That’s life

I hosted a visit to an exhibition on Asian Art in a Dutch museum. All of the group were familiar with the expat life. We sniggered about the betel habit and someone told about her more recent encounter with someone using khat. The rose water sprinklers, silver commemorative plates, paintings, clothes, Delftware, Yogya silver, jewellery, weapons, and furniture were admired.

In one of the rooms, one of us was able to translate the Japanese characters which were part of a woodblock print of two ladies with small child: “Wife of Holland”. I told the group a bit about this Dutch wife who visited Japan.

Like so many expats, she followed her partner to a distant country. He had been nominated to a post on Decima, a tiny island the Dutch were allowed to use as trading post by the then Japanese government. Common sailors were not allowed off the ships. Only officers and traders were allowed on Decima. The only women allowed to visit, were Japanese.

Titia, for that was her name, her young son, husband and servant, embarked on a sailing ship for a dangerous voyage of months from Holland to distant Indonesia. How awful life must have been on the ship! How alien the ports, people, customs, countries – everything – must have been to them!

From Indonesia, they and their Javanese “au-pair” sailed to Decima.

The then Japanese government ordered her, her child, her maids out. So the women and child sailed back via Indonesia to Holland. But Japanese people had seen and met the women and child. Artists had made portraits of them. These images endure.

I mentioned Titia’s story did not have a happy ending. She did return safely to Holland, but died without seeing her husband again. I said I found it rather sad.

Obviously silly in the eyes of one: “What do your mean sad? That’s life!”

I tried to explain but apparently, the European acquaintance shared some of the Shoguns’ attitude.

It upset me.

For Titia must have been quite something to have inspired a Dutch servant woman to accompany her on this voyage voluntarily. Or the Javanese child-minder. The bond between husband and wife must have been very special for him to risk the displeasure – or worse – of both the VOC managers and the Japanese power-brokers. She must have been like a green alien to the Japanese who saw her, yet the woodcuts convey something more than images of alien women with child.

Throughout it all shines love. Love which was not allowed to conquer all.

To shrug this off with “That’s life!”

I woke up at five in the morning, still feeling upset.

Interested in Titia’s story? Read the book written by R.P. Bersma: “Titia, the first western woman in Japan”, Hotei Publishing, 2002

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