Japan’s Sakoku Edict, 200 years of Isolation

Japan’s Sakoku Edict, 200 years of Isolation

The Sakoku edict began in 1635 and ended in 1853. To many, it was a period of isolation from the outside world. Before the start of this Sakoku edict, Japan and European relations were booming. It was a time of good trade and Christianity was starting to spread throughout Japan.

But it is a misconception to consider it as isolation. Sakoku which means closed country was the term generally used then. Today, many scholars argue that what happened was not isolation. Though there were strict laws, Japan was open to the world through limited channels. The scholars suggest the term Kaikin which means maritime prohibition.

History Before The Sakoku Edict

A Photo of Oda Nobunaga
Photo Credits: Wikimedia Commons

Oda Nobunaga, the first unifier of Japan, didn’t just change the military system but also improved the economic status of most provinces. He broke the trading monopolies and introduced the free market system. Guilds and associations got organized and there was a boost in the economy.

Besides that, he started civil administration and began creating regulations. A few include the building of roads, planting trees along the roadside, and others.

Unsuspectingly, Nobunaga was also interested in European traditions. Aside from this collection of arts and gold, he also collected Western art and armors. His interest was at his peak that he was even among the first Japanese to try Western clothes.

Most importantly, he allowed Jesuit and Christian missionaries to begin proselytizing in Japan. Though he never got converted, he openly accepted them.

So when Toyotomi Hideyoshi succeeded him, there wasn’t much change in the regulations. In fact, he continued to change society’s ways and balanced many of the powerful Daimyo by setting up a government system.

But to Hideyoshi the Europeans were intimidating. To add to that, he began to doubt when the Spaniards conquered the Philippines through Christianity. So he started not to trust them. Soon he began questioning the loyalty of the converted Daimyo.

As doubt and contentions arose, the first execution came by 1597. Seventeen Japanese converts along with nine missionaries got crucified. All by the order of Hideyoshi.

Things didn’t end when Tokugawa Ieyasu took over as Shogun. At first, he was tolerant of Christian practice. However, in 1614, he signed the Christian Expulsion Edict. This banned all Christian practices and the removal of missionaries in Japan. He feared Japan would become divided by religion.

The Sakoku Edict and Its Decrees

When Tokugawa Iemitsu, Ieyasu’s grandson became Shogun, the anti-Christian campaigns turned to permanent decrees. Among his first edicts was to expel all but few Europeans from Japan. Then restriction to trade by one Dutch ship a year followed. There was only but one place they could trade. Soon, the restrictive movement of goods and people followed, too.

This was followed by the most famous among all the edicts known as the Sakoku Edict of 1635. This edict described in detail what would soon happen in the next 200 years.

Japanese People Must Stay in Japan

This edict caused the death of many. Death was the punishment for any Japanese caught leaving the country. In the same way, any Japanese who have left the country and decides to come back must also be executed. Europeans and other foreigners who illegally enter Japan will have the same fate.

Besides that, Japanese ships stopped sailing outside Japan, too.

Catholicism and Christianity is Strictly Forbidden

In this decree, they prohibited any practice, gathering, and materials relating to Christianity. Any reported activity would be thoroughly investigated. Once they’re proven guilty, one will be punished. Also, missionaries when caught will be sent to prison. Even more, those who report any Christian activity will receive rewards.

Trades and Goods Were Limited and Restricted

For two centuries, there were only four chosen gateways for all trades. These were the Matsumae Domain in Hokkaido, the So Clan Daimyo of Tsushima, the Ryukyu Kingdom of Satsuma Domain, and the Dutch East India Company in Nagasaki. Of course, all goods must be accepted or received in Edo before distributed to the other cities.

Detailed in the edict was how the Itowappu system would decide the pricing and distribution of Chinese silk. The Shogunate created the Itowappu system to better manage the silk market. Also, all enumeration of goods must first go to Edo before being sold.

Besides that, the edict also showed how it favored the Chinese traders before the others. The edict included leniency and additional time of trading for the Chinese. But importantly for all traders, unsold goods were strictly forbidden to remain in Japan. Thus, the traders must take them with them.

A total of 17 decrees in the 1635 edict evolved around the three key points above. Among them was the specific day that all foreign ships must leave Japan. The Shogunate chose no later than the twentieth day of the ninth month for all to leave.

Notably, they forced all Japanese to register under a parent Buddhist temple. Though this wasn’t included in the edict, everyone had to comply.

Challenges to the Edict

Unsurprisingly, there were many circumstances when they challenged the Sakoku Edict. Some ended in good ways, others were not. Before foreigners challenged the edict, the Japanese Christians were first.

To begin with, about half a million Japanese converted to Christianity even before the Sakoku Edict. So in 1637, about 40,000 Japanese protested against tax increases and the prohibition of Christianity. This became the Shimabara Rebellion. They gained attention and sympathizers and began sieges to different Terakawa castles.

The resistance lasted for five months but was overcome by 125,000 Shogunate soldiers. In the end, they executed thousands of them. They beheaded the leader together with some others and burned the rest.

Some challenges to the edict came from the outside, too. In 1647, Portuguese warships tried to breach Nagasaki. But the Japanese blocked them with 900 boats forfeiting whatever purpose they had. Soon, they placed additional security just in case others would make another attempt.

However, there were good endings to some attempts in the later years. In 1738, a Russian squadron visited the island of Honshu and was greeted with friendly exchanges. Also, the edict was briefly suspended in 1842 when China lost in the Opium War. So foreign ships requested to refuel in Japan. This paved way to Shinsui Kyuyorei, the Order for the Provision of Firewood and Water.

The End of Sakuko Edict

After many failed attempts to open Japan’s trading network to all bays, Commodore Matthew Perry boldly refused Japan’s trading demand in 1853. Despite being told to proceed to Nagasaki, the only port for foreign boats, he marched straight towards Edo.

Using four Naval warships, Perry demonstrated the monstrous guns of the naval ships in the Bay of Edo. They later called them Black Ships in Japan. He soon demanded Japan must open to trade with the West, thus breaking the strict edict.

Eventually, Perry returned the next year with seven Black Ships. This forced the Shogun to sign the “Treaty of Peace and Amity”.

Though outsiders view the Sakoku Edict as bad, many Japanese appreciate it today. Back in 1848, Ranald Macdonald intentionally shipwrecked in Rishin to enter Japan. He later spent 10 months as the first English teacher in Nagasaki. On his account, the Japanese people were well-behaved and had a high societal standard.


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