East and west are often considered opposites but there are many similarities we can find.
“And a beautiful world we live in, when it is possible, and when many other such things are possible, and not only possible, but done– done, see you!– under that sky there, every day.”
Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
Since the beginning of time, societies from all over the world have developed both on their own and with the help of others. First people formed villages, then towns, and then they laid the foundations of the world we know today. If you have visited modern cities in both western and eastern countries you must have noticed that they are quite similar, especially when it comes to their business districts: tall office building and speeding cars are a familiar sight in many a nation. But how similar were these countries back when the East started trading with the West? In this essay I will compare Nara and Amsterdam.
Dutch merchants first sailed to the Japanese islands during the Golden Age. The two countries started trading, and their business relationship and friendship still stands strong today (Handel en economie Japan, n.d.). You may have heard about the celebrations surrounding the 400-year anniversary of this relationship in 2009, such as the release of a commemorative 5 euro coin (Collector Coin Database, n.d.).
Back in 1609, the Netherlands was still republic and Japan was still a feudal society. You may have learned about feudal societies in school: this is a system in which peasants received a piece of land in return for serving a lord. It was during this period that merchant districts started to form in the cities of Japan. A good example is Naramachi in Nara (Naramachi, n.d.), the country’s first permanent capital city.
If you have ever visited the old city center of Amsterdam you will be able to recall the channels, the Dam square, and the characteristic confined houses. Naramachi, too, is characterized by narrow streets and storefronts. Reason for this was that property taxes were calculated based on street access rather than total area, just like the method of taxing that was used in Amsterdam (The narrowest houses in Amsterdam, 2017). Did you know that, because of this, the narrowest house here is just 2.02 meters in width?
Once upon a time Amsterdam was just a small port city. But, during the Golden Age, it had become a dominant trade center housing the Dutch East India Company headquarters (EIC) and the first modern central bank of the world was founded (The Bank of Amsterdam, n.d.). EIC merchants were granted trading privileges with Japan, even though Japan had closed itself off for trade with western countries. Around the same time the Tokugawa shogunate established the monetary system, introducing gold and silver coins, and reunited Japan, promoting commercial expansion which benefited Japanese merchants.
Merchants and craftsmen started to move away from both cities with start of the industrial revolution. Amsterdam lost its position as dominant port city to Rotterdam, which is, to this date, the largest port of Europe. A similar decline was visible in Nara: business diverted to nearby Osaka, at the coast of Japan, which now houses the country’s main port (Osaka Visitors’ Guide, n.d.).
Despite this downturn, both cities managed to successfully modernize, now having big business districts that sharply contrast their historical merchant districts. Today, you can find boutiques, shops, cafés, restaurants and museums in Naramachi and Amsterdam. The two metropolises attract many tourists like you and I from all over the world, and showcase to them their extensive history.
Nara and Amsterdam are, at first glance, two very different cities on two very different continents. It is only logical to think they are not that similar, but when you pay close attention, you will notice they have much in common.
Datbase, C. C. (n.d.). Netherlands: Silver 5 euro coins. Retrieved October 24, 2017, from http://www.coin-database.com/series/netherlands-silver-5-euro-coins-5-euro.html
Dickens, C., & Maxwell, R. (2007). A tale of two cities. London: Penguin Books.
Handel en economie Japan. (n.d.). Retrieved September 11, 2017, from https://www.rvo.nl/onderwerpen/internationaal-ondernemen/landenoverzicht/japan/h...
Naramachi. (n.d.). Retrieved September 11, 2017, from http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e4108.html
Osaka Visitors’ Guide. (n.d.). Retrieved September 11, 2017, from http://www.osaka-info.jp/en/discover/learn/historical_overview.html
The Bank of Amsterdam. (n.d.). Retrieved September 11, 2017, from http://www.exchangehistory.nl/bank-amsterdam
The narrowest houses in Amsterdam. (2017, August 16). Retrieved September 11, 2017, from http://www.holland.com/global/tourism/destinations/amsterdam/the-narrowest-house...