Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Isolationism in Tokugawa Japan

Fig.1: Leave me alone...or else!
Every once in while, we get in a mood where we really don't want to deal with other people and need a little "me time." Usually this passes after a short while... unless you're Japan, where your grumpy phrase lasts over two hundred years! From the 1630s until 1853, the Japanese closed its doors to the vast majority of foreign trade, diplomacy, and the latest international trends (meaning they missed out on the great "plaid fad" of the late 17th century). Even those few lucky nations with whom Japan reluctantly exchanged goods were restricted to a specific port on specific days and were required to avert their eyes to anything overtly Japanese. The rationale behind this isolation ranges from a desire to curb the growing European influence in the region, to establish control of the nation under the rule of the Tokugawa shogunate, to the fact that Portuguese people have really sweaty palms which grossed everyone out. It took a defiant, meddlesome act by an American (what else is new?) to open Japan's eyes to the world around them, allowing for their transformation into an industrialized superpower. Hmm, on second thought maybe we should have just let them be...

The state of Japan in the 1500s can be summed up in one word: RUN!!! During this time (called sengoku, or "Warring States" if you want to be less original), independent daimyo (local rulers) with their own collection of samurai and Yu-Gi-Oh cards fought against each other for control of the archipelago. Luckily, the end of the century would produce three statesmen later considered as modern Japan's "Founding Fathers" (which is sort of like the United States' Founding Fathers, without all the awkward slavery). While Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu were not really on the same side, their successive bouts of power would help bring the various factions together to realize the stupidity of war (which usually only occurred after those factions lost a battle). Tokugawa Ieyasu became the final benefactor of all this unity; once victorious over the Toyotomi clan at the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600, he established Tokugawa rule under the Tokugawa shogunate, complete with Tokugawa t-shirts and Tokugawa foam fingers. While Japan was technically ruled by an emperor, he had been merely a figurehead since the 12th century Genpei War made the shogun (military commander) the real boss, the head man, the top dog, the big cheese, the head honcho, etc.

Fig.2: Hasekura Tsunenaga, wearing 
his special "Pope-visiting" kimono.
The Tokugawa shogunate was actually a little too outgoing in its diplomacy at first. Japanese merchants had been trading with the Chinese and Koreans for centuries (as long as one wasn't trying to invade the other), and this continued in earnest after Japan's unification. In addition, Europeans began to explore the Pacific in the mid-16th century, hoping to convert share their beliefs and steal trade resources with the barbarians kindhearted folks who lived there. Japan first encountered Portuguese sailors, quickly followed by the Dutch, Spanish, and those slowpoke English. The explorers were given open access to Japanese goods and society, to which Native Americans tried sending messages of "Ix-nay, ix-nay!" from across the ocean. The shogunate even initially embraced Japanese converts to Christianity, mainly because Buddhism was becoming too powerful, and the shogun didn't think there could possibly be an even pushier religion out there (he was wrong). This diplomacy culminated with the embassy of Hasekura Tsunenaga (fig.2), who from 1613-1620 visited Spanish colonies in Mexico and Cuba before heading over to Spain, France, and Italy to meet the Pope! Everyone hoped that this would be the start of a beautiful friendship between Japan and the Western world, one based on equal trust and no colonization of any kind (cause who does that stuff?).

But all of a sudden, Japan snapped. In 1616, the shogunate under Tokugawa Hidetada, son of founder Ieyasu, restricted trade to just a few ports, most notably Nagasaki. In 1622, officials executed many Christian converts and missionaries, sending a message throughout the country that people should knock it off with that Jesus stuff. By 1624, after seeing the hijinx they were causing in the Philippines, the shogun expelled the Spanish from the country (making the Aztec and Inca wish they thought of that). After ignoring several visits, letters, texts, tweets, and veiled threats of invasion from their concerned friends, the Closed Country Edict of 1635 prevented any foreigner from setting foot on Japanese soil without expressed written consent of the shogun or Major League Baseball. It also stated that Japanese couldn't even leave the country, lest they discover that fish could actually be eaten cooked!

The final straw came with the Shimabara Rebellion in 1637; what started as a tax revolt when the loyal daimyo obviously played a little too much Minecraft and wanted to build a castle exclusively from diamond ore, turned dangerous when Christians, sick of all the persecution, joined in. An excessive Japanese force of 125,000 zombie pigmen arrived and crushed the rebellion. The Dutch even provided gunpowder and cannons to the shogun's army, and were rewarded by being allowed to remain on an artificial island off of Nagasaki and trade when Japan "felt like it." The rest of the Europe was told to hit the road, Jack, and dontcha come back no more no more no more no more. Even merchants from China had to keep their distance from new volatile Japan, and were forced to go through middlemen if they wished for their lead-lined Happy Meal toys to make it as a choking hazard to little Japanese mouths.

