A few weeks back I did an experiment with my history podcast, Second Decade. I released a normal episode, and simultaneously put out a bonus episode from a mini-series, “Second Decade Off Topic,” which deals with history not confined to the 1810s. That experiment was successful, and in fact the bonus episode was more downloaded than the regularly-scheduled one. So I decided to do it again. Here once again is the normal Second Decade installment, plus a special bonus:
In the Second Decade, Japan was the most exotic, unknown and isolated country in the world. Since the early 17th century the Tokugawa Shoguns had deliberately closed the country to trade and cultural exchange with the rest of the globe, wanting especially to avoid the religious influences of European countries. Japan’s only outlet to Western trade was a trading post on a tiny island in Nagasaki harbor. In 1817, in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars, Holland sent a new director-general to Nagasaki, who did a daring thing that had never been done before: he brought his family with him. This was how Titia Bergsma Blomhoff, a frail woman in ill health with a young baby clinging to her, wound up in Japan, together with her nurse, Petronella Munts. Their presence triggered a diplomatic incident and perhaps hammered a crack in Japan’s façade of isolation that was to break wide open later in the 19th century.
In this episode, Dr. Sean Munger explains who Titia Bergsma was, how she came to be married to Holland’s informal envoy to Japan, and he’ll narrate the strange turn of events that saw her arrive at Deshima Island, in Nagasaki harbor, in August 1817. You’ll learn how and why the Shoguns feared and loathed Westerners (especially Western women), what happened when Titia dared to challenge one of feudal Japan’s most sacred and tightly-enforced laws, and how her story would have been mostly lost to history except for the efforts of two contemporary Japanese artists as well as her long-lost descendant who revived her memory in this century, the 21st. This is the story of a collision of cultures, neither of which fully understood one another, and you’ll come to understand just how big the world was in 1817 and how alien certain parts of it were to each other.
Correction: at the beginning of this episode I refer to Titia Bergsma being 29 in 1817; actually she was 31.
This is an Off Topic episode, involving historical topics outside the scope of the main podcast. This episode spins off Episode 27 of the main podcast (“The Belle of Nagasaki”).
Japan and the United States face each other across the largest, most contested space in the world: the Pacific Ocean. From American attempts to cash in on the China trade in the 1780s, right after the Revolution, to complicated geopolitics and open warfare in the 1940s, these two countries have loomed large in each other’s history, consciousness and popular culture. But how did this volatile relationship develop? It’s a complicated story and covers a lot of ground, more than 200 years of history with many ups, downs, triumphs and tragedies.
In this episode, presented with a little more off-the-cuff style than Second Decade proper, Dr. Sean Munger expounds on topics like Matthew Perry’s 1853 attempt to pry open Japan’s padlocks with paddle-wheel steam warships, the tragedy of the U.S. government’s internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, the postwar economic boom (and bust), and how cultural threads like anime, monster movies and TV miniseries forged an indelible but rapidly-changing bond between the United States and Japan. This episode moves fast and covers a lot of ground, but there’s never a dull moment, and you may find yourself hungry for sushi when it’s over!