It’s a little known fact that the first recorded direct shipment of Japanese goods to England included a collection of erotic pictures, or shunga.

Carrying the lascivious library, together with more staid lacquerware, tasteful folding screens and the shogun’s gifts for King James I, was the good ship Clove of the East India Company, which arrived home in late 1614 after being dispatched to Japan in April 1611.

The erotic exports the personal collection of the Clove’s skipper, Captain John Saris were unfortunately impounded by the outraged governors of the highly respected East India Company, and publicly burned. This historic event in Japan England relations, however, will be commemorated later this year with a public exhibition of the venerable British Museum’s own collection of shunga, which has survived intact behind closed doors, waiting for the appropriate moment to go on display. After four centuries, it seems, the time has come.

That exhibition is just a small part of a year long program of cultural, musical and historical events that is taking place in both countries in 2013, commemorating 400 years of Japan British relations.

After a more than two year voyage via the Cape of Good Hope, Madagascar, Yemen, Ceylon and points in Indonesia, the Clove arrived at Hirado, Nagasaki Prefecture, on June 11, 1613 the first English vessel to reach Japan. Aboard the ship was a group of merchants from the East India Company led by the hot headed Saris seeking riches in the fabled Orient, especially Japan.

Their arrival was a pleasant surprise but not entirely unexpected. William Adams, an Englishman who had arrived in Japan in 1600 as the pilot of a Dutch ship and settled here, had sent a series of letters to England and the East India Company, recommending they start trading. Some of his letters, carried by Dutch merchants who had established a trading post in Hirado in 1609, made it to London.

By this time, Adams had become established in Japan as a vassal of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first shogun of the dynasty that bore his name until the 19th Century. Thanks to Adams’ position in the proforeign trade shogun’s favor, Saris and his merchants were offered the rights to set up a trading post at Uraga, close to the entrance of Tokyo Bay and the huge and expanding market of Edo, now Tokyo.

To Adams’ disgust, Saris rejected the offer, instead deciding that Hirado with its proximity to China and the silk and silver trade was a better bet. So a great opportunity was lost.

Who knows what could have been the outcome? Perhaps by now the Japanese might be playing cricket instead of baseball, or eating more roast beef.

The story of William Adams, known in Japan as Miura Anjin or the “Pilot of Miura,” after the small peninsula south of Tokyo, is very well known in Japan. (It was also the basis of the popular novel and TV Series Shogun, by author James Clavell.) Because of his historical significance, the Japanese team organizing the commemoration of the Clove’s arrival decided to focus on Adams’ role in the Japan Britain story, so the key events in Japan this year will take place in cities associated with Adams.

The first of these is Usuki, in Oita prefecture, where he landed in Japan in April 1600 on the stricken Dutch ship, De Liefde. The other three cities in the Adams connection are: Ito, in Shizuoka, where Adams built ships for the shogun on the seashore; Hirado, where he frequently visited Dutch and English merchants; and Yokosuka, where he had a small estate in the village of Hemi that was awarded to him by the shogun.

Adams also had a house in Edo in a district once called “Anjin cho,” now known as Muromachi, on the other side of the street from Mitsukoshi’s flagship store in Nihonbashi.

On April 8, Hemi will hold the William Adams Cherry Blossom party in a grove where a memorial stands to Adams and his Japanese wife. In Hirado, on May 25, there will be an “Adams Summit,” with addresses by mayors of the four Japanese cities linked to the Englishman, followed the next day by a solemn memorial tea ceremony before what is thought to be his grave.

This is of special significance, as the tea ceremony will be performed by Akira Matsura, the direct descendant of the daimyo who welcomed the English to Hirado back in 1613. Matsura dono will be repeating this unique performance in Gillingham, Kent, in September, the birth place of William Adams.

August 8-10 the 67th William Adams Festival will take place in Ito, on the Izu Peninsula. It was here that he built Western style ocean going ships, including one the San Bonaventure that sailed to Acapulco. The festival is marked with many events, including a Shizuoka Police Band performance, a procession through the hot spring resort city featuring cabaret dancers from local hotels, historical figures in costume and usually some hapless Englishman, dressed as Adams, sitting on a truck with a model galleon. It is, altogether, a memorable and colorful event, topped off with a spectacular fireworks display.

In the UK, an impressive array of cultural events under the umbrella theme of “Japan400” is also taking place through out the year, not only in London but in regional cities like Liverpool, which will hold a Japan Day.

In Kent, Adam’s home county, an exhibition of treasures from the Matsura daimyo family collection will be displayed at the Maidstone Art museum. Gillingham, also in Kent, will host the William Adams Festival in September, an annual event which last year drew a crowd of 10,000.

Back in London, letters and documents from the East India Company archives related to Japan go on display in the British Library in August. Part of the Tokugawa shogun’s present to King James I, was two sets of samurai armor. These still exist in the collection of the Royal Armouries in the Tower of London and will be featured in a conference presentation in September.

In October, what the organizers are claiming to be the British Museum’s most ambitious exhibition of Japanese art in a decade will open, under the theme, Sex and Humor in Japanese Art, 1600-1900. Will Saris’ ghost be lurking in the shadows, hoping for a peep?

The closing ceremony for the Japan400 events in the UK will take place on December 20, 400 years to the day that the very first art auction in British history the car go of lacquer from the Clove was held.

Helpless in Hirado

AFTER THE CLOVE’S HISTORIC 17TH CENTURY journey, the English opened their shop in Hirado, far from the mighty market of Edo. The group of squabbling English merchants were led by a kindly but ineffectual chief merchant, one Richard Cocks, who managed their commercial affairs with supreme incompetence but his amorous affairs with great enthusiasm. Their attempts to succeed in the Japanese market failed. The trading post eventually went bankrupt and the unhappy band left the country in 1623, so far we know without any shunga.

Geoff Tudor writes for Orient Aviation, Hong Kong. He is the Assistant Editor of the Number 1 Shimbun.