The Sakoku “Closed Country Policy” of Japan and Its Opening during the Meiji Period
The Sakoku “Closed Country Policy” of Japan and Its Opening during the Meiji Period
This paper discusses how Japan responded to the threat of Western powers through its closed country policy. It also looked into the transition to an open country during the restoration period.
Since the early 1600s, Japan has implemented a policy of sakoku or “closed country”. Sakoku is a foreign relations policy of Japan which prohibits foreigners and Japanese in entering and leaving the country. This policy was implemented in 1641 under Tokugawa Iemitsu and has been in effect until 1853. Hence, leaving the country is considered an illegal act until the Meiji Restoration in 1868.
The policy did not totally isolate Japan. It restricted policies that are applied for trade and foreign relations by the shogunates. Based on the policy, the Dutch factory in Dejima Nagasaki is the only European influence allowed in the country. Trades with China are also performed in Nagasaki. Generally, the purpose of the policy was to end the missionary intervention perceived by the Shogunate and the potential corruption caused by contact with foreigners especially the Western “barbarians”. Shogun means “barbarian subduing-general’. His power to prevent Westerners from breaking the seclusion policy of Japan has kept the Shogunate in power.
The colonial and religious influences of Spain and Portugal also threatened the solidity of the shogunate and the peace throughout the country. The growing number of Catholic conversion in the Southern region was a significant factor in which the threat was perceived. The incident which triggered the imposition of the sakoku was the rebellion of Christian peasants from 1637 to 1638. The missionaries were charged by the shogunate for starting the rebellion. Consequently, they were driven out of the country and the religion was banned.
Tokugawa authorities find it difficult to control the uprising and sought the help of Dutch ships. Rebels even declared their loyalty to Christianity. After the massacre of Shimabra defender, Iemitsu deliberated with his ministers and decided to introduce strict controls over foreign relations. By 1639, a set of measures were enacted commonly called as the sakoku or “closed country” policy (1997 ). During that time and long afterwards they were referred to as kaikin or maritime prohibitions. Although Japan was not entirely closed, external contacts are greatly reduced.
Moreover, the policy was also a means of controlling the trade with other countries as well as asserting a position in the East Asian hierarchy. Eventually, it became the defense against the exhaustion of mineral resources to the outside world. From the Japanese point of view, it is not reasonable to trade precious metals for articles which they could do without or replace with local products.
Generally, there are major factors that moved to the closing of the country: to control the trade of minerals and precious metals to the outside world; mistrust of the religion that had flourished in many areas to which Tokugawa had little military strength; and the final trigger from the Shimabara rebellion. As time passed, it has become more difficult to reverse the policy. It became a bulwark of vested interest be it ethical cultural, political or commercial.
The long term effect of the sakoku is the seclusion of Japan from great scientific discoveries during the 17th century in Europe and the early phases of the industrial revolution. In 1650, it was almost equal with Europe in terms of technology but this was not the case two hundred years later. On the other hand, the sakoku gave Japan two and a half centuries of peace and remarkable freedom from external conflicts. The closure enabled Japan to be free during those centuries to make significant developments in political and social organization as well as in commerce and culture. Most of all, it did not suffer the same way like other Asian countries regardless if they become colonies or not. It did not have a ruling class that is permeated by the Western culture and influences that eventually became alienated from the masses.
Japan remain consistently Japanese and was able to preserve and acquire strength from is national characteristics when hit by the tide of Westernization after 1850. In short, the Tokugawa policy has allowed the country to prepare itself for modernization on its own way ( 1997). The same can be said of the relations with the neighboring countries. The presence of Westerners in Asia and the rampant colonialism during the nineteenth century is the main reason behind Japan and its policy.
The western urge for opening Japan rests on the belief that sakoku deprived the country of foreign trade that is essential for its own good. The growth of free trade upon the removal of sakoku is considered to be the measure of Japan’s loss during the earlier years. It is said that the gains from foreign trade could have been reaped much earlier had it not existed. Even so, this notion overlooked the experiences of the country under the policy.
During the 17th century, Europeans had found Japanese goods that they wanted and on the other hand, Japan needed few goods from the outside world. Japan was self sufficient in food and there are no international trades of food in the Eastern part of Asia during those times. The trade arguments that justify western interventions did not take into account the fact that the absence of foreign trade on luxuries substantiated sakoku. The Agricultural productivity grew during the seventeenth century and there are also technological innovations in place.
