Japan Today



Tokugawa Japan wasn't nearly as isolated as history books teach


The draconian Sakoku-rei or Seclusion Edict, as ordered by Shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu, in 1636, would seal off the country from the outside world for the next two centuries.

Along with banning foreign priests outright, the edict threatened Japan's aspiring ocean voyagers with summary execution. Here are a few excerpts:

"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."

If this topic seems unfamiliar to the average Japanese, we can -- as usual -- blame the education system. A textbook used in the nation's high schools around 1950 glossed over two centuries of national seclusion in a single sentence, stating "... aspects of Western culture that had been previously introduced almost completely faded from sight, and the majority of the people were ignorant of changes in the outside world, continuing to enjoy the bliss of a peaceful Japan."

By 1984, the Ministry of Education had persuaded textbook authors to apply a few more specifics, but the overall gist of the policy was still somewhat superficial.

"After the Shimabara Rebellion, the shogunate became increasingly wary of the Christians, and in 1639 banned entry of the Portuguese. Finally, in 1641, the Dutch trading post in Hirado was moved to Dejima in Nagasaki, and foreign trade was limited to Nagasaki. As a result of the isolation edict, the only foreigners with whom Japan had relations during this time were the Dutch, Chinese and Koreans, with the points of contact points limited to Nagasaki and Tsushima, thereby establishing a system in which the shogunate monopolized diplomacy and trade."

According to Nikkan Gendai (May 11), the textbook versions are not merely oversimplifications, but wrong. To explain this, Nikkan Gendai assigned Koichi Tsunoda, an instructor at a Tokyo metropolitan high school, to set the record straight, and Tsunoda devoted an entire newspaper page to explain what actually occurred during the period of national seclusion, accompanied by maps and illustrations.

Essentially the shogun's government tolerated the existence of four kuchi (gateways) through which Japanese engaged in extensive foreign trade, diplomacy and other exchanges.

The largest and best known of these was the so-called Nagasaki-guchi. In addition to the Dutch trading post at Dejima, Chinese trading ships brought items from Southeast Asia, and as far away as Europe.

The Chinese and Dutch traders were also obliged to submit periodic reports to the shogunate. Known respectively as the Tosenfu Setsugaki and Orandafu Setsugaki, these reports covered events taking place in distant parts of the world, and their contents were selectively disseminated to Japanese scholars.

The second entry point, the Tsushima-guchi, involved trade with Korea. On the occasions of successions of Tokugawa shoguns, a total of 12 Korean delegations were dispatched to Japan, and at these times exchanges also took place between Japanese and Korean scholars.

The third entry point was the Satsuma-guchi, extensive trade between the Ryukyu Kingdom on Okinawa and Satsuma, modern-day Kagoshima Prefecture.

When visiting Edo, Ryukyu emissaries were requested to dress in Chinese-style garments, thereby intended to convey the image of the Shogun receiving "foreign" emissaries, suggesting that Japan was receiving foreign tribute, with the implication that Japan, not China, was at the center of the civilized world.

The fourth entry point was referred to as Matsumae-guchi, in Hokkaido. The Matsumae clan, in their domain at the tip of the Oshima peninsula facing what is now Aomori, engaged in what was known as "Santan koeki" (Shantan trade). The clan's main source of revenues was its monopoly of trade with the Ainu, who transported kombu (edible kelp), much in demand by Manchus and other tribes in northeast Asia, as well as silks and other manufactured items.

"Rethinking the concept behind the period of national isolation will also lead us to rethink 'Japan,'" Tsunoda concludes.

For those wishing to delve further into this subject, Tsunoda recommends the recently published "Sakoku wo Minaosu" by Yasunori Arano, published by Iwanami Gendai Bunko (2019, ¥968).

© Japan Today

©2024 GPlusMedia Inc.

Login to comment

One of the least debunked facts around this period was the so-called "prosperity of Meiji Restoration."

Westerners and outsiders misunderstood that Japan was being prosperous around this period but it was far from the truth. Only the Zaibatsu oligarchs and Imperial military benefited the most, while everyone else was poor. Japan itself was constantly in shortage of resources and gold. It had to deplete gold reserves for years to buy resources for modernization of military, while Yen was essentially worthless until after 1945. This was the primary reason led to Japan's aggressive imperialism after 1930s which ended in a catastrophic failure for Japan.

The Meiji restoration inside and outside Japan is shrouded in myth and false perceptions. Namely, most non-Japanese who are vaguely familiar with the topic believe that Japan “rapidly industrialized” during this period, probably based on stereotypes of postwar Japan. Actually, Japan’s growth rate before WW2 was only 1/3 of its growth rate after the war. By the end of the Meiji era, Japan was still a poor, agrarian country. French Indochina, British Singapore/Burma, Dutch Indonesia, Ottoman Empire, Qing China and Persia all had higher GDP per capita than Japan.

Japan’s efforts also were not unique. Virtually every “uncivilized” power, from Egypt to China, had tried to modernize. Not were the Japanese more successful in economic and military modernization. At the time of the Sino-Japanese war, Japan had zero battleships. China had 2.

Japan was not that impressive economically, nor exceptional in its modernization efforts. Why, then, were they the lone success story?