Fig.3: Luckily for Japan and their isolationism, they had a pretty good bouncer on their payroll.
The question remains as to why Japan went all emo on everybody. The opinion of many historians concludes that the Japanese weren't ignorant as to what was going on in the rest of the world. They saw the result of European involvement in places like the Americas, China, Southeast Asia, and Loompaland, and they didn't wish for their fate to involve military destruction, a smallpox epidemic, or enslavement into some wacko's chocolate factory. By restricting their involvement with Europeans, they were able to remain independent while other lands were magically transformed into New Spain, New England, New France, or New Liechtenstein. This view has been challenged in recent decades by scholars who believe that Japan's lock-the-gates-and-swallow-the-key mentality originated more from a desire to control their own people than those meddlesome Europeans. The Tokugawa had not yet ditched their new shogunate smell, and needed to keep their hold on power or else meet the same fate as their seppuku-loving predecessors. In the end, they were more worried about the Christian Japanese taking over rather than Christian Europeans, and if they could stamp them out while preventing outside influences from seeping in, then time to put another brick in the wall!

Fig.4: Yo, Buddha's so fat, he can hide 
an entire crucifix under his back rolls.
As a result, the Christian community in Japan went underground during this two hundred-year period, turning into creepy mole people that were known as kakure kurisuchan, or hidden Christians. The shogunate even had tests to root out such people, such as placing an engraving of Jesus, Mary, or Kirk Cameron on the ground and forcing people to step on it; those who hesitated were either lousy stinkin' Christians or huge fans of Growing Pains, both of which deserved a beheaded forthwith! But the hidden Christians survived during their persecution, secretly passing down their beliefs to their children and hiding religious symbols behind more acceptable idols (fig.4). When the ban on Christianity was finally lifted in the late 19th century and the kakure kurisuchan came out of hiding, centuries of seclusion from outside influences and too much "Whisper Down the Lane" about core beliefs created a unique version of the faith, with elements of ancestor worship, dancing, theater, and something about Super Saiyans and Nameks. Lutheranism didn't look too bad to the Pope after that!

There were several challenges to Japan's seclusion, ranging from vein attempts of merchant ships politely asking to trade, flying a Dutch flag when the sailors weren't even Dutch, and luring the Japanese out to port with Hello Kitty dolls. The breakthrough came in 1853, when American Naval Commodore Matthew Perry, with four frigates under his command, demanded for trade and diplomacy under threat of force (and you thought Jennifer Aniston was the most successful Friend outside of the show). He coerced the shogun to sign the Treaty of Kanagawa, giving extensive trading and visitation rights to the United States; the European powers soon followed suit, and Japan quickly went from a mint-condition still-in-the-box action figure to Fido's favorite chew toy. This created conflict within Japan itself, which is exactly what the Tokugawa had feared from the beginning! Clans sick of the shogunate rallied behind the emperor, whom after a seven-hundred-year power nap was ready to do something governmental for once. This eventually led to a civil war in 1867 between Tokugawa forces and those loyal to Emperor Meiji; though being way more out of shape compared to their samurai foes and needing a sugar break every ten minutes, imperial forces emerged victorious, and Japan was officially open for business.

Fig.5: Hokusai used Surf! It's super effective!
Usually we think of isolation as a bad thing. When people cut themselves of from society, they end up doing terrible things like mailing bombs to people, or snatching bodies from graves, or not making more Calvin and Hobbes comics. This stereotype is equally true when nations stop participating in world diplomacy, leaving them vulnerable to the advancing technology and calls of "get with the times, man!" But historians believe that Japan's seclusion allowed for their culture and way of life to not only be protected, but flourish as well. Advances in art, poetry, philosophy, and turn-based RPGs helped ensure that Japan held on to their culture while Europeans were destroying others all around the world. It was this same mentality that, when their doors were forced open, convinced them to quickly industrialize, militarize, and colonize their neighbors, creating a superpower that would give the most advanced nations in the world loads of trouble (until the U.S. cheated by dropping a couple atomic bombs on them). Maybe we can take a lesson from Japan and take the time to be one with ourselves for a while. So turn off your phone, disable your Facebook, blow up your mailbox, ignore any smoke signals coming your way, and reflect on yourself for the time being. Just make sure to keep The Records of the Canned Historian up on your browser so you can at least continue to get those very important updates! (Priorities, people.)

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