Sakoku: The Isolation of Japan

Global commerce powered the economies of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The mechanized march of the Industrial Revolution re-defined how societies managed and engaged with local economies. Europe was at the forefront of this development and international trade grew exponentially. New markets in the Americas, Africa, and Asia fueled much of these revamped industries. Save for one nation who for over two hundred years enforced a harsh government policy of isolation and discouraged foreign intervention. When this practice ended however, the evolution from feudal society to mechanized constitutional monarchy was the fastest in human history. The home of the Divine Emperor: Japan.

Foreign relations in Japanese history have a eclectic pattern. Adjacent neighbors like China, the Ryukyu Islands, and Korea had significant impact on Japanese culture, religion, and social class system. These connections stretch back a thousand years with the introduction of Confucianism and development of the Japanese language based on the framework of the Chinese language. In 1543, a group of Portuguese sailors and merchants were the first Europeans to set foot in Japan and were responsible for the introduction of firearms. The following sixty years saw a frantic amount of European trade, piracy, and Christian missionary work. Catholic missions actively proselytized in Kyushu, attracting thousands of converts a year. The rise of the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1600 promptly halted foreign influence following their emergence as the supreme military leaders of Japan. Christianity and European contacts were seen as subversive threats to the shogunate’s stability. With the end of the Sengoku Period (Age of Warring-States) and the dawn of the Edo Period, the new imperial government took measures to solidify domestic control and one policy was ‘sakoku’. Defined in Japanese as ‘closed country’, sakoku outlined isolationist policies dictating who could leave or enter the Japanese islands and control where they operated.

No Japanese ship … nor any native of Japan, shall presume to go out of the country; whoever acts contrary to this, shall die, and the ship with the crew and goods aboard shall be sequestered until further orders. All persons who return from abroad shall be put to death. Whoever discovers a Christian priest shall have a reward of 400 to 500 sheets of silver and for every Christian in proportion. All Namban (Portuguese and Spanish) who propagate the doctrine of the Catholics, or bear this scandalous name, shall be imprisoned in the Onra, or common jail of the town. The whole race of the Portuguese with their mothers, nurses and whatever belongs to them, shall be banished to Macao. Whoever presumes to bring a letter from abroad, or to return after he hath been banished, shall die with his family; also whoever presumes to intercede for him, shall be put to death. No nobleman nor any soldier shall be suffered to purchase anything from the foreigner.

Selected Text from the Seclusion Edict of 1636

Commerce was the principle focus. Four main ports of entry were designated to regulate the frequency and national origin of foreign merchants visiting Japan. Officially, the Dutch East India Company was the only European entity authorized to conduct business inside Japan. This greatly benefitted the Dutch as it secured a monopoly on all Japanese exports delivered to Europe. Nagasaki was the busiest port as both Dutch and Chinese vessels conducted trade. As a result Nagasaki became a more cosmopolitan city that offered goods from foreign nations and was the main exposure of Japanese culture to the Dutch. Trade goods weren’t the only items that exchanged hands during ‘sakoku’ but information on foreign nations were also commonplace. The Japanese government built a rudimentary picture of other European and Asian nations through Dutch and Korean merchants and diplomats.

A depiction of a party in the house of the Dutch chief of Dejima. Long-standing customs called for inviting Japanese interpreters and civil servants from Nagasaki to parties (Image courtesy of Geheugen van Nederland, circa 1805)

Historical debate over why this isolationist policy was enforced for the duration of the shogunate continues today. The traditional argument states that outside influences such as Westernization and Catholic missionary work undermined the authority of the central government. Civil unrest such as the Shimbara Rebellion (1637-1638) are cited to support these claims. Armed religious groups were a significant threat during the Sengoku period as Buddhist monks formed militias that battled local lords. Tokugawa officials applied similar logic to Christians who they feared would instigate rebellions like the Shimbara. Christianity and Western influence were therefore identified as one in the same according to the government and European nations like the Spanish and Portuguese were routinely targeted and expelled from Japan. Catholic groups formed underground societies called Kakure Kirishitan during the Edo period as a result. This helped preserve Christianity in Japan and in 1871 under the Meiji Restoration, religious freedom legislation was passed to all groups.

Catholic priests formed the first Christian missions in Japan in the late 16th century. As persecution against Christians exploded in the Edo Period, many Jesuit priests were martyred and crucified in Japan (Image courtesy of the Society of Jesus)

Isolationism was not the ultimate aim of ‘sakoku’ however as historians later claim. By controlling foreign imports and contact with outside nations, the Tokugawa government exercised greater control over the local lords (daimyos) and increased their own domestic power. By limiting international commerce to strictly monitored ports, the Shogun controlled what came into the country and into the hands of daimyos. This practice greatly diminished the daimyos’ power as they previously relied on trade with the Chinese mainland to generate income during the Sengoku period. Without this vital link, no daimyo could become powerful enough to challenge the Shogun. Combined with this rationale was forcing the daimyos to rotate their residence at the Edo capital for a year in a practice called ‘sankin-kotai’. By alternating residences in the capital with the Shogun, the daimyos could be monitored and were placed under further control of the Shogun.

Eventually, challenges to ‘sakoku’ were brought up throughout the Edo period as Japanese nobility and European powers attempted to curtail or abolish the edict and introduce full integration of foreign contacts. The Japanese did keep themselves informed of world affairs through their Dutch mediators, but European businesses were still forbidden from operating inside Japan. A spree of Russian, British, French, and U.S. ships visited different islands requesting permission to trade or establish embassies, but they were all denied. World events like the Napoleonic and Opium Wars did result in minimal alterations to the policy (such as allowing ships to dock and resupply, but not trade). The watershed moment however occurred on July 8, 1853 with the arrival of Commodore Matthew Perry and the four warships (Mississippi, Plymouth, Saratoga, and the Susquehanna). Perry’s arrival and subsequent demand for opening trade between Japan and the United States was the first step in dismantling ‘sakoku’ and opened the path for other nations. One year later, the Convention of Kanagawa and the signing of the ‘Treaty of Peace and Amity’ paved the way for economic relations and end of Japanese isolationism. What can’t be ignored though is that as European nations finally established relations with Japan, highly unequal trade treaties and economic agreements resulted from this gunboat diplomacy. Terms and conditions like these remained a sticking point for the Japanese who feared encroaching imperialist conditions on their homeland. An industrialized West and rapidly changing domestic settings finally forced the fall of the Tokugawa Shogunate and signaled the beginning of the Meiji Restoration.

Commodore Perry’s second fleet. Caption reads ‘Susquehanna, Saratoga, Saint Mary’s, Supply, Plymouth, Perry, Mississippi, Princeton-View of the vessels composing the Japanese squadron’. The mission of the second expedition was to sign the ‘Treaty of Peace and Amity’ which opened up trade and diplomatic relations with the U.S., circa 1854

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