There’s no political agenda to this post whatsoever… although it seems that the parallels that exist between Tokugawa era Japan and the current state of the United Kingdom are too close not to merit comment in some way, however small. The phrase, Sakoku means literally “closed country” and describes the deliberate isolationist policy embarked upon by the rulers of Japan in the seventeenth century. It refers to the foreign relations policy of Japan under the Tokugawa Shogunate whereby severe restrictions were placed on the entry of foreign nationals into Japan and (in a departure to the proposals by the “leave” campaign at the moment), the prohibition of Japanese nationals to leave the country on penalty of death. The laws extended to the nearly complete restriction of trade and imports except through very narrow terms of entry, leading not only to technical and developmental isolation, but cultural seclusion and separation.
The policy was introduced by Tokugawa Iemitsu in 1639 and remained officially in effect until the mid 1860’s and the arrival of the American Black Ships of Commodore Matthew Perry which began the opening of Japan to Western trade and the enforced movement towards open borders. Eventually, these changes led to the creation of an environment that encouraged the Meiji revolution which was completed by the restoration of the monarchy in 1868. It’s handy to make the assumption that the islands of Japan were completely cut off from the rest of the world for several centuries… at first glance, through both cultural and historical documents, Japan can seem as if it were almost a separate planet in the solar system of early modern development in the rest of the world. This is not actually the case. Japan was not completely isolated under the sakoku policy. It was a system in which strict regulations were applied to commerce and foreign relations by the shogunate. In practice this meant that chosen states – the Dutch for example – were allowed to trade pretty freely through the ports at Nagasaki, as was some trade with China.
Cultural and diplomatic links were established and frequently revisited. The impetus for the isolationism though does have parallels with the seemingly backward looking policy currently being pursued in the United Kingdom. Firstly, the influx and rapid spread of Christianity via Portuguese missionaries and traders was deeply unpopular… in this sense, the fear of foreign religion and its unfamiliar cultural baggage does I think have parallels in Britain with the widely reported anxiety that has been expressed over refugees and immigration. This ‘tribalism’, this clan culture definitely echoes the anti-christian propaganda of the Shogunate in the seventeenth century. Nationalism and religious intolerance go hand in hand and never more so than at this period of Japanese history.
For those wishing to pull up the drawbridge in Great Britain, the sign board illustrated below and translated here is a chilling reminder of where isolationism can lead…
The Christian faith has been prohibited for a long time. If you catch a suspicious person, you should send notice to the authorities. As a reward, we offer 500 silver coins for the accuser against a Priest, 300 silver coins for the accuser against a Religious Brother, 300 silver coins for the accuser against a Returner, 100 silver coins for the accuser against a Christian.
We issue orders as mentioned. Even if the accuser is a Christian, he will receive the 500 silver coins according to the one accused. If the fact that you had hidden a Bateren, Iruman, etc. is revealed, the Nanushi (village headman) of your village, and your relatives, indeed your whole clan will be punished.
June, Shotoku Gan-nen (1711)
The Shogunate undoubtedly used the policy to shore up its own position within Japanese society. A more subtle parallel can be made here perhaps. There is a sense, isn’t there, that the status quo, the establishment, is vulnerable to new ideas, new relationships, new values. To cut off from the wider and indeed the local international scene is to retrench and develop mainly those values that have supported the established position in the past and reinforce that which is trusted and familiar.
The policy was successful for those families that ruled Japan at that time and throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The rest of the world was moving on though and leaving the vibrant and brilliant culture of Japan far behind. True, Japan created and evolved an intense and jewel-like indigenous culture that remains a sparkling and breathtaking gem… its influence, as this blog has pointed out so many times, on modernism in architecture, painting and the arts is overwhelming. The price for that delicate jewel though was an economy that rotted away in a medieval society of haves and have-nots. Bloated samurai class families enjoyed vast wealth whilst the poor and the middle class slaved for a pittance and were punitively punished for dissent. By the 1860’s, revolution was inevitable and Japan emerged blinking into the glare of the modern world… turning its back on its own culture and becoming the strange bed-fellow of the west that it is today. Surely, there are lessons that we in the United Kingdom can learn from this as we embark on a perilous and unknown course of isolationism ourselves.
Out of interest, the translation below is is the text of the Seclusion Edict of 1836… let’s hope it doesn’t come to this.
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 Portuguese and Spanish who propagate the doctrine of the Catholics, or bear this scandalous name, shall be imprisoned in the 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.