Because Japan’s soldiers, sailors, and officers in this period were excellent. By 1905, the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy arguably had the highest quality of personnel and command in the world, and the most advanced military methods. Japan was the second country, after Great Britain) to widely adopt wireless telegraphy, the second (after the US) to adopt naval war games, the first to use indirect artillery fire on a large scale, the first to develop a semblance of “infiltration tactics” on a large scale, the first to use offensive minelaying, the first to use incendiary naval rounds, the first country to build a semi-dreadnaught, and the first (and so far only) country to destroy an enemy fleet with land artillery. In training, Japanese soldiers had the most realistic program in the world, involving long forced marches and bayonet practice with almost no formation drill. Officers copied the German method of war gaming while sleep deprived.

Against both China and Russia, the Japanese were badly outnumbered in land and sea. Japan, as I mentioned, was still a poor country. Worse, it had one of the worlds lowest effective tax rates - about 4%. The Japanese public in Meiji times was very tax resistant. Despite this disadvantage, the IJA and IJN completely outclassed their enemies qualitatively. They weren’t just good by “uncivilized” standards - they were excellent by European standards.

This was where Japan was different than Persia, the Ottomans, Egypt, and China. All countries adopted the trappings and the technology of a Westernized army. Only Japan matched that with personnel quality.

-2 ( +0 / -2 )

This article caught my attention as a Japanese history major and armchair historian focused on Japan for the last fifty years.

I have not read anything about Tsunoda san, his credentials, nor have I see his newspaper article noted in this piece, but I think that the notion put forward here that Japan was not as isolated as the history books state is problematic to say the least. For starters, what history books are being questioned?

It has never been questioned among serious Japanese historians that Japan was not “totally” shut off from the world. The Tokugawa rulers - at least the ones interested in the outside - and high government officials throughout the period were quite well informed of both the political and technological progression in Europe and Asia throughout the 265 years of their rule. Toward the end of the period, Dutch learning and Dutch medical books were not that uncommon in daimyo residences in Edo.

That said, and as a high school teacher, Tsunoda san may very well have a point. The history favoured in Japan since the Meiji period has - and still is to a degree by Japanese Japanese historians - been hostile to the Tokugawa. So if he is questioning Japanese Education Ministry approved textbooks, chances are that he very well may have a point. But if he is questioning serious histories on Japan - mostly from the West - I think he has a more challenging task at hand.

The population of Japan was fairly static at around 30 million all through the Edo period and the number of warriors, who's class ruled the country, was also fairly static at around 5 to 6% of that population. Not all of these samurai were at the level whereby they had access to any information their lords may have had and certainly information from outside Japan. Not, at least, until the end of the period. Also due to the political divisions of the warrior class, not all samurai were equal. The Fudai and Shimpan daimyo were always more informed than the Tozama, losers at Sekigahara. There were up to 300 daimyo in the country at any one time, but the number of each class of daimyo fluctuated throughout the era.

So, to suggest that this small group at the top of the ruling Tokugawa bakufu, a group that had varying degrees of knowledge and information from the West and Asia, represents anything other than a “closed country” is, to be polite, pretty fanciful.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Smart to have kept the Christians out. Look what the devastation they did to indigenous in the Americas, Africa and Asia.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

That there is a gap between what they teach normal citizens and what really happened is not surprising, to say the least.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Historic foreign contacts with Japan have always been of interest to me. This is an interesting article, and I will await an English version of the recommended book.

One reference I have enjoyed in the past tells the saga of two ships that approached Uraga Japan with shipwrecked sailors from Japan; The Manhattan in 1845, and The Morrison at Nawa in 1837.

As background, because of landings of foreigners along the Japanese coast, the central government at Edo issued the April 7, 1825 edict ordering the people to drive away by force and foreign ships that might approach a Japanese port. The issuance of the edict was not commonly known outside of Japan.

When the Morrison approached, with shipwrecked sailors, cannons opened fire, causing minor damage. The ship then withdrew to Macao without landing or discharging the Japanese sailors.

With the Manhattan, the ship was allowed to dock, after which officers brought a message to the ship’s captain from the emperor:

“ I am informed, by the mouths of some shipwrecked persons of our country, that they have been brought home by your ship, and that they have been well treated. But, according to our laws, they must not be brought home, except by the Chinese or Dutch . Nevertheless , in the present case, we shall make an exception, because the return of these men by you must be attributed to your ignorance of our laws. In future, Japanese subjects will not be received in like circumstances, and will have to be treated rigorously when returned. You are hereby advised of this, and you must make it known to others. As, in consequence of your long voyage, provisions, and wood and water are wanting on board your ship, we have regard to your request, and whatever you want will be given to you. As soon as possible after the reception of this order, the ship must depart and return directly to her own country.”

Thereafter, the Manhattan was "surrounded by a thousand armed boats, in three cordons , a hundred feet apart from one another," that waited until the ship departed. In the meantime, the governor of Yedo visited the sip, and reportedly treated the captain “with the most distinguished civility and kindness.”

Sakamaki, Shunzo, The Transactions of the Asiatic Society of Japan. Transactions. Tokyo 2nd Series Vol. XVIII. December, 1939. Japan and the United States 1790-1853.

Who doesn't enjoy a little history now and then?

9 ( +10 / -1 )

Rethinking the concept behind the period of national isolation will also lead us to rethink 'Japan,'" Tsunoda concludes.

that's exactly what's happening now with the pandemic. and not in a good way

-13 ( +4 / -17 )

Login to leave a comment

Facebook users

Use your Facebook account to login or register with JapanToday. By doing so, you will also receive an email inviting you to receive our news alerts.

Facebook Connect

Login with your JapanToday account

User registration

Articles, Offers & Useful Resources

A mix of what's trending on our other sites