JAPAN AND THE WEST DURING THE EDO PERIOD

CLOSING OF JAPAN TO THE WEST

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Ukiyo-e depiction of foreigners
Fear of European domination led Tokugawa to close off Japan to the outside world in 1612. With exception of Nagasaki and one other port, foreigners were excluded from Japan for 241 years, until 1853, during a period known as sakoku ("national seclusion"). Japan enjoyed a long period of peace but stagnated while Spain, France, Portugal and England colonized the world and Europe was dramatically altered by the industrial revolution.

Non-Japanese were restricted to Dejima, a 130-acre artificial island built in 1634 in Nagasaki. The first occupants were Portuguese who built homes and warehouses and still had enough room left over to graze sheep and cattle. In 1639, the Portuguese were kicked out and replaced by the Dutch, who, with the exception of a few Korean envoys and shipwrecked whalers, were the only non-Japanese who entered Japan for the next 200 years. Spain’s “Manila Galleons” that traveled between Asia and Acapulco between 1568 and 1815 sometimes included a stop in Nagasaki.

For the Japanese the punishment for leaving the country (and coming back) was death. The Japanese view at the time was that their world was complete and their was no place in it for crude, materialistic and barbaric Westerners. It was one of the few times in modern history that a nation rejected "progress." Punishments were equally harsh for foreigner that arrived in Japan. Thirteen members of a group of Portuguese merchants that arrived in 1640 were executed. The rest returned home with the message: "Think of us no more."

Websites and Resources

Good Sources Websites Essay on Use of the Term Orient aboutjapan.japansociety.org ; Essay on Epoch of Unification (1568-1615) aboutjapan.japansociety.org ; Essay on the Polity opf the Tokugawa Era aboutjapan.japansociety.org ; Wikipedia article on the Edo Period Wikipedia ; Samurai Archives on Tokugawa Ieyasu samurai-archives.com ; Wikipedia article on the History of Tokyo Wikipedia; Making of Modern Japan, Google e-book books.google.com/books ; Books : Edo, The City That Became Tokyo: An Illustrated History by Akira Naito (Kodansha Press, 2003) and Giving Up the Gun, Japan’s Reversion from the Sword by Noel Perrin.

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memorial to Nagasaki martyrs
Good Websites and Sources on Momoyama Period: Essay on Epoch of Unification (1568-1615) aboutjapan.japansociety.org ; Essay on Kamakura and Muromachi Periods aboutjapan.japansociety.org ; Wikipedia article on the Momoyama Period Wikipedia ; Samurai Archives Article on Oda Nobunaga samurai-archives.com/nobunaga ; Samurai Archives Article on Hideyoshi Toyotomi samurai-archives.com/hideyoshi ; Hideyoshi Toyotomi bio zenstoriesofthesamurai.com ; Wikipedia article on Battle of Sekigahara Wikipedia ; Good Photos at Japan-Photo Archive japan-photo.de Christianity in Japan: Good Photos at Japan-Photo Archive of Christianity japan-photo.de ; Wikipedia article on Christianity in Japan Wikipedia ; Catholic Encyclopedia Article on Japan (scroll down for info on Christianity in Japan) newadvent.org ; History of Japanese Catholic Church english.pauline.or.jp ; Artelino Article on the Dutch in Nagasaki artelino.com Kamakura and Muromachi Periods: Essay on the Kamakura and Muromachi Periods aboutjapan.japansociety.org ; Wikipedia article on the Kamakura Period Wikipedia ; Samurai Archives article on Minamoto Yoritomo samurai-archives.com ; Wikipedia article on Muromachi Period Wikipedia ; Tale of Heike site meijigakuin.ac.jp

Good Japanese History Websites: ; Wikipedia article on History of Japan Wikipedia ; Samurai Archives samurai-archives.com ; National Museum of Japanese History rekihaku.ac.jp ; Japanese History Documentation Project openhistory.org/jhdp ; Cambridge University Bibliography of Japanese History to 1912 ames.cam.ac.uk ; Sengoku Daimyo sengokudaimyo.co ; English Translations of Important Historical Documents hi.u-tokyo.ac.jp/iriki ; WWW-VL: History: Japan (semi good but dated source ) vlib.iue.it/history/asia/Japan ; Forums Delphi Forums, Good Discussion Group on Japanese History forums.delphiforums.com/samuraihistory ; Tousando tousando.proboards.com


