National Isolation Order (1/2)"National Isolation" by the Edo Shogunate

National isolation

National isolation

Article category
case file
Incident name
National Isolation Order (1633-1639)
Related castles
Edo castle

Edo castle

During the Edo period, Japan implemented a policy of national isolation, restricting trade and diplomacy with other countries. However, it did not mean to close off the country and become isolated, as the term originally meant, but rather continued trade and diplomacy with the Netherlands, China (Ming and Qing), Korea, and the Ryukyu Kingdom in limited locations. This time, we will explain in an easy-to-understand manner the content and history of national isolation, focusing on the several times the national isolation orders were issued, and Japan's interactions with other countries.

Was there no "national isolation" during the Edo period? Discussions on "national isolation"

Before we get into the story of the Sakoku Edict, let's talk about the recent mainstream theory that "there was no isolation during the Edo period." Many people in their 30s and 40s, like the author, learned in elementary school that "during the Edo period, the country was closed off due to isolation, and only Nagasaki was permitted to trade." However, in reality, even during the "sakoku" policy, there were four gateways open to the Netherlands, China, Korea, and the Ryukyu Kingdom, so the country was not completely closed off.

In other words, "sakoku" was a policy by the Edo Shogunate to control and restrict diplomacy and trade with foreign countries, and it did not mean "to close off the country" in the literal sense of the word, that is, to block off the country and prohibit exchanges with foreign countries. For this reason, some researchers use the word "kaikin," a traditional East Asian foreign policy, instead of "sakoku," to explain the foreign policy of the Edo period.

To begin with, the word "sakoku" (national isolation) was not used during the Edo period. The origin of the term "sakoku" is a passage from "Nihonshi" (History of Japan), which was based on "Kaikoku Kikan" (Strange Views of the Country), written by Engelbert Kaempfer, a doctor and naturalist for the Dutch East India Company, who stayed in Japan for three years from 1690 (Genroku 3).

"The History of Japan" was published after Kaempfer's death and became a best-seller, being translated from English to French and Dutch. Nagasaki interpreter Shizuki Tadao translated part of the Dutch version. The essay was titled "Japan, which, with the best of wisdom, has closed its borders by forbidding its own citizens from leaving the country and foreigners from entering and trading with it," and it supported the policies of the Edo Shogunate. As the title was too long, Shizuki Tadao shortened it and published it as "Sakoku-ron." This is where the word "sakoku" (national isolation) first appeared.

The term "sakoku" (closed country) began to be used at the end of the Edo period due to the book "Sakokuron." However, it was officials and intellectuals in the Meiji period who gave it a negative image. In order to portray the Meiji government's "opening up" and "westernization" in a positive light, they criticized the Edo period's foreign policy of "sakoku." As a result, the word "sakoku" came to have a negative image.

Teikoku Shoin, a publisher of social studies textbooks, writes "sakoku" in its textbooks with quotation marks because "it was not a term used from the beginning of diplomacy and trade control" and "the passive, negative image of 'isolating the country' is different from the actual diplomacy and trade of the Edo period." The reason they continue to use the word is that "it is a term that has been used for a long time in textbooks, and when used in conjunction with the actual trade of the Edo Shogunate, it is a word that symbolically shows the uniqueness of the Edo Shogunate's foreign policy."

What was the purpose of national isolation?

The Edo Shogunate implemented a policy of "national isolation" that controlled and restricted diplomacy and trade with other countries, but why did the Shogunate implement such a policy? One of the reasons given was to deal with Christianity.

When the Edo Shogunate was first established, it traded with China (Ming), Korea, Southeast Asia, and European countries. In Europe, it traded with Catholic countries such as Portugal and Spain, and Protestant countries such as the Netherlands and England.

However, as Christianity spread through missionaries from Catholic countries who packaged trade with Christianity, the shogunate began to feel uneasy about Christianity. The Christian idea of "equality under God" was threatening to destabilize the shogunate's ruling system, and there was also the risk of uprisings like the Ikko Ikki uprisings occurring. There was also the risk of Catholic countries colonizing Japan, as Christian daimyo donated land to missionaries from Christian countries.

Furthermore, as will be discussed later, the Shimabara Rebellion, which took place from October 1637 to February of the following year, resulted in the shogunate strengthening its policy of national isolation, which shows how national isolation was deeply linked to the ban on Christianity.

