Sakoku (鎖国, "closed country") was the isolationist foreign policy
of the Japanese
Tokugawa shogunate under which relations and trade
Japan and other countries were severely limited, nearly all
foreigners were barred from entering
Japan and the common Japanese
people were kept from leaving the country for a period of over 220
years. The policy was enacted by the
Tokugawa shogunate under Tokugawa
Iemitsu through a number of edicts and policies from 1633–39, and
ended after 1853 when the American
Black Ships commanded by Matthew
Perry forced the opening of
Japan to American (and, by extension,
Western) trade through a series of unequal treaties.
It was preceded by a period of largely unrestricted trade and
widespread piracy when Japanese mariners travelled Asia and official
embassies and envoys visited both Asian states, New Spain (now
Mexico), and Europe. This period was also noted for the large number
of foreign traders and pirates who were resident in
Japan and active
in Japanese waters.
Sakoku originates from the manuscript work Sakoku-ron
(「鎖国論」) written by Japanese astronomer and translator
Shizuki Tadao (ja:志筑忠雄) in 1801. Shizuki invented the word
while translating the works of the 17th-century German traveller
Engelbert Kaempfer concerning Japan.
Japan was not completely isolated under the sakoku policy. It was a
system in which strict regulations were applied to commerce and
foreign relations by the shogunate, and by certain feudal domains
(han). There was extensive trade with
China through the port of
Nagasaki, in the far west of Japan, with a residential area for the
Chinese. The policy stated that the only European influence permitted
was the Dutch factory at
Dejima in Nagasaki. Trade with
limited to the
Tsushima Domain (today part of
Trade with the
Ainu people was limited to the Matsumae Domain in
Hokkaidō, and trade with the
Ryūkyū Kingdom took place in Satsuma
Domain (present-day Kagoshima Prefecture). Apart from these direct
commercial contacts in peripheral provinces, trading countries sent
regular missions to the shōgun in
Edo and Osaka Castle.
1 Trade under sakoku
4 Challenges to seclusion
5 End of isolationism
5.1 Missions to the West
6 See also
8 Further reading
9 External links
Trade under sakoku
Japan traded at this time with five entities, through four "gateways".
The largest was the private Chinese trade at
Nagasaki (who also traded
with the Ryūkyū Kingdom), where the
Dutch East India Company
Dutch East India Company was
also permitted to operate. The
Matsumae clan domain in
called Ezo) traded with the Ainu people. Through the
Sō clan daimyō
of Tsushima, there were relations with Joseon-dynasty Korea. Ryūkyū,
a semi-independent kingdom for nearly all of the
Edo period, was
controlled by the
Shimazu clan daimyō of Satsuma Domain. Tashiro
Kazui has shown that trade between
Japan and these entities was
divided into two kinds: Group A in which he places
China and the
Dutch, "whose relations fell under the direct jurisdiction of the
Bakufu at Nagasaki" and Group B, represented by the Korean Kingdom and
the Ryūkyū Kingdom, "who dealt with Tsushima (the Sō clan) and
Satsuma (the Shimazu clan) domains respectively".
These two different groups of trade basically reflected a pattern of
incoming and outgoing trade. Many items traded from
Ryūkyū Kingdom were eventually shipped on to China. In the
Ryūkyū Islands and Korea, the clans in charge of trade built trading
towns outside Japanese territory where commerce actually took
place. Due to the necessity for Japanese subjects to travel to and
from these trading posts, this resembled something of an outgoing
trade, with Japanese subjects making regular contact with foreign
traders in essentially extraterritorial land. Commerce with Chinese
and Dutch traders in
Nagasaki took place on an island called Dejima,
separated from the city by a narrow strait; foreigners could not enter
Nagasaki from Dejima, nor could Japanese enter
Dejima without special
permission or authorization.