Virgin Mary fumie

Christianity in the Edo Period

Persecution of Christians that began before the Edo Period continued during it. Ieyasu outlawed Christianity and the Tokugawa shoguns eradicated it within 50 years using murder, persecution and decrees. In 1638, 37,000 people, mostly Christians, were massacred during brutal crackdown after the Christian-led Shimbara Rebellion. As a result of this oppression it was thought the number of Christians was reduced to near zero.

Christians were forced to tread on fumi-e (“pictures to step on”) to show they had renounced their religion. Christians were tortured with heavy stones that were placed on their legs until they abandoned their religion. Some of these stones have been used to make the Kashiragahima church in the Goto Island.

In one particularly nasty method of torture called “anazuri” a person suspected of being a Christian was hung upside down for days in a hole. So that the person would be in pain for as long as possible a small hole was bored behind the person’s ear so that the person would die as his blood slowing dripped out drop by drop.

In the decades that followed Christianity was practiced in secret (See Hidden Christians Below), Persecution began to lighten up after Commodore Perry arrived in 1853. Christian missionaries returned in 1859. Christianity was legalized and anti-Christian laws were repealed in 1873. In 1895, several Japanese visited the Oura Cathedral in Nagasaki, built the year before for foreigners, and revealed they were Christians. The episode is famous in religious history in Japan and is known a the revelation of believers and proved that despite the most extreme repression Christianity remained alive in Japan.

The last Japanese priest was crucified in 1642. In November 2008, the Roman Catholic Church held its first ever beautification ceremony in Japan to honor 188 martyrs who refused to give up their religion despite persecution between 1603 and 1639. Among those honored were Julian Nakamura, who was a member of delegation sent to receive blessing from the Pope, and Petro Kibe, who was the first Japanese to visit Jerusalem. The ceremony came 27 years after Pope John Paul II said the martyrs should be recognized during a 1981 trip to Nagasaki.

Books about Christians Silence (1966), a book about the persecution of Portuguese Christians in the 17th century; and Chinmoku by Shusaku Endo (1981)

Eradication of Firearms

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The Japanese shoguns had the unusual distinction of being perhaps the only major rulers ever to eradicate firearms. In 1587, the shogun declared that all non-samurai were required to hand over weapons---both guns and swords---to the government, which had announced it was going to use the metal in the construction of an enormous statue of Buddha. All gunsmiths were ordered to take their workshops to the city of Nagahama, where the shogun could keep an eye on them and make sure they didn't make weapons. [Source: "History of Warfare" by John Keegan, Vintage Books]

The Japanese recognized the inherit instability that firearms created and they were able to get rid of them because Japan was an island country that focused on maintaining internal order and it was not threatened by any invaders. By 1706 the entire gun production of Japan was 35 large matchlocks, and only a handful of Japanese knew how to make firearms. The shoguns kept their country virtually free of firearms until Perry arrived in 1853.

Gokayama, a remote town in central Honshu, was a source of gunpowder for feudal lords and secret peasant groups. The gunpowder was made by mixing soil, grass and bacteria generated from urine. This mixture was placed in holes beneath buildings and left to ferment for four years or so and then was boiled with ash and water and filtered and boiled again until a concentrated form was derived. Some of the houses were used to secretly make gunpowder and today they contain displays on the gunpowder-making process.

Dutch, Japan and Knowledge

The Dutch made profits from trade with Japan but made more from their spice-producing colonies in present-day Indonesia. The Japanese were not really interested in trade with the Dutch and Europe but they were interested in absorbing whatever information they could from the red-haired barbarians.

The Japanese learned about Western medicine and science from the Dutch. Rangaku ("Dutch learning") became associated with the concept of scientific thought and rangakusha ("Japanese who spoke Dutch") became the leading intellectuals of their day.

The performance of the first autopsy in Japan in 1754 is regarded as a milestone in the acceptance of the Western view of medicine based on experiment and investigation.

