After months of planning and traveling from the Dutch colony of Deshima to Edo, the capital of Japan, or Dai Nippon (Great Kingdom of the Origin of the Sun) as the locals know it as, you the opperhoofd, the Chief Factor, and an accompanying doctor, are now to be received by the Shogun, the military leader of Japan. The fact that you have an opportunity to have an audience at all means that you are someone worthy, for it is not anyone who has that privilege.
You are in the inner chambers at the court of Edo and when the doors slide open, someone within calls out your title, “Holanda Capitan!” a signal for you to come forward and perform your due obeisance. You have already been coached beforehand, so you have some idea of the formalities. You get on your hands and knees and crawl to the assigned place, passing between the presents that you have thoughtfully prepared, including no doubt the latest scientific tracts from the West.
After crawling to the prescribed location, you bow deeply with your forehead almost to the ground and not without some agility, you crawl backwards like a crab. The whole time, not a word is spoken and the only sound is the shuffling of your hands and knees upon the reed mat. This ends the first audience with the Shogun, a preliminary to the longer and more interactive one of the second audience, which immediately follows.
In the second audience, the Shogun along with with men and women of the court are there. After all, it’s not everyday that they see a white foreigner in their midst. The women are behind folded screens and lattices so that they can see you through the holes, but you can’t see in. Not that you would attempt such a impropriety as taking a peek, particularly with all the officers of the court sitting there in dark formal kimonos and double samurai swords at their sides. Again, you pay your homage to the Shogun in the most humblest manner you know. When he retires to his inner, inner apartment, you are soon called to follow for a private audience.
In the inner, inner chamber, the Shogun is sitting behind a lattice with a royal audience. Standing in plain sight in front of the screen is his chief adviser, or Bengo. And kneeling on the ground with you is the Chief Interpreter.
The Bengo bids you welcome in the Shogun’s name in Japanese, which the Chief Interpreter translates to you in Dutch. You compliment your host, which the interpreter repeats in Japanese to the adviser, but in a much louder voice since his face is just inches above the floor. The adviser then communicates your compliment to the Shogun.
With the formalities over, the Shogun begins to ask you some questions through the same manner: from him to adviser to interpreter to you and vice versa for transmitting your reply. And so the questions come:
“How old are you?”
“What is your name?” (You are further asked to write it down which you then give to the adviser who passes it to the Emperor over the latticed screen.)
“How far is it from Holland to Batavia? And Batavia from Nagasaki?”
“Which of the two was most powerful: the Director-general of the Dutch East India Company or the Prince of Holland?”
To the physician, the Shogun has particular questions about Western medicine:
“What external and internal distempers were the most dangerous and the most difficult to cure?”
“How do you cure cancerous humours and imposthumations of the inner parts?”
“Were European physicians searching for some medicine to render people immortal, as the Chinese physicians had done for many hundred years?”
When the Shogun is satisfied with your answers, he stands up and walks closer to you, yet still unseen behind the screen on your right. He tells you to take off your cloak. Stand upright so he can get a better view of you. Walk and then stop to a standstill. Face each other he tells you and the doctor and compliment each other. Now, dance and jump.
You think you hear some tittering from behind the screen, but instead of feeling awkward, you bellow out a love-song in high German.
The Shogun continues to give orders: Play the drunkard. Speak in broken Japanese. Read Dutch. Paint. Put on your cloaks and take them off again.
After two hours, the Shogun seems satisfied and orders some servants to enter and bring you refreshments. You eat what you can and the interpreter is ordered to take what is left over. The Shogun and his court are done and you are ordered to put on your cloak and take your leave.
The audience with the Shogun is at its end and you think to yourself that this is certainly a most curious scene in the annals of diplomacy.