Trade in fact prospered during this period, and though relations and
trade were restricted to certain ports, the country was far from
closed. In fact, even as the shogunate expelled the Portuguese, they
simultaneously engaged in discussions with Dutch and Korean
representatives to ensure that the overall volume of trade did not
suffer. Thus, it has become increasingly common in scholarship in
recent decades to refer to the foreign relations policy of the period
not as sakoku, implying a totally secluded, isolated, and "closed"
country, but by the term kaikin (海禁, "maritime prohibitions") used
in documents at the time, and derived from the similar Chinese concept
Text from the seclusion edict of 1636: "No Japanese ship ... nor
any native of Japan, shall presume to go out of the country; whoever
acts contrary to this, shall die, and the ship with the crew and goods
aboard shall be sequestered until further orders. All persons who
return from abroad shall be put to death. Whoever discovers a
Christian priest shall have a reward of 400 to 500 sheets of silver
and for every
Christian in proportion. All Namban (Portuguese and
Spanish) who propagate the doctrine of the Catholics, or bear this
scandalous name, shall be imprisoned in the Onra, or common jail of
the town. The whole race of the Portuguese with their mothers, nurses
and whatever belongs to them, shall be banished to Macao. Whoever
presumes to bring a letter from abroad, or to return after he hath
been banished, shall die with his family; also whoever presumes to
intercede for him, shall be put to death. No nobleman nor any soldier
shall be suffered to purchase anything from the foreigner."
It is conventionally regarded that the shogunate imposed and enforced
the sakoku policy in order to remove the colonial and religious
influence of primarily Spain and Portugal, which were perceived as
posing a threat to the stability of the shogunate and to peace in the
archipelago. The increasing number of
Catholic converts in southern
Japan (mainly Kyūshū) was a significant element of that which was
seen as a threat. Based on work conducted by Japanese historians in
the 1970s, some scholars have challenged this view, believing it to be
only a partial explanation of political reality. The motivations for
the gradual strengthening of the maritime prohibitions during the
early 17th century should be considered within the context of the
Tokugawa bakufu's domestic agenda. One element of this agenda was to
acquire sufficient control over Japan's foreign policy so as not only
to guarantee social peace, but also to maintain Tokugawa supremacy
over the other powerful lords in the country, particularly the tozama
daimyōs. These daimyōs had used East Asian trading linkages to
profitable effect during the
Sengoku period, which allowed them to
build up their military strength as well. By restricting the daimyōs'
ability to trade with foreign ships coming to
Japan or pursue trade
opportunities overseas, the Tokugawa bakufu could ensure none would
become powerful enough to challenge the bakufu's supremacy. This is
consistent with the generally agreed rationale for the Tokugawa
bakufu's implementation of the system of alternate attendance, or
sankin-kōtai. Directing trade predominantly through Nagasaki, which
came under Toyotomi Hideyoshi's control in 1587, would enable the
bakufu, through taxes and levies, to bolster its own treasury. This
was no small matter, as lack of wealth had limited both the preceding
Kamakura bakufu and the
Muromachi bakufu in crucial ways. The focus
on the removal of Western and
Christian influence from the Japanese
archipelago as the main driver of the kaikin could be argued to be a
somewhat eurocentric reading of Japanese history, although it is a
Nevertheless, Christianity and the two colonial powers it was most
strongly associated with, were seen as genuine threats by the Tokugawa
bakufu. Once the remnants of the Toyotomi clan had been defeated in
Tokugawa Hidetada turned his attention to the sole remaining
credible challenge to Tokugawa supremacy. Religious challenges to
central authority were taken seriously by the bakufu as ecclesiastical
challenges by armed Buddhist monks were common during the sengoku
Empress Meishō (1624–96) also had grave doubts when she
heard about how the Spanish and Portuguese were settling in the New
World, and thought that
Japan would soon become one of the many
countries in their possession.
Buddhist statue with hidden cross on back, used by Christians in Japan
to hide their real beliefs.