Knowledge of the West in the Edo Period

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Dejima Island at Nagasaki
Japanese scholars learned about Western medicine and other sciences during the long period of isolation mainly from the Dutch traders in Nagasaki and Nakahama Manjiro, a shipwrecked Japanese fisherman who was rescued by an American whaling ship.

Manjiro spend four years in Massachusetts, leaning English and studying Western navigation. He traveled around the world by sea, returning to Japan in 1851, ten years after he was shipwrecked.

When Manjiro returned to his homeland he was not executed and was allowed to return to his home in Kochi because he was an important source of information. When Perry's black ships arrived Manjiro was summoned to Edo to advise the shogun.

Among the things that the Japanese learned from Nakahama were that Americans were indeed Barbarians. In their country, he wrote, "toilets are placed over holes in the ground. It is customary to read books in them."

A samurai who visited the United States in 1860 wrote that Western women had "dogs' eyes" which he found "disheartening." Western visitors to Japan around the same time commented that the epicanthic folds of Japanese made them look sleepy and small.

"The Barbarians' Nature" by Aizawa Seishisai, 1781-1863

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “Aizawa Seishisai (1781-1863) was an important Confucian scholar and tutor to the lords of Mito, a branch of the Tokugawa family. Aizawa’s greatest work, Shinron (“New Theses”), was written in 1825, in the wake of a string of incidents of Western ships entering Japanese waters. Now considered a seminal contribution to Japanese nationalist thought, Shinron tapped into rising sentiments in Japan supporting a more active political role for the emperor and a firm stand against the intrusions of Western “barbarians.” Aizawa’s writings, as well as the work of other scholars in what was known as the Mito School, would later prove an inspiration to the detractors of the Tokugawa shogunate who rallied around the slogan sonnō jōi (“revere the Emperor and expel the barbarians”). [Source:Asia for Educators Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu <|> ]


Aizawa Seishisai

Excerpts from Shinron (New Theses): “The Barbarians’ Nature” by Aizawa Seishisai: “The bakufu once made it plain to Russia that Japanese law requires us to destroy on sight any barbarian ship approaching our coasts. But now the English regularly appear and anchor off our shores, and we do not lift a finger to drive them away. [Quite the contrary, as in the recent Ōtsuhama affair,] when they have the gall to land, we go out of our way to provide for their needs and send them merrily along. Will the barbarians have any respect for our laws after they hear about this? The English come and go as they please, draw maps and sketch our terrain, disrupt our inter.island transport system, and win over our commoners with their occult religion and the lure of profit. If smuggling increases and we fail to stop commoners from aiding and abetting the barbarians, who knows what future conspiracies may hatch? But our temporizing, gloss.it.over officials reply, “The foreigners are just fishermen and merchants doing nothing out of the ordinary; there is no cause for alarm.” What simpletons! The barbarians live ten thousand miles across the sea; when they set off on foreign conquests, “they must procure supplies and provisions from the enemy.” That is why they trade and fish. [Source: “Anti-Foreignism and Western Learning in Early-Modern Japan,” by Bob Tadashi Wakabayashi (Council on East Asian Studies, Harvard University, 1986), 208-209, 213. <|>

“Their men-of-war are self-sufficient away from home. If their only motive for harpooning whales was to obtain whale meat, they could do so in their own waters. Why should they risk long, difficult voyages just to harpoon whales in eastern seas? (Gloss: The waters off Greenland, for example, teem with whales. That is why barbarian whalers from all over the world go there. Moreover, Greenland is but a short voyage from England.) Their ships can be outfitted for trading, or fishing, or fighting. Can anyone guarantee that their merchant vessels and fishing boats of today will not turn into warships tomorrow? … But some dimwits argue, “The warriors of our Divine Realm have been peerless throughout the world since antiquity. The barbarians are puny runts; there is no cause for alarm.” True, the fighting men of our Divine Realm are brave and skilled in warfare, and our customs reinforce this [native martial spirit]. But times change; there are eras of weakness as well as strength. During the Warring States period [1467.1568], our warriors were truly fit for combat; proper movements on the battlefield were simple reflex actions. Our warriors proved their valor through actual battlefield achievements, such as capturing enemy banners or beheading enemy generals. But two hundred years have passed since our warriors last tasted battle. How many of them today are trained well enough to cope with the sudden thrusts and feints or the other complexities of warfare? The weak.hearted would flee for their lives, disrupting the ranks; the courageous would die meaninglessly, their valor coming to naught. <|>

