September 6, 2023

Candlestick Man

Tyler Coburn

A mold from the workshop of Jiro Sasaki in Toki, Japan.

A man is standing at some distance. Short and a bit plump, with a mustache drawn by a brush, he seems to anticipate our arrival. His almond eyes widen, as if observing us in full. Somehow, without intending, we’re taken in by his gaze.

As we approach, we too can observe. No amount of self-possession could hide the mends in his hat or stains on his shirt. The scars that cover his face dull those glinting eyes. The man is quite small: in fact, he barely reaches our shins. We pick him up and place a candle on the prong of his hat, surprised that we had almost yielded to him.

We’re told that this man is a European, or to be precise, that he was sculpted by a Japanese artisan with some idea of what one might look like. When Europeans first came to Japan in the sixteenth century, an entire genre of art was created to depict them. Gunpowder flasks and saddles sported drawings of the hairy foreigners. They adorned the cases of writing boxes. Candlestick men were commissioned by merchants and daimyos, and by tea masters for their dawn and evening ceremonies. They dutifully stood in the corners of tea houses, the flames lighting their mustaches and scars.


In 1543, a trading vessel was blown off course, ending up at the southern coast of the island of Tanegashima. Two Portuguese men were aboard. This is why the Japanese described Europeans as namban or “Southern Barbarians”: they came from the west by way of the south.

The identity of these men was given by a Chinese member of the crew, who communicated with a local scholar by sketching ideographs in the sand. Everything they wrote was swept or washed away.

Japan was then in the “Warring States” period, the country torn apart by competing lords. The Portuguese advanced the plot, as they arrived with firearms. In little time, Japanese blacksmiths had learned to replicate the weapon. And Oda Nobunaga was on his way to unifying the country thanks to the tactical advantage of the gun.

This era is sometimes called the “Christian Century,” as the Portuguese ships that began regularly arriving in Nagasaki held merchants as well as missionaries, who put their churches in Japanese buildings, learned the language and customs—spread the gospel through assimilation more than subjugation.

Some Japanese artists moved to Nagasaki to see all of this for themselves, painting folding screens of the Portuguese ships at port. A famous example attributed to Kano Sanraku1 provides many of the characteristic elements: on the ship, some crew play a game of backgammon, while enslaved Africans tie up the sails. Over on shore, a Buddhist monk and a samurai stare out at the vessel, whether with curiosity or uncertainty or dread—we can only wonder.

A landing boat unloads Chinese silks and legs of meat. Some Japanese men approach with a crate of silver.

Missionaries stream out of the church, its window discreetly covered by a sheet. They meet the arriving Portuguese merchants who stand, arms akimbo, in their gold chains and balloon-like trousers.

To modern eyes, these Europeans seem painted to look ridiculous, but their attire was in demand at the time. Tailors made ruffs and rosaries and crosses for their Japanese clients, few of whom were actually believers.

The “Christian Century” barely lasted a hundred years. Once Japan was unified, Imperial Regent Toyotomi Hideyoshi began to sense the threat posed by a monolithic Catholic God. The persecution that followed was the first step toward the expulsion of the Portuguese—missionaries and merchants alike.

Japan let the English and Dutch remain, as they promised to keep Protestantism to themselves. Before their devotion to God, they were disciples of the coin. By the end of the seventeenth century, only the Chinese and Dutch could continue to trade, beginning a somewhat insular period that ended two centuries later with US gunboat diplomacy.


Japan closed its borders to most of Europe, but candlestick men remained. Eventually, a few of them found their way into museums. There’s one in the collection of the Suntory Museum of Art in Tokyo, and another at the Hamao Umezawa Memorial Museum. Because of their historical value, and in the interest of preservation, they’re boxed or kept behind glass. Even so, they’ve inspired later generations of artisans, whose Europeans look just as bizarre as the originals despite modern knowledge of their faces. If not for the fresh coats of glaze, they’d pass for artifacts. The difference is that namban art has gone out of style. Its domain is no longer the tea house but the auction site, where sellers struggle to make the European seem novel again. I recently purchased two through Yahoo! Auctions.

With the transition from tea master Sen no Rikyū to Furata Oribe in the late-sixteenth century, the wabi-sabi approach to ceramics gave way to a riot of loose glazes, impressionistic brushwork, and forms thumbed and squashed beyond convention. Candlestick men live in the world of latter, green glazes running down their sides or pooling at the waist—their trousers dotted with flora and patterns. Some wear pronged hats, and others hold staff-like objects. They somewhat resemble firearms, though Jiro Sasaki, the maker of one of my men, claims they’re lotus flowers.2

Jiro Sasaki at work.


