Berg, they were all seafarers sailing for the Dutch
East India Company. Two Stockholmers, Johan Schedler and Aegidius
Hartman, are also said to have visited Japan around 1650. But for the time
being I don't know anything about them.
Most renown of them all is the Linnaeus disciple Carl Peter Thunberg,
Tsunberugu-sensei - sometimes called "the Linnaeus of Japan". He came to
Japan in August 1775, as the ship's surgeon of a Dutch East Indiaman.
Thunberg made a heroic achievement under extreme conditions. During
his trip to Edo in 1776, the Japanese guards were quite annoyed by his
reiterated "make water" breaks. Actually, he just wanted to study the
vegetation of the neighborhood.
During his lifetime, the Swedish East India Company was a success
story. But the focus of the Swedes was on China. Japan was still closed for
the outside world, with the exception of a limited number of Dutch and
Chinese traders - and a few Swedes who, like Thunberg, pretended to be