“Our skill and valor do not guarantee victory. When the Mongols attacked [in 1274 and 1281], the military prowess of our Divine Realm was at its prime. But due to our ignorance of enemy formations and tactics, our valor counted for little. Our headlong charges led only to self-decimation. This is why I maintain that victory in war depends entirely on the statesman-general’s stratagems and long.range planning. But the art of war as taught today consists of outmoded ideas and tactics employed by medieval generals like Takeda Shingen and Uesugi Kenshin. We do not observe foreign troops directly, nor do we gather information about them. <|>

Once war breaks out, they may engage us in a totally unexpected way, so it is a poor idea to rely solely on our reputation for valor. The barbarians coming to spy on our Middle Kingdom during the past three hundred years arrived one after another from various nations. Though their homelands differ, they all revere the same god. This means that Christianity has had designs on our Middle Kingdom for the past three hundred years. In dealing with this [sustained threat], our Middle Kingdom has on each occasion adopted a different policy based on the then.prevalent opinion. The predators have a firm, fixed objective and steadfastly try to achieve it; the prey intermittently changes its defense posture, at times assuming the hard.line, at times, the soft.line, always vacillating between the two. Who can guarantee that the predators forever will meet frustration trying to discover our weaknesses? To turn our vacillation into constancy of purpose and eliminate the weaknesses we posses, we first must fully understand the barbarians’ nature. We first must fully understand the barbarians’ nature. <|>

Hasekura Tsunenaga, the First Japanese Ambassador in the Americas and in Europe


Hasekura in Rome

Hasekura Rokuemon Tsunenaga (or "Francisco Felipe Faxicura", as he was baptized in Spain) (1571–1622) was a Japanese samurai and retainer of Date Masamune, the daimyo of Sendai. In the years 1613 through 1620, Hasekura headed a diplomatic mission to the Vatican in Rome, traveling through New Spain (arriving in Acapulco and departing from Veracruz) and visiting various ports-of-call in Europe. This historic mission is called the Keicho- Embassy, and follows the Tensho- embassy of 1582. On the return trip, Hasekura and his companions re-traced their route across Mexico in 1619, sailing from Acapulco for Manila, and then sailing north to Japan in 1620. He is conventionally considered the first Japanese ambassador in the Americas and in Europe.[Source: Wikipedia]

Although Hasekura's embassy was cordially received in Europe, it happened at a time when Japan was moving toward the suppression of Christianity. European monarchs such as the King of Spain thus refused the trade agreements Hasekura had been seeking. Hasekura returned to Japan in 1620 and died of illness a year later, his embassy seemingly ending with few results in an increasingly isolationist Japan. Japan's next embassy to Europe would only occur more than 200 years later, following two centuries of isolation, with the "First Japanese Embassy to Europe" in 1862.

Samurai Warrior in Ayutthaya, Thailand

Yamada Nagamasa (1590 – 1630) was a Japanese adventurer who gained considerable influence in Ayutthaya kingdom at the beginning of the 17th century and became the governor of the Nakhon Si Thammarat in southern Thailand. Yamada Nagamasa was born in Numazu in 1590. He is said to have been a palanquin bearer of the lord of Numazu. He became involved in Japanese trade activities with Southeast Asia during the period of the Red seal ships and settled in the kingdom of Ayutthaya (modern-day Thailand) from around 1612. [Source: Wikipedia]


Yamada Nagamasa

Yamada Nagamasa is alleged to have carried on the business of a corsair or pirate from the period of 1620, attacking and plundering Dutch ships in and around Batavia (present day Jakarta). Stories of Yamada burying his treasure on the East Coast of Australia persist but it is highly unlikely that Yamada would have ventured along the east coast of Australia and, in particular, Magnetic Island off Townsville, as there were no trade routes in this region and the only ships to venture to this region were the ones blown off course during the summer storms. This is speculative, however: Yamada would have passed thousands of islands in the Torres Straits and Coral sea and these would have provided safe keeping for any treasure and avoided a very long recovery voyage in the future.