The island of Tanegashima is long and slim, though its shape has less to do with geography than time. Down the hill from the “Gun Museum,” ships unload rockets. Standing at Cape Kadokura, where the Portuguese vessel was first seen, one can watch them shoot into space.

Tanegashima is dotted with parks and monuments celebrating the friendship between Portugal and Japan. Paths, even when unpaved, offer guidance. Come this way. Stop here and look. This is how one should move through history.

Yet all the landscaping in the world can’t control the weather, and on Tanegashima, it’s utterly wild. The Kuroshio current brings fierce winds and changeable skies, the clouds storming one moment and breaking the next—and often, doing both at once. The sun, when it can find gaps in the cover, runs spotlights over the sea, as if anticipating the arrival of something long since passed.

Of all the monuments on the island, there’s one specifically dedicated to the arrival of the Portuguese. This past winter, I went to see it myself. Just beyond a café selling malasada are steps that descend, at a steep incline, to the place where the men landed.

The monument is a fieldstone chiseled with text. It invites one to imagine that moment in 1543 playing out on the beach just beyond.

What’s most interesting about this stone is not what it states. Since it was installed in 1934, it’s become covered with green and yellow spots.

When I saw this monument, I thought that it was sick. It looked like it had smallpox.


Smallpox came to Japan in the sixth century around the time Buddhism arrived. People wondered if Buddha was punishing them for their existing beliefs, or if the old gods were warning against conversion. In the eighth century, when the country had a terrible outbreak, it was no closer to an answer. Still, the Emperor, out of an abundance of caution, built a massive bronze Buddha in Nara.

The disease persisted for several centuries, though it became endemic, circulating within the country at a somewhat manageable level. This was possible, in part, because anyone who survived the illness possessed lifelong immunity.

All of this sets the stage for the Portuguese. What’s significant about their arrival in Japan is what didn’t happen. In 1543, smallpox was decimating the Indigenous population of the Americas. The continent had never experienced the disease, and the conquistadors and missionaries who spread it saw divine justice at work.3 In just a few decades, the Aztec and Incan empires crumbled—tens of millions got infected and died.

The colonization of the Americas would not have been possible without the role played by smallpox. The ability of Japan to close its borders to Portugal, and restrict access for centuries, partly owed to the fact that smallpox was already present.

As Europe claimed dominion over other lands and turned persons into commodities, the Japanese elite commissioned candlestick men.4 In light of this coincidence, a certain power shapes these forms. Candlestick men are Europeans in a state of domestication, an imperial project reduced to a passing trend. Candles must be held, sometimes for hours on end. These props will be put to work.

A candlestick man on view at TOKAS Hongo, Tokyo.


A smallpox vaccine was discovered in England in 1796. The Tokugawa shogunate was distrustful of Western medicine, so it took Japanese physicians more than fifty years to import it.

Only when the vaccine proved geopolitically useful did the shogunate change tack. As Russia inched into Ainu Moshiri5 in the mid-nineteenth century, a campaign was launched to assimilate the Indigenous population and thus fortify Japan’s presence on the island. Ainu were brought to vaccination sites or lured with the promise of trade. Edicts were passed revising their customs to fit the Japanese norm.

A few centuries after smallpox opened the Americas to colonization, its vaccine helped colonize Ainu Moshiri. If this is what history looks like, then history is a Möbius strip: a single piece of paper twisting, reversing, looping, ongoing.


When I first saw the monument to the arrival of the Portuguese, it looked like it had smallpox. It was as if this object, built to mark a historical event, was also revealing what could have been. Instead of Europe spreading smallpox through Japan, the stone retroactively contained the disease. It became sick in the place of countless others.

Later, I put this interpretation aside, because what’s actually covering the monument is life—a type of lichen which thrives in air filled with salt. On Tanegashima, this lichen grows most everywhere. Even in the aforementioned folding screen, it’s present: on trees near the monk and samurai, on rocks in the water, following the twists of a pine …

Lichens are ancient creatures: the oldest on record has lived for several thousand years. It’s possible that the lichens I saw on Tanegashima—the ones clinging to the coast—were present for the fateful landing. A monument installed in 1934 points in a particular way, but lichens, which often escape our notice, have witnessed the past.


During my time on Tanegashima, I collected a few lichens. I warmed them in a pot of sunflower oil over a low flame for many hours, until the oil became infused with their qualities. I mixed the oil with beeswax, dipped wicks, and made candles. As I write, they stand on my candlestick men, releasing the infusion into the air. From what I can tell, there’s no smell: like smallpox and coronavirus, the lichens arrive without announcing themselves, though what they carry isn’t disease.

We study the record, we furnish the mind with facts. We can also have a sensual relationship to the past. As these candles burn, something is released and something absorbed. A portal opens through a creature to an island and a site—to a day in 1543 significant for what happened and for what didn’t.