Protestant English and Dutch traders reinforced this perception by
accusing the Spanish and Portuguese missionaries of spreading the
religion systematically, as part of a claimed policy of culturally
dominating and colonizing Asian countries. The Dutch and English were
generally seen by the Japanese to be able to separate religion and
trade, while their Iberian counterparts were looked upon with much
suspicion. The Dutch, eager to take over trade from the Spanish and
Portuguese, had no problems reinforcing this view. The number of
Japan had been steadily rising due to the efforts of
missionaries, such as
Francis Xavier and daimyō converts. The direct
trigger which is said to have spurred the imposition of sakoku was the
Shimabara Rebellion of 1637–38, an uprising of 40,000 mostly
Christian peasants. In the aftermath, the shogunate accused
missionaries of instigating the rebellion, expelled them from the
country, and strictly banned the religion on penalty of death. The
remaining Japanese Christians, mostly in Nagasaki, formed underground
communities and came to be called Kakure Kirishitan. All contact with
the outside world became strictly regulated by the shogunate, or by
the domains (Tsushima, Matsumae, and Satsuma) assigned to the task.
Dutch traders were permitted to continue commerce in
Japan only by
agreeing not to engage in missionary activities. Today, the Christian
percentage of the population (1%) in
Japan remains far lower than in
other East Asian countries such as
Vietnam (7%), South
Korea (29%) and the
Philippines (over 90%).
Beacon on Taketomi, one of the
Sakishima Beacons constructed in 1644
to monitor foreign shipping
The sakoku policy was also a way of controlling commerce between Japan
and other nations, as well as asserting its new place in the East
Asian hierarchy. The Tokugawa had set out to create their own
small-scale international system where
Japan could continue to access
the trade in essential commodities such as medicines, and gain access
to essential intelligence about happenings in China, while avoiding
having to agree to a subordinate status within the Chinese tributary
system. Japan's generally constructive official diplomatic
Korea allowed regular embassies (Tongsinsa)
to be dispatched by
Korea to Japan. Together with the brisk trade
between Tsushima and Korea, as well as the presence of Japanese in
Japan was able to access Chinese cultural, intellectual and
technological developments throughout the
Edo period. At the time of
the promulgation of the strictest versions of the maritime
prohibitions, the Ming dynasty had lost control of much of
it was unnecessary, and perhaps undesirable, for
Japan to pursue
official diplomatic relations with either of the Ming or the Qing
governments while the issue of imperial legitimacy was unsettled.
Japan was able to acquire the imported goods it required through
intermediary trade with the Dutch and through the Ryukyu Islands. The
Japanese actually encouraged the Ryūkyū Kingdom's rulers to maintain
a tributary relationship with China, even though the
Shimazu clan had
surreptitiously established great political influence in the Ryukyu
Qing became much more open to trade after it had
defeated the Ming loyalists in Taiwan, and thus Japan's rulers felt
even less need to establish official relations with China.
Liberalizing challenges to sakoku did come from within Japan's elite
in the 18th century, but they came to naught. Later on, the sakoku
policy was the main safeguard against the total depletion of Japanese
mineral resources—such as silver and copper—to the outside world.
However, while silver exportation through
Nagasaki was controlled by
the shogunate to the point of stopping all exportation, the
exportation of silver through
Korea continued in relatively high
Japan kept abreast of Western technology during this period
was by studying medical and other texts in the
Dutch language obtained
through Dejima. This developed into a blossoming field in the late
18th century which was known as
Rangaku (Dutch studies). It became
obsolete after the country was opened and the sakoku policy collapsed.
Thereafter, many Japanese students (e.g., Kikuchi Dairoku) were sent
to study in foreign countries, and many foreign employees were
Japan (see o-yatoi gaikokujin).
The policies associated with sakoku ended with the Convention of
Kanagawa in response to demands made by Commodore Perry.
Challenges to seclusion
Many isolated attempts to end Japan's seclusion were made by expanding
Western powers during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. American,
Russian and French ships all attempted to engage in a relationship
Japan but were rejected.
In 1647 Portuguese warships attempted to enter Nagasaki. The Japanese
formed a blockade of almost 900 boats to stop the ships. After the
event, the Japanese added more security to
Nagasaki as fears rose that
other countries would challenge the new seclusion policy and attempt
to enter through Nagasaki.
In 1738, a Russian naval squadron (including Martin Spangberg) visited
the island of Honshu. The Russians landed in a scenic area which is
now part of the Rikuchu Kaigan National Park. Despite the prevalent
seclusion policy, the sailors were treated with politeness if not
In 1778, a merchant from
Yakutsk by the name of Pavel
Lebedev-Lastochkin arrived in
Hokkaidō with a small expedition. He
offered gifts, and politely asked to trade in vain.