In the space of fifteen years, Yamada Nagamasa rose from the low Thai nobility rank of Khun to the senior of Ok-ya, his title becoming Ok-ya Senaphimuk. He became the head of the Japanese colony, and in this position supported the military campaigns of the Thai king Songtham, at the head of a Japanese army flying the Japanese flag. He fought successfully, and was finally nominated Lord of The World (modern Nakhon Si Thammarat), in the southern peninsula in 1630, accompanied by 300 samurai.

After more than twelve years in Siam, Yamada Nagamasa went to Japan in 1624 onboard one of his ships, where he sold a cargo of Siamese deer hide in Nagasaki. He stayed in Japan for three years, trying to obtain a Red Seal permit, but finally left in 1627, with the simple status of a foreign ship. In 1628, one of his ships transporting rice from Ayutthaya to Malacca was arrested by a Dutch warship blockading the city. The ship was released once the identity of the owner became clear, since the Dutch knew that Yamada was held in great respect by the King of Siam, and they did not wish to enter into a diplomatic conflict. Yamada was also valued by the Dutch as a supplier of deer hide, and they invited him to trade more with Batavia. Yamada became involved in a succession war in Siam following the death of the King Songtham. He was wounded in combat in 1630, and then apparently poisoned through his wound, which led to his death.

Nagamasa now rests in his hometown in the area of Otani in Japan . The remnants of the Japanese quarters in Ayutthuya are still visible to visitors, as well as a statue of Yamada in Siamese military uniform. Two films have been adapted from Yamada's life: “The Gaijin” (1959) and “Yamada: The Samurai of Ayothaya” (2010).

Japanese in Ayutthaya


Nagamasa Army

Yamada Nagamasa lived in the Japanese quarters of Ayutthaya, home to another 1,500 Japanese inhabitants (some estimates run as high as 7,000). The community was called "Ban Yipun" in Thai, and was headed by a Japanese chief nominated by Thai authorities. It seems to have been a combination of traders, Christian converts who had fled their home country following the persecutions of Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu, and unemployed former samurai who had been on the losing side at the battle of Sekigahara. Senrakoku Fudo-gunki, a 17th century chronicler, wrote: “From the years of Gen'na (1615–24) through the later years of Kan'ei (1624–44), the Ro-nin or warriors who lost their lords after the defeats of the battle of Osaka (1614–15) or the earlier battle of Sekigahara (1600), as well as the defeated Christians of the Shimabara uprising, went to settle in Siam in great numbers

The Christian community seems to have been in the hundreds, as described by Padre Antônio Francisco Cardim, who recounted having administered sacrament to around 400 Japanese Christians in 1627 in the Thai capital of Ayuthaya ("a 400 japoes christaos"). The colony was active in trade, particularly in the export of deer-hide to Japan in exchange for Japanese silver and Japanese handicrafts (swords, lacquered boxes, high-quality papers). They were noted by the Dutch for challenging the trade monopoly of the Dutch East India Company (VOC).

The Japanese colony was highly valued for its military expertise, and was organized under a "Department of Japanese Volunteers" (Krom Asa Yipun) by the Thai king (See Yamada Nagamasa, Samuari Warrior Above). Following Yamada's death in 1630, the new ruler and usurper king of Siam Prasat Thong (1630–1655) sent an army of 4000 soldiers to destroy the Japanese settlement in Ayutthaya, but many Japanese managed to flee to Cambodia. A few years later in 1633, returnees from Indochina were able to re-establish the Japanese settlement in Ayutthaya (300-400 Japanese). From 1634, the Shogun, informed of these troubles and what he perceived as attacks on his authority, refused to issue further Red Seal ship permits for Siam. Desirous to renew trade however, the king of Siam sent a trading ship and an embassy to Japan in 1636, but the embassies were rejected by the Shogun, thus putting an end to direct relations between Japan and Siam. Japan was concomitantly closing itself to the world at that time, a period known as Sakoku. The Dutch took over the lucrative Siam-Japan trade from that time on.

