01 Japanese History

#26 SAKOKU -exclusionism of the Edo shogunate-

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In his masterpiece “Moby-Dick, or The Whale” the 19th-century American author Herman Melville described Japan as a “double-bolted land”. This is because, in the Edo period (1603-1867), Japan was closed to the rest of the world for more than 200 years, keeping American whalers away.

In this episode, we will look at how the exclusionism of the Edo shogunate began.

At the beginning of the Edo period, Tokugawa Ieyasu was active in foreign trade. Merchant ships with Ieyasu’s permits were actively traveling to and from Thailand, Vietnam, and other Southeast Asian countries, and a number of Japanese towns were established in port cities in Southeast Asia.

Yamada Nagamasa was one of the most famous Japanese who traveled abroad during this period. In 1612, he took a trading ship to Thailand and became the leader of a Japanese town in Ayutthaya. Later, he gained the trust of the King of Ayutthaya and was appointed as a high-ranking official for his efforts in repelling the invasion of the Spanish fleet.

However, as travel to and from foreign countries increased, the number of Christians in Japan grew. The shogunate feared that Japan would become a European colony and that Christians would resist the shogunate’s rule.

In 1612, the Shogunate issued a decree banning Christianity and deported missionaries. In 1624, it forbade the arrival of Spanish ships, and in 1635, it banned the Japanese from traveling abroad.

In 1637, a large-scale rebellion broke out in Shimabara and Amakusa in Kyushu, two areas with a sizeable Christian population. It took the Shogunate four months to finally quell the rebellion, led by a young boy named Amakusa Shiro.

The Shogunate, surprised by the rebellion, strongly suppressed Christianity, and in 1639 banned Portuguese ships from coming to Japan. The Dutch trading post was moved to Dejima in Nagasaki. Thus, the Shogunate’s only trading partners were China and the Netherlands. This exclusionism, known as “Sakoku,” lasted for more than 200 years until 1853, when the U.S. sent four black ships to Japan demanding that Japan open up its ports to western countries.

Christian author Endo Shusaku described the oppression of Christians in the early Edo period in his work “Silence”. This work was made into a film twice by Shinoda Masahiro in 1971 and by Martin Scorsese in 2016.

Thank you for reading.

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