Namban Folding Screens

Written by Chloe Bramwell

The Namban Screens attributed to Kano Naizen and Kano Domi were painted between 1598 – 1615. The word namban predates the arrival of Western traders and means “southern barbarians”, indicating both attitudes towards foreigners, and the association between Europeans and Southeast Asians. The screens depict the namban trade which took place between 1543 and 1614: the “Christian Century”. This has been discussed in the past as a “closure” of Japan, in reaction to the introduction of foreign trade and influence. However, the screens demonstrate that Japan had long been integrated into local trading networks and cultural exchange. A pair of six-fold screens, they are made up of wooden lattice covered with paper, gold leaf, polychrome tempera painting, silk, lacquer, and copper gilt, measuring 178 x 366.4 x 2 cm (first pair); 172.8 x 380.8 x 2 cm (second pair). The screens are richly decorated on both front and back, depicting the arrival of the Portuguese – both religious and secular – their crews, and goods for trading. 

Screens of this sort were used to divide larger homes of the sort made possible following the end of civil war and growing prosperity amongst the warrior and merchant classes. The role of the silver trade created greater opportunities for merchants and enriched the Shogun; the Japanese silver trade provided 20 percent of all silver traded globally and was second only to Spanish America. This provided the capital required to build bigger homes and fortresses, important displays of wealth and, in the Shoguns case, effective defensive utility. This screen is therefore an important marker of the social and political changes of the period. It also points to long-standing trade networks between Japan and China. Folding screens originated in China and are attested to from at least the second century BC. Their association with China imbued the screen with importance because of their relationship with foreign trade, as both novel objects picked up from far afield and auspicious objects “meant to engender prosperity and safe returns”. The Kano school was especially well-established as painters of screens such as this one. The Kano school operated workshops across early modern Japan and ingratiated itself with warlords Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi, ensuring firm ties to the military class from the end of the Warring States period onwards. The screen indicates a flourishing of the arts after centuries of civil war made possible through military and mercantile patronage.  Taken altogether, the screens’ qualities as a large piece of gilded furniture, painted by the foremost painting school of the period and made to be displayed to encourage good fortune when trading reflect the needs and hopes of Japan under the rule of Hideyoshi and Tokugawa. 

While the description of the Portuguese as “southern barbarians” initially appears eccentric, it makes more sense when considering the substantial number of Southeast Asians in their company. The varied skin tones of the sailors and retinue depicted show the ethnic diversity of their crew. An earlier ship which arrived in 1543 owned by the Chinese Wang Zhi contained over 100 crew members besides the Portuguese – but it is the Portuguese who are new to the Japanese. This novelty is reflected in the fastidious attention to detail found on the screens, from the lace, buttons and hats found on the crew’s clothing to the horse’s red and gold tack. Comparatively, there is only one man in Chinese dress, indicating his presence aboard the ship but perhaps also his familiarity to the viewer. Painted shortly before the Sakoku Edict of 1635, an attempt at removing foreign influence in Japan, the depiction of the “namban-jin” is less overtly hostile than fascinated and closely observed. Besides their clothing, the ships, the variety of animals such as monkeys and parrots, and the acrobatic sailors in the masts add lively interest to the image.  

Namban Folding Screens. Kano Naizen and Kano Domi, 1598 – 1615. Accessed via Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga:

Meanwhile, the screen is approximately contemporaneous with the Imjin Wars waged in Korea (1592-8). Similarly, actions taken during these wars suggest an interest in the culture, dress and skills of the “Other”, in this case Koreans. Kidnapped en masse from their homes, Korean craftspeople were taken to Japan and expected to provide embroidery and, especially, ceramics for trade. While the Portuguese were mandated to stay on a small man-made island, Dejima, Koreans were taken across Japan where they encountered tensions with locals, difficulties with the language and trouble accessing resources to live as they were forced to assimilate. In Naeshirogawa, however, Koreans were instructed to retain their customs and names in exchange for privileges granted by the daimyo, culminating in a yearly parade in Korean dress. This context illustrates well the contradictions at play in Japan during the early modern period as far as trade and foreigners were concerned; on the one hand, an interest in engaging in foreign trade and in observing the different customs of foreign people, and on the other, a concern that foreigners would influence Japan too much and thus had to be contained or assimilated.  

In addition to the novelty of the figures, animals and objects depicted on the screen, the painting engages with discursive meanings attributed to images in Japan. For example, the black ship on which the sailors arrive carries the weight of meaning of the colour black, associated with the dangers of the unknown and the wealth which might be found there. Less ambivalently, many of the animals, such as the tiger, horses and dogs were associated with military success and wealth, in the case of horses and dogs for their association with hunting and warfare, and tigers for their “ferocity”. These more familiar creatures all pointed to the values of the military class, again reflecting the patronage of the Kano artists who created the screen. Finally, and perhaps most pertinently, is the depiction of the traders’ faces. Rather than a naturalistic image, the artists have represented the sailors as having the face of “Drunken Persian King” masks found in China. This again shows the deeply embedded trade connections of Japan and China preceding the early modern period, but also reiterates the exoticism of the traders by comparing them to a single stock character. The effect is one of humour but also dehumanisation by reducing the individualities of the traders to a single grotesque face. It reflects well the interests and concerns of those providing patronage to the Kano makers of the screen, whilst engaging with the indigenous visual vocabulary. 

While the post-Warring States period is often seen as a time of reaction against newly arrived foreign presence, the screen attests to Japan’s place in the trading networks of East and Southeast Asia. However, the disruptive influence of the arrival of Europeans can be seen on the screen, both through its close observation of objects, animals and people, and through othering and exoticisation. In the context of relative peace and lucrative trade opportunities, Portuguese traders are depicted with distrust and fascination, akin to that directed at kidnapped Koreans following the Imjin Wars. The effect is one of novelty, mystery and interest as decorative objects which leave an impression on the viewer for their impressive size and detailed ornament.  


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Curvelo, Alexandra, “The Disruptive Presence of the Namban-jin in Early Modern Japan” JESHO 55, 2-3 (2012), 581-602. 

Flynn, Dennis O., ‘Comparing the Tokagawa Shogunate with Hapsburg Spain: Two Silver-Based Empires in a Global Setting’, in The Political Economy of Merchant Empires, ed. James D Tracy, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), p.332-359. 

Little, Lalaine Bangilan, “Made in Japan? Questioning the collaborations underlying namban art”, MA diss., State University of New York at Binghamton, 2008. 

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Musee Nacional de Arte Antigua, Namban Folding Screens accessed 19 October 2022,

Oka, Mihoko, “The Nanban and Shuinsen Trade in Sixteenth and Seventeenth-Century Japan,” in Global History and PolyCentric Approaches: Europe, Asia and the Americas in a World Network System, p. 163 – 182. 

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