Japanese Slaves Taken to Mexico in 16th Century


Nagamasa ship

The Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “A rare document has been found that records the transport of Japanese people to Mexico as slaves in the late 16th century, the first documentation of Japanese people crossing the Pacific Ocean. Lucio de Sousa, a special researcher at University of Evora in Portugal, and Mihoko Oka, an assistant professor at the Historiographical Institute, University of Tokyo, discovered the information among Inquisition records stored at the General Archives of the Nation in Mexico. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun/Asia News Network, May 14, 2013 <>]

“The names of three people born in Japan were found in the document. Their names--Gaspar Fernandes, Miguel and Ventura--are not written in Japanese, but the word "xapon" (Japan) is written after their names. All three are believed to have been male. Gaspar was born in Bungo, currently Oita Prefecture. He was sold as a slave by a Japanese merchant to a Portuguese merchant named Perez on a seven-peso, three-year contract in Nagasaki in 1585, when Gaspar was 8. He is believed to have worked as a servant in Perez's home, but further details are unknown. A bottle of high-grade olive oil cost eight pesos at that time in Spain. Ventura's history is unknown, but Miguel was sold by a Portuguese slave trader to Perez in Spanish Manila in 1594. Perez was arrested in 1596 in Manila and convicted of secretly being a Jew. Perez's family crossed the Pacific Ocean from Manila to Spanish Acapulco in Mexico in December 1597 for a second round of interrogations before the Inquisition.

The three Japanese names were written in the record as Perez's slaves. Gaspar testified at the hearing about Perez's religious practices, including what he ate. In 1599, he and Ventura appealed to the authorities that they were not slaves, and they were released in 1604. The Tensho boy mission, which was sent by the Japanese Christian lord Otomo Sorin to the pope and kings of Europe in 1582 and travelled to Rome via the Indian Ocean, saw Japanese slaves around the world. In 1587, Toyotomi Hideyoshi banned the trade of Japanese nationals.

At that time, Spain and Portugal had promoted the slave trade in Asia, including Japan, as part of their colonial policies. The Pacific route from Manila to Acapulco was established in 1565, and there is information about Japanese who crossed the Pacific Ocean. For example, Japanese slaves were sold in South America in 1596, but the details are unknown. "The record is a rare document that clearly establishes that Japanese people crossed the Pacific Ocean before Japan closed itself to the world [in 1639]. At that time, many Japanese likely travelled to the American continent," Oka said.

Limited Technology in Japan During the Edo Period

"While the Chinese remained obstinate isolationists, stubbornly suspicious of anything from the outside," wrote historian Daniel Boorstin, "the Japanese combined a determination to preserve their own arts and institutions with a remarkable capacity for imitating and incorporating whatever came from abroad."

In 1638, the only telescope in Japan was one that was imported into Nagasaki and then used on the southeast side of the city at the Observatory for Foreigners, where lookouts kept their eyes peeled for unwelcome visitors.

Until 1873, the Japanese divided their days into six equal hours between sunrise and sunset. The length of their 'hours' varied from day to day, but they succeeded in making a clock---with adjustable "hour plate" and fixed hands---that accurately marked these unequal hours throughout the year. These clocks gave an early indication of Japanese ability to come up with ingenuous solutions for a complex notions of things that are rather simple.

The Japanese also had their own calendar, based on the years particular emperors ruled. The calendar is still used today. The year A.D. 1900, for example, is Meiji 33 (the 33rd year of Emperor Meiji's rule).

The Tokugawa adopted an environmentally-friendly policy after a fire ravaged Edo (Tokyo) in 1657 and there was a shortage of timber to rebuild the city. Because most of the forests had been chopped down an effort was made to replant the forests, keep the population down and sustainably exploit resources.



Western Ideas and New Political Ideas Filter Into Japan

In the mid 1800s, the ban against Western books was lifted and groups of scholars poured through Dutch books to learn what they could about mathematics, medicine and military science, and incorporate these sciences into Japanese society without soiling it with less desirable aspects of Barbarian society. "Eastern ethics and Western science" was a slogan used by Japanese scholars at this time.