In issue 116 of e-flux journal, I wrote about the counterfactual: a thought experiment which imagines alternate paths that history could have taken.6 This method, which has particular application for the work of restitution and reparation, can help to recognize incipient energies in the past that might unsettle established knowledge.

That essay was an attempt to sketch a counterfactual artistic practice. It drew upon workshops I run on the subject, where participants propose alternate histories that we collectively explore. When I conceived of them in the winter of 2020, I saw us building worlds on rolls of paper; by the time the first session occurred a few months later, the only option was a digital whiteboard. I’m sure that each of us, then confined to cramped quarters, was imagining a world without Covid-19. Perhaps that’s why our counterfactuals avoided the subject.

Only in the past year have I begun thinking counterfactually about disease, seeking cases of outbreak, regulation, and vaccination where one can sense, alongside the path taken, those which history didn’t follow. This brought me to the southern coast of Tanegashima …

I began writing this text as a counterfactual, but in the midst of it, I stopped. To create an alternate history where the Portuguese bring smallpox to Japan, I would have to tell a tale we already know and which we’re actively working to amend. We don’t need stories about imperialist and colonialist endeavors that weren’t. We already have too many to grapple with.

The counterfactual seemed like a potent method at the onset of the pandemic: in the face of total uncertainty, we could turn to the past—build branches of possibility, pathways to other presents that might inform what we do with ours. In dwelling on the arrival of Europe in Japan, I’ve run against the limits of the method.

Speculation, particularly within contemporary art, is tacitly assumed to be a generative and critical practice. However, just because a world can be built doesn’t mean that it should. In my case, standing at the threshold of speculation has been an occasion to turn around—to observe how history, on the verge of the virtual, can feel thick.

Somewhere in the crowd, a man caught my eye. It’s taken time to look past his silly mustache and see the entanglements pressed into his form.

Others are beginning to gather. Stay for a bit.

This text is adapted from a performance of the same name delivered in English by Tyler Coburn and in Japanese by Wataru Naganuma at TOKAS Hongo, Tokyo for the 2023 exhibition “As Above, So Below.


This screen was made in the early-seventeenth century and is held by the Suntory Museum of Art in Tokyo. A companion screen, also attributed to Kano Sanraku, shows the Portuguese in a setting that some scholars identify as Macao. Of the ninety pairs of folding screens known to exist, produced from the late-sixteenth to mid-eighteenth century, this pair follows the common format: one screen shows the Portuguese at their previous port of call, and the other their arrival in Nagasaki. For more information on the screen described in this text, see . For high-resolution images, see . For a comprehensive inventory of the folding screens, refer to A Catalogue Raisonné of the Namban Screens (Chuokoron Bijutsu Shuppan, 2008).


The Yahoo! Auctions listing for this candlestick man didn’t mention its maker, and when I pressed the seller for details, he had few to provide. It was only through a visit to the Furata Oribe Museum in Kyoto, where a brand-new copy of this object was on sale, that I learned Jiro Sasaki’s name. On February 24, 2023, I visited Sasaki at his workshop near Toki—the same region where many of the original candlestick men were fired—and we discussed his forty-year career making Oribe-style ceramics. The first two images in this text show Sasaki at work on a candlestick man during our meeting.


According to Brett L. Walker, “when Taino populations of Hispaniola began dying of smallpox, local friars wrote, ‘It has pleased Our Lord to bestow a pestilence, of small pox among the said Indians, and that it does not cease.’” See A Concise History of Japan (Cambridge University Press, 2015), 85.


Beyond the production of objectified likenesses, Japan sold enslaved persons to Portugal during their century of trade, many of whom were captured during Hideyoshi’s invasion of Korea. For more information on this history, see Thomas Nelson, “Slavery in Medieval Japan,” Monumenta Nipponica 59, no. 4 (Winter 2004).


The island discussed in this section has multiple names. During the period when its southern tip was held by the Matsumae clan, it was called Ezochi or “barbarian land.” Within the bounds of present-day Japan, it’s Hokkaido. For the Indigenous Ainu, it’s part of Ainu Moshiri or “the land of humans,” as distinguished from Kamui Moshiri, “the land of the gods.” In acknowledgement of the fact that this island is traditional territory of the Ainu, “Ainu Moshiri” has been used in this text. For more context, see Richard Siddle, “The Making of Ainu Moshiri,” in Nationalisms in Japan, ed. Naoko Shimazu (Routledge, 2006).


See “Counterfactuals,” e-flux journal, no. 116 (March 2021) .

Colonialism & Imperialism, Sculpture
Japan, Health & Disease

Tyler Coburn is an artist, writer, and teacher based in New York.


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