The bezaisen (弁財線) was a popular type of cargo ship during the Edo Period (1603-1868). It was often used to carry goods such as cotton and rice, and was considered one of the larger vessels for conducting trade. Because of its size, estimates have placed the ship’s capacity at 1,000 koku, a standard measure of rice and the main form of currency at this time. While many sources cite the bezaisen was used commonly among trade routes from Osaka to Tokyo, there has also been speculation that the bezaisen have been used in illegal foreign trade with China and even as far as the Philippines. However, it is unclear if this was true as isolationist policies of Japan during this era forbade the construction of seaworthy ships. With the arrival of Commodore Matthew Perry in 1853, Japan’s policy of isolation came to an end as Japan was forced to open its borders to the West. The construction of bezaisen, a symbol of Edo-era Japanese maritime technology and resourcefulness, came to an end as Japan made more efforts to modernize and compete with the West. Click to read more.
Arriving at the Peabody Museum at Harvard University between 1867 (the year the museum was founded) and 1932 (the year the models were discovered and categorized) the model titled, “Sailing Ship Model”, has sat alone and unrecognized – until now. The only documentation that accompanied this model was a piece of paper that described it simply as a “sailing ship similar to Chinese Junk (Japanese)”. The initial research questions we were prompted to answer are as follows: where was it likely from, what approximate time period does it represent, who may have been using this type of vessel, and what can we find out about seafaring in this region/culture? Using the resources I had available, I was able to narrow down the answers to some of these questions. Click to read more.
As a result of its national isolation policy, ship construction in Japan experienced its own development in the Edo period (1603-1868). Bezaisen, a particular type of Japanese ship construction, was a ship that was typically used by merchants. Being called by various names according to its cargos and routes, it played an important role in maritime transportation. In the Edo period, Japan had two main cities, Osaka and Edo. While Osaka was the center of commerce where consumer products were accumulated from various regions, Edo became the center of politics after the establishment of the government headquarters. As Edo was not capable of producing any agricultural products to maintain its large population, the government had an urgent need for developing a safe and fixed new systems of maritime transportation in order to connect the center of commerce and politics. Click to read more.
Content of this page provided by students of Anthro 1218: Shipwrecks and Seafarers, Piracy and Plundering: An Introduction to Maritime Archaeology.