The prevailing view by many Japanese scholars of the West remained negative. "Today the alien barbarians of the west," a Japanese scholar wrote in 1825, "the lowly organs of the legs and feet of the world are...trampling other countries underfoot, and daring with their squinting eyes and limping feet, to override the noble nation."

According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: “Intellectually, nativism (kokugaku) had become firmly entrenched as a legitimate branch of scholarship. While it did not become more popular than Confucianism or Dutch studies, Confucian scholars and others began to accept certain of the core concepts nativism. In particular, the prestige of the emperor—yes, the long-forgotten, obscure emperor—began to rise as scholars explored, and in substantial part created, Japan’s "ancient" past. By the 1840s, the theory that the emperor delegated his authority to the shogun, who ruled on the emperor’s behalf, had become widely accepted. Recall that no such thing had actually happened back in Tokugawa Ieyasu’s time. Ieyasu and the early shoguns ruled because of raw power, of which they possessed the preponderance.

By the 1840s, however, bakufu power had faded, as had that of most domains. The new perception of shogun as emperor’s delegate was a significant development. Why? Because, if the shogun ruled as the emperor’s appointee, it would then be conceivable that the emperor could fire the shogun and his government were the bakufu to prove incompetent. What is important about this theory for our purposes was not that it was historically inaccurate but, from the 1840s onward, that increasing numbers of Japanese elites began to believe it. As dissatisfaction with the bakufu grew, calls for the emperor to chastise the shogun began to be heard.

Whalers and New Pressures for Japan to Open to the West

The unfortunate Western whalers or seamen who accidentally washed up on Japanese shores before 1850 were either deported, jailed, tortured, or beheaded; a few were forced to desecrate Christian symbols (doing things like walking on portraits of the Virgin Mary). In Moby Dick, Herman Melville wrote: "If that double-bolted land, Japan, is ever to become hospitable, it is the whale ship alone to whom the credit will be due." Defenders of Japan's shores were taught to prepare themselves for a fight to the death and Japanese navy captains were ordered to fire upon arriving foreign ships first an ask questions later. According to one official edict issued by the shogun: "Have no compunction about firing...by mistake...When in doubt drive the ship away without hesitation. Never be caught off guard."


19th century whalers

Western intrusions were on the increase in the early nineteenth century. Russian warships and traders encroached on Karafuto (called Sakhalin under Russian and Soviet control) and on the Kuril Islands, the southernmost of which are considered by the Japanese as the northern islands of Hokkaido. A British warship entered Nagasaki Harbor searching for enemy Dutch ships in 1808, and other warships and whalers were seen in Japanese waters with increasing frequency in the 1810s and 1820s. Whalers and trading ships from the United States also arrived on Japan's shores. Although the Japanese made some minor concessions and allowed some landings, they largely attempted to keep all foreigners out, sometimes using force.[Source: Library of Congress *]

According to “Topics in Japanese Cultural History”: The patterns of foreign relations established by the early shoguns gradually became rigid bakufu traditions. Throughout the 1800s, ever larger numbers of American whaling and trading vessels, and sometimes shipwrecked sailors, began to appear in Japanese waters. Ships in distress sometimes made their way into Japanese ports. The Japanese response was typically to provide such vessels with a bare minimum assistance and send them on their way with a warning not to come back. Shipwrecked sailors were usually repatriated via Chinese or Dutch ships sailing out of Nagasaki, which took them to Guangzhou. [Source: “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org *~*]

Rangaku became crucial not only in understanding the foreign "barbarians" but also in using the knowledge gained from the West to fend them off. Some espoused the political doctrine of sonno-joi (revere the emperor, expel the barbarians), which called for unity under imperial rule and opposed foreign intrusions. The Shogunate persevered for the time being amidst growing concerns over Western successes in establishing colonial enclaves in China following the Opium War of 1839-42. More reforms were ordered, especially in the economic sector, to strengthen Japan against the Western threat. *

As U.S. whaling and trade with China increased, the desire grew to establish formal diplomatic and commercial relations with Japan. When it became known in the U.S. that Japan possessed coal in significant quantities, one senator joyfully exclaimed that God had sent us coal! Congress authorized Commodore Matthew Perry to sail to Japan with a large naval fleet to establish formal relations.

