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A History of the Japanese People by F. Brinkley

Japan stood practically unchanging



Whatever losses Japan's policy of seclusion caused to the nations which were its victims, there can be no doubt that she herself was the chief sufferer. During two and a half centuries she remained without breathing the atmosphere of international competition, or deriving inspiration from an exchange of ideas with other countries. While the world moved steadily forward, Japan stood practically unchanging, and when ultimately she emerged into contact with the Occident, she found herself separated by an immense interval from the material civilization it had developed.

The contrast between the Japan of the middle of the sixteenth and that of the middle of the seventeenth century has often been made by the historian of foreign influence. In 1541 the country was open to foreign trade, foreign civilization and foreign ideas and these were welcomed eagerly and, in accordance with the remarkable natural aptitude of the Japanese for adaptation, were readily assimilated. Not only were foreign traders allowed to come to Japan, but Japanese were allowed to go abroad. And all this was in the line of a long-continued Japanese policy--the policy thanks to which Chinese influence had made itself so strongly felt in Japan, and which had brought in Buddhism and Confucianism, not to speak of arts and letters of foreign provenance.

At the close of

the hundred years, in 1641, all was changed. Japan was absolutely isolated. Foreigners were forbidden to enter, except the Dutch traders who were confined to the little island of Deshima. And natives were forbidden to go out, or to accept at home the religious teachings of foreigners. Only ships suited for the coastwise trade might be built. The nation's intercourse with Occidental civilization was shut off, and its natural power of change and growth through foreign influences was thus held in check. The wonder is that it was not destroyed by this inhibition. The whole story of foreign intercourse as it has so far been told makes it plain that the reason why it was prohibited was in the nature of foreign propaganda and not in any unreadiness of the Japanese for western civilization.


Japan's seclusion was maintained unflinchingly. But, though her goods found a market in China, only during her period of self-effacement, the reputation of her people for military prowess was such that no outside nation thought of forcing her to open her ports. A British seaman, Sir Edward Michelborne, in the sequel of a fight between his two ships and a Japanese junk near Singapore, left a record that "The Japanese are not allowed to land in any part of India with weapons, being a people so desperate and daring that they are feared in all places where they come." Nevertheless, Russian subjects, their shores being contiguous with those of Japan, occasionally found their way as sailors or colonists into the waters of Saghalien, the Kuriles, and Yezo. The Japanese did not then exercise effective control over Yezo, although the island was nominally under their jurisdiction. Its government changed from one hand to another in the centuries that separated the Kamakura epoch from the Tokugawa, and in the latter epoch we find the Matsumae daimyo ruling all the islands northward of the Tsugaru Straits. But the Matsumae administration contented itself with imposing taxes and left the people severely alone. Thus, when in 1778, a small party of Russians appeared at Nemuro seeking trade, no preparations existed to impose the local government's will on the strangers. They were simply promised an answer in the following year, and that answer proved to be that all Japan's oversea trade must by law be confined to Nagasaki.

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