In economic terms, the Tokugawa times was a tale of success. It was at peace with itself. The decade when sakoku was introduced is characterized by years of crisis but it worked thereafter. Without the Chinese intervention, the eighteenth century became a remarkable century of external security. The presences of Western ships were recorded only in 1771 and 1778 and again in 1792 (2003).There were numerous attempts to put an end in the seclusion by the expansion of Western powers in the 18th and the 19th century. American, Russian and French ships tried to build relationship with Japan but they were all rejected.
When the fear of western threat recurred in 1780, Japan began studying the politics of the West. While Japan remained an isolated country, there were studies on the outside world and changes in the framework of the foreign policy. The result was that Japan had some elements of administration of foreign affairs by 1850 with a highly competent knowledge of Dutch and practical understanding of the West ( 2003). Because of this Japan was able to deal with the real challenges that came in. Concessions are kept to a minimum although there appears to be divided opinion as to the extent of the concession. While the outsiders remain unwanted, a degree of consensus was established with the argument that unnecessary treaties would take time. There was no broad divide in terms of fundamental principles.
This though has changed with the arrival of Perry in 1853 bearing the letter from the American president that seeks the opening of the Japanese ports. The fleet was intended to overawe the Japanese. The negotiating team which was led by the head of the Hayashi family negotiated well and kept the concessions into a minimum (2003). The treaty provided only for the supplies made available to the ships. Foreign trade remained restricted to the Chinese and the Dutch. Nagasaki was still the only port for doing trade with the old trading partners alone.
However, effective commercial treaties are demanded thereafter. With the example of British and French armed intrusion in China, the benefits of alliance with the united Sates were argued. By the early 1858, American demands became clear and uncompromising and thus divided the Japanese (2003, 180). The issue was not the admittance of foreign ships for non trading purposes or the opening of port other than that of Nagasaki but of going to further concessions. This though would mean the end of the sakoku and the presence of more foreigners and security risks.
The opening of the ports raised difficult concerns as well as the shogunal succession. The real issue is whether Japan will accede to the concessions and the only comfort was to accommodate foreigners temporarily. However, foreigners did not appreciate the extent of the opposition to the treaties. They have regarded Japan as inherently despotic. British on the other hand looked at Japan in the same way with the Chinese. They believe that easterners are impressed with force and that Japan’s capacity for a higher moral civilization is relatively lower than other countries including China (2003).
By 1868, the Tokugawa rule has ended and the full sovereign power was given to the new Meiji Emperor. The oppositions against Tokugawa have long been growing but it is only until the 19th century that shogun attacks existed. The downfall of the Tokugawa system is attributed with the forceful opening of the closed door by the united Sates and other nations. The arrival of foreigners specifically of Perry’s expedition provided the final trigger for the collapse of the shogunate.
The Meiji Restoration during 1867-1868 experienced civil war for several months. When the Tokugawa rule was ended, the Imperial Restoration was announced. This though signified the start of further struggle to keep the peacefulness in the country. After the announcement of the restoration, the creation of a new government was declared on January 3, 1868. With the resentment of the ex-shogun’s supporters, Shogun Keiki was ruled out from the memberships and his lands were sequestered. As such he was persuaded to take arms and was defeated in the battle of Fushimi. In other places where certain clans remained loyal to the Tokugawa fought firmly. The last area of opposition was in Hokkaido where the navy’s admiral held out for several months. This ended the dominance of the Tokugawa which gave Japan 15 Shoguns (2007)
The forces that defeated the shogunates are associated in driving out barbarians. With their victory, it is expected that more resentment against foreigners will prevail. There were few isolated incidents of anti foreign confrontations before Japan could actually take the issue of modernization. The new government has implemented stiff punishments to those who attacked foreigners. The new men ruling Japan did not favor antagonism much less to expel the barbarians.
Japan realized the role of modernization in its goal to achieve a powerful position in the world. More so, it acknowledged the need to cope up with the technological advancement of the Western countries. However, modernization cannot be achieved without the help from the West. The Shogunate employed a number of technicians including British, American, French, German and Dutch
( 2007).They were engaged by the government in various areas and at the same time Japanese were sent to Western countries to learn from them. Like the Chinese attitude, Japanese were never too proud to be trained. It appeared that the anti foreign policy became almost pro foreign in due course. The steps that led to the restoration have been very complex. Ultimately, it paved the way for the opening of the country to foreigners.
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