Fukuzawa Yukichi’s Explanation of the West


Fukuzawa Yukichi’

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “Fukuzawa Yukichi (1834-1901) was Japan’s preeminent interpreter of “civilization and enlightenment” ( bunmei kaika) — the lifestyles, institutions, and values of the modern West that Japan strove to understand and embrace in the early decades of the Meiji period. Born into a samurai family of modest means and little influence, Fukuzawa was intelligent, energetic, and ambitious, and as a youth he eagerly studied foreign languages (Dutch and then English) to expand his horizons and improve his prospects in life. In 1860, he was a member of one of the first missions sent to America by the Tokugawa shogunate, and in 1862 he traveled through Europe. Based on these experiences Fukuzawa wrote a series of books that explained the customs and manners of the West in accessible, practical ways and became runaway bestsellers. Fukuzawa was well known as a forceful advocate for the Western way of life, was a teacher and advisor to many of Japan’s most influential national leaders, and founded a successful newspaper as well as a leading private university. Fukuzawa dictated his autobiography, now seen as a classic account of Japan’s transition from a closed, feudal state to a modern world power, in 1898, not long before his death. [Source: Asia for Educators Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu <|> ]

Excerpts from “The Autobiography of Fukuzawa Yukichi”: “I am willing to admit my pride in Japan’s accomplishments [in rapid modernization]. The facts are these: It was not until the sixth year of Kaei (1853) that a steamship was seen for the first time; it was only in the second year of Ansei (1855) that we began to study navigation from the Dutch in Nagasaki; by 1860, the science was sufficiently understood to enable us to sail a ship across the Pacific. This means that about seven years after the first sight of a steam ship, after only about five years of practice, the Japanese people made a trans.Pacific crossing without help from foreign experts. I think we can without undue pride boast before the world of this courage and skill. As I have shown, the Japanese officers were to receive no aid from Captain Brooke throughout the voyage. Even in taking observations, our officers and the Americans made them independently of each other. Sometimes they compared their results, but we were never in the least dependent on the Americans. [Source: “Autobiography of Fukuzawa Yukichi,” trans. Kiyooka; “Sources of Japanese Tradition”, edited by Wm. Theodore de Bary, Carol Gluck, and Arthur L. Tiedemann, 2nd ed., vol. 2 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), 658-660]

“As I consider all the other peoples of the Orient as they exist today, I feel convinced that there is no other nation which has the ability or the courage to navigate a steamship across the Pacific after a period of five years of experience in navigation and engineering. Not only in the Orient would this feat stand as an act of unprecedented skill and daring. Even Peter the Great of Russia, who went to Holland to study navigation, with all his attainments in the science could not have equaled this feat of the Japanese. Without doubt, the famous Emperor of Russia was a man of exceptional genius, but his people did not respond to his leadership in the practice of Science as did our Japanese in this great adventure. [pp. 118.119]

“A perplexing institution was representative government. When I asked a gentleman what the “election law” was and what kind of institution the Parliament really was, he simply replied with a smile, meaning I suppose that no intelligent person was expected to ask such a question. But these were the things most difficult of all for me to understand. In this connection, I learned that there were different political parties — the Liberal and the Conservative — who were always “fighting” against each other in the government. <|>

“For some time it was beyond my comprehension to understand what they were “fighting” for, and what was meant, anyway, by “fighting” in peace time. “This man and that man are ‘enemies’ in the House,” they would tell me. But these “enemies” were to be seen at the same table, eating and drinking with each other. I felt as if I could not make much out of this. It took me a long time, with some tedious thinking, before I could gather a general notion of these separate mysterious facts. In some of the more complicated matters, I might achieve an Understanding five or ten days after they were explained to me. But all in all, I learned much from this initial tour of Europe.” [pp. 142.144]

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, Japanese National Archives , Ukiyo- from Library of Congress, British Museum, and Tokyo National Museum, Old photos from Visualizing Culture, MIT Education

Text Sources: Samurai Archives samurai-archives.com; Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org *~*; Asia for Educators Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ; Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan; Library of Congress; Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO); New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; Daily Yomiuri; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek, Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

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© 2009 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated September 2016

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