Closed ports and Christians: Japan’s era of isolation

Distrust of a religious minority, limited interest in international trade, a desire to protect a national identity: this is early modern Japan, a feudal backwater that had cut itself off from the rest of the world.

In 1853, four ships entered Edo (now Tokyo) bay. Huge, heavily armed and belching black smoke into the sky, their arrival had a profound and terrifying effect on the Japanese. Although their commander threatened to burn the capital to the ground, their visit was a symbolic one: it announced the military and economic supremacy of the West, and the ending of an old order. Little over a decade later, Japan’s entire political system would collapse, and a 220-year old policy of national isolation would come to an abrupt end. Such was the effect of the black ships (kurofune), that they soon became a byword for fear and surprise, as epitomised by a popular contemporary poem:

The steam-powered ships
break the halcyon slumber
of the Pacific;
a mere four boats are enough
to make us lose sleep at night.

The ships came from the United States, at that time a burgeoning economic power that had expanded across the breadth of the American continent. They were led by the renowned Commodore Matthew Perry, a veteran of both the War of 1812 and the Mexican-American War. His aim was force open Japanese ports to US trade, ports which had long been closed under the policy of sakoku, or national isolation, which placed heavy restrictions on foreign trade and barred Japanese citizens from leaving the country. Perry returned the following year, and signed the first of several treaties that gave trading privileges first to the United States, then the United Kingdom, then Russia.

In 1853, Japan had been ruled by the Tokugawa bakufu – a feudal government led by a shogun, a kind of military dictator – for around 150 years. The first shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu, brought Japan to heel in the Battle of Sekigahara, finally bringing unity and stability to a country wracked by over a century of civil war. Though nominally subservient to the emperor in Kyoto, Tokugawa had total control over Japan; his family would reign supreme until the Meiji Restoration in 1868. It was he who made his capital in the little fishing village of Edo, where the drama of the kurofune would play out a century-and-a-half later. However, it was his grandson Tokugawa Iemitsu who would institute the sakoku policy that closed this port, through a series of edicts issued between 1633 and 1639.

Conventional wisdom holds that sakoku was first devised to stay the subvsersive religious influence of Catholic missionaries from Spain and Portugal. Over the course of the sixteenth century, an increasing number of Japanese – chiefly in the southern island of Kyushu – had converted to this foreign faith, and by the early years of the Tokugawa bakufu, were seen as a genuine threat to its authority. This fear was not unfounded: during the previous centuries of civil war, religious uprisings by armed Buddhist monks were fairly common; the danger posed by adherents to a foreign faith, whose loyalties were perceived as lying elsewhere, was therefore not to be taken lightly. Indeed, these fears were proven prescient: in 1637, 40,000 Christian peasants rose up in revolt, leading to mass executions of converts, and the expulsion of Portuguese traders and missionaries.

Furthermore, the Japanese had reason to fear more sinister motivations from these European powers. They knew of the suffering experience by the native peoples of their new American empires, and the shogun and the imperial dynasty both suspected this religious intrusion to be a prelude to hostile takeover. This view was shared by traders from the Netherlands, who were keen to retain a cooperative native government in Japan, rather than one subservient to the more unsympathetic Portuguese or Spanish. The Dutch were regarded by the bakufu as being able to separate their more benign Protestant persuasion from their commercial ambitions. Thus, they could become natural, unobtrusive trading partners.

From that point onwards, trade with the West became (almost) solely the province of the Dutch East India Company, which was allowed to operate a trading post on the artificial island of Dejima in Nagasaki Bay. There, they delivered silk, cotton and sugar to the Japanese in exchange for copper, porcelain and rice. In turn, Japanese people were afforded limited access to Europe’s scientific revolution through rangaku, or ‘Dutch studies’, which covered subjects from anatomy to astronomy. Dejima, too, was the point of ingress for a number of European innovations and discoveries, including coffee, the piano, and badminton.

Since the 1970s, historians have challenged this reading of sakoku’s origins. The view that isolation was just a reaction to European interference has been dismissed as a Eurocentric one, especially since Japan continued to trade with China, Korea, and the Ryukyu islands. It can there be regarded not as xenophobic isolationism, as an element of the bakufu’s domestic agenda. Under this interpretation, Sakoku was devised to extend the shogun’s authority over his vassal daimyo, who had often used foreign trade to build up their independent military strength, by stifling the flow of goods and people in to and out of their domains. The bakufu set about funnelling trade through ports under its sole control, thereby enriching its own coffers through taxes and levies, and denying the other daimyo the opportunity for the same. As a result, no rival could gather the resources to challenge the Tokugawa dynasty.

The relationship between the shogun and his daimyo was maintained through a fairly complex system of loyalties. Each lord was given authority over his own domain in exchange for paying taxes and providing military service to the government. They were also required to spend their time alternately between Edo and his own court; when he was absent from the capital, he left members of his family behind as hostages. This system became entrenched, and intermarriage between the Tokugawa family, and those of loyal and hostile daimyo ensured a relatively peaceful and stable power dynamic. Nonetheless, the latter, the so-called tozama daimyo, never completely bought into the bakufu.

It was these tozama daimyo who led the push to overthrow the bakufu, spurred on by their political marginalisation, the perception of undue foreign influence over Japanese affairs, and the realisation that their country had been left behind by its century-and-a-half of isolation. The Perry expedition had opened up Japan to the world, and therefore the immeasurable possibilities that it presented to them. The Meiji Restoration meant that, for the first time in centuries, the emperor was master of his own domain. Under his leadership, Japan underwent industrialisation at a breakneck pace. In 1853, it was an isolated country, a feudal backwater cut off from the world; by 1905, Japanese battleships decimated the Russian fleet, announcing itself to the world as an equal to the Europeans who had once threatened its independence. This rapid modernisation was possible in part due to rangaku, which had kept open a window to the West, when all others were tightly shut.

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