Jean-François de Galaup, comte de Lapérouse
Jean-François de Galaup, comte de Lapérouse navigated in
Japanese waters. He visited the
Ryūkyū islands and the strait
Hokkaidō and Sakhalin, naming it after himself.
In 1791, two American ships commanded by the American explorer John
Kendrick—the Lady Washington, under Captain Kendrick, and the
Grace, under Captain William Douglas—stopped for 11 days on Kii
Ōshima island, south of the Kii Peninsula. Kendrick was the first
known American to have visited Japan. He apparently planted an
American flag and claimed the islands, although accounts of his visit
Japan are nonexistent.
In 1792 the Russian subject
Adam Laxman visited the island of
From 1797 to 1809, several American ships traded in
Nagasaki under the
Dutch flag, upon the request of the Dutch who were not able to send
their own ships because of their conflict against Britain during the
In 1797 US Captain William Robert Stewart, commissioned by the Dutch
from Batavia, took the ship Eliza of New York to Nagasaki, Japan, with
a cargo of Dutch trade goods.
William Robert Stewart
William Robert Stewart returned on board a ship named "The
Emperor of Japan" (the captured and renamed "Eliza of New York"),
Nagasaki harbour and tried in vain to trade through the Dutch
enclave of Dejima.
Another American captain John Derby of
Salem, Massachusetts aboard the
Margaret, tried in vain to open
Japan to the opium trade.
In 1804, the Russian expedition around the world led by captain Adam
Johann von Krusenstern reached Nagasaki. The Russian envoy Nikolai
Rezanov requested trade exchanges. The
Bakufu refused the request and
the ships had to leave in spring 1805. The Russians attacked Sakhalin
Kuril islands during the following three years, prompting the
Bakufu to build up defences in Ezo.
In 1808, the British frigate HMS Phaeton, preying on Dutch shipping in
the Pacific, sailed into
Nagasaki under a Dutch flag, demanding and
obtaining supplies by force of arms.
In 1811, the Russian naval lieutenant
Vasily Golovnin landed on
Kunashiri Island, and was arrested by the
Bakufu and imprisoned for 2
In 1825, following a proposal by Takahashi Kageyasu (ja:高橋景保),
Bakufu issued an "Order to Drive Away Foreign Ships" (Ikokusen
uchiharairei, also known as the "Ninen nashi", or "No second thought"
law), ordering coastal authorities to arrest or kill foreigners coming
In 1830, the brig "Cyprus", a ship of Australian convicts who had
successfully mutinied against their masters and set sail for Canton,
China, arrived on the coast of
Shinkoku near the town of Mugi in
Tokushima Prefecture. The mutineers were desperately low on water,
firewood, and supplies, but were attacked and sent away by the
Japanese. This was the first time an Australian ship ever visited
Also in 1830, the Bonin Islands, claimed by
Japan but uninhabited,
were settled by the American Nathaniel Savory, who landed on the
island of Chichijima and formed the first colony there.
In 1837, an American businessman in
Guangzhou named Charles W. King
saw an opportunity to open trade by trying to return to
Japanese sailors (among them, Otokichi) who had been shipwrecked a few
years before on the coast of Oregon. He went to
Uraga Channel with
Morrison, an unarmed American merchant ship. The ship was fired upon
several times, and finally sailed back unsuccessfully.
In 1842, following the news of the defeat of
China in the
and internal criticism following the Morrison Incident, the Bakufu
responded favourably to foreign demands for the right to refuel in
Japan by suspending the order to execute foreigners and adopting the
"Order for the Provision of Firewood and Water" (Shinsui kyuyorei
In 1844, a French naval expedition under Captain Fornier-Duplan
Okinawa on April 28, 1844. Trade was denied, but Father
Forcade was left behind with a translator.
In 1845, whaling ship
Manhattan (1843) rescued 22 Japanese shipwrecked
Mercator Cooper was allowed into
Edo Bay, where he
