The Bezaisen: A Diamond in the Rough Seas
A square sail with holes in it. A flimsy rudder steered by a single beam of wood. A deck with few planks nailed down.
These are the types of things you wouldn’t expect a ship to have, let alone sail with. Yet, these were key features of the bezaisen (弁財線) which, contrary to the way it was constructed, served as one of the largest and most common merchant ships during the Edo Period (1603-1868) in Japan.
The Edo Period was a period marked by strict isolationist politics (sakoku) that prohibited foreign trade –incoming and outgoing. Despite poor international relations, Japan thrived both culturally and economically. Within this, the bezaisen was widely popular – poor sail and rudder design assured the ship wouldn’t stray very far from the coast, and unfastened planks along the deck allowed for quick and easy access to goods and cargo space. It was an isolationist country’s economic dream ship.
However, as iconic as the bezaisen was during the feudal era, it quickly vanished with the arrival of Commodore Perry in 1853, forcing Japan to open its borders and thus igniting a process of modernization that would make Japan into the Japan we know today.
The Cultural Connector
The Bezaisen ship represented in this model was a popular Japanese Edo Period (1603-1868) design. Also known as sengoku-bune, or 1000-koku ship – koku being a Japanese unit of volume used to measure rice – bezaisen were the largest merchant vessels of their time. Used most often on the coastal trade routes between the Japanese cities of Osaka and Edo (present day Tokyo), bezaisen ships were essential tools for the merchants that used them. This purpose is reflected in their construction: these aspects include a wide-flat hull for maximizing cargo space, in which some sections are removable for easier access; efficient and maneuverable sails; and a large stempost adorned with a tassel to be identifiable to others as a merchant vessel. In addition to material cargo and commodities, funa-ema, or wooden prayer plates originally from Osaka which have since been found all around Japan, suggest that bezaisen ships also aided in the spread of culture during their domestic voyages.
Bezaisen: Japanese ship model brings history to life
Is a ship model just an object that tells us about its construction? You will know the answer if you look closely at this Japanese ship model. It represents a particular type of Japanese ship construction generally called Bezaisen, which was commonly adopted to build coastal trading vessels during the Edo period (1603-1868). As a ship model, it accurately demonstrates distinctive characteristics seen in Bezaisen. For instance, it is flat-bottomed instead of having a single-timbered keel/keelson.
These non-Western characteristics, however, are not just a series of peculiar information about maritime ship construction only a few people may be interested in. The model actually is an object that symbolizes history, indicating how Japan developed its own way of maritime culture in response to its isolated policy. During the Edo period, Japan enforced an isolation policy and closed its doors to the outside world almost entirely. Due to the policy, Japan had to develop its coastal transportation including a new type of shipbuilding in order to load more cargos at one time. Thanks to newly developed ports and routes and established ship construction, Japan succeeded in connecting the two major cities of the period: Osaka, the center of commerce, and Edo, the administrative center.
Content of this page provided by students of Anthro 1218: Shipwrecks and Seafarers, Piracy and Plundering: An Introduction to Maritime Archaeology.