The first Swede in Japan

Yesterday the Swedish Chamber of Commerce held its General Assembly, discussing among other topics the activities of next year. After the meeting I had the pleasure to host a buffet dinner at my residence and also use the occassion to arrange a conferment ceremony for one of its members, Mr. Sato Sueaki, President of the Beauty Pollen Co. Ltd, who had been appointed Officer of the Royal Order of the Polar Star, for his many years of promoting Swedish interests.

The Chamber will celebrate its 20th anniversary next year and is, hence, a relatively young organisation, but it has been succesful from the very beginning and is a good example of the seriousness by which Sweden and Swedish companies have always viewed Japan and the Japanese market. One member company is for instance Gadelius K.K., which was established in Japan already in 1907 by the Swedish businessman Knut Gadelius. One year earlier the businessman and politician Gustaf Oscar Wallenberg was appointed as the first resident Swedish diplomatic envoy in Tokyo.

However, Swedish presence in Japan goes further back than that. The first Swede to come to Japan was probably Olof Eriksson Willman, who for fifteen years worked for the Dutch East India Company in the 17th century. He accompanied one of the Dutch missions to Japan in 1651-52 and later wrote about his experiences in the book, “En kort beskrivning på en resa till Ostindien och Japan den en svensk man och skeppskapiten, Olof Erisson Willman benämnd, gjort haver” (1667). The book was reprinted in 1992, but before that it was translated into Japanese by Ozaki Yoshi in 1953 and given the title “Nihon ryokôki”.

The next Swede to come to Japan (or perhaps he was the first) was Fredrik Coyet, who came to Nagasaki already in 1651, appointed as head of the Dutch trading station on Dejima. He was first refused entry for some reason, but came back the next year and served in that position for one year until 1653. In 1656 he was appointed Governor of the Dutch colony Formosa, but the island was attacked and overtaken by troops under the command of the Chinese general Koxinga in 1662. The story of Fredrik Coyet has been described by the Swedish journalist Gunnar Müllern in the interesting book “Förste svensken i Japan: han som miste Formosa” (1963).

It was not until the next century, in 1775-76,  that the famous Swedish botanist Carl Peter Thunberg came to Japan, sometimes described as the first Swede to come to Japan. Later he described his visit, his research and travels in Japan in various ways, not least in his book “Resa til och uti kejsaredömet Japan åren 1775 och 1776″ (reprinted in 1980). This book has also been translated into Japanese, by Takahashi Fumi under the title “Edo sanpu zuikôki” (1994).

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