Another reason was the shogunate's monopoly on trade. Trade with foreign countries generated enormous wealth, and it was trade that helped the Christian daimyo to rise to power. By placing trade under the shogunate's control, they were able to monopolize profits from trade and information from overseas, stabilizing the shogunate-han system.

The Road to National Isolation: The Prohibition of Christianity and the Two Port Restriction

Now, let's take a look at the events that led to the shogunate's "sakoku" policy. As mentioned earlier, the term "sakoku" was only used from the end of the Edo period onwards, so there was no prohibition called the "sakoku rei" at the time. The series of prohibitions issued by the Edo shogunate to prohibit and limit commerce and trade with foreign countries is now called the "sakoku rei."

The policy of national isolation began during the time of the second shogun, Tokugawa Hidetada. Hidetada issued an edict banning Christianity in territories directly controlled by the shogunate in 1612, and expanded it to the whole country the following year. In December 1613, he issued a document banning Christians, and the following year, in 1614, Takayama Ukon and other Christians were expelled from the country to Macau and Manila.

This series of bans on Christianity was caused by the "Okamoto Daihachi Incident" that took place from 1609 to 1612. The Okamoto Daihachi Incident was a fraud case in which Christian Okamoto Daihachi defrauded Christian daimyo Arima Harunobu out of a large sum of money, and this incident prompted the Edo Shogunate to clarify its stance on banning Christianity and implement various measures to eliminate Catholic countries that were spreading Christianity. Incidentally, at this stage the Shogunate was expanding trade with Protestant countries, which had kept Christian missionary work separate from trade.

After that, the Edo Shogunate destroyed the Toyotomi clan after the Winter Siege and Summer Siege of Osaka (1915). In the same year, they issued the One Castle, One Province Order, various laws for the Buke and Imperial Court, and various laws for the Nobility and Courtiers to control the country.

Next, as a measure to control trade and diplomacy, the "Two Port Restriction Order" was issued in 1616. This restricted ships from Europe to the "Port of Nagasaki" (present-day Nagasaki City, Nagasaki Prefecture) and the Port of Hirado (present-day Hirado City, Nagasaki Prefecture), and also banned Christianity, making it a "pre-isolation order."

The Road to "National Isolation" 2. The Hosho-sen System and the "First National Isolation Order" in 1623

During the reign of the third shogun, Tokugawa Iemitsu, the shogunate began the "Hosho ship system" in 1631. This meant that in the red seal ship trade that was taking place in Southeast Asia at the time, only ships that had a letter of permission (hosho) from the shogunate's senior councilors, in addition to a red seal letter issued by the shogun, were permitted to travel overseas. The red seal letters were issued by the shogun and had no particular expiration date, and some were even issued by the divine lord Ieyasu, so they could not be revoked. For this reason, the creation of new "hosho" was a de facto attempt to invalidate the red seal letters.

Then in 1633, the 10th year of the Kan'ei era, the February Order, or the "First Order of National Isolation," was issued. This prohibited overseas travel except on hosho ships, and made stowaways punishable by death. Those living overseas were also punishable by death if they returned to Japan, but as an exception, those who stayed overseas for less than five years and stayed in Japan after returning were not liable. It also contained passages about the ban on Christianity, such as offering rewards to those who reported on missionaries.

This was followed by the "Second Isolation Order" in 1634, which re-issued the First Isolation Order and began the construction of Dejima, a quarantine facility for Europeans in Nagasaki.

The road to "national isolation" ③ The third national isolation order

The situation changed dramatically with the May Order issued in 1635 (Kan'ei 12), also known as the "Third Isolation Order." The Third Isolation Order stipulated a total ban on Japanese people traveling abroad and a ban on Japanese people returning to Japan, both of which were punishable by death. It also stipulated that "those who inform on missionaries will be rewarded."

The article on the isolation order continues:

Naoko Kurimoto
Writer(Writer)I am a former travel industry magazine reporter. I have loved history, both Japanese and world history, since I was a child. I usually enjoy visiting temples and shrines, especially shrines, and often do ``pilgrimages to sacred places'' themed around historical figures. My favorite military commander is Ishida Mitsunari, my favorite castle is Kumamoto Castle, and my favorite castle ruins is Hagi Castle. My heart flutters when I see the ruins of battle castles and the stone walls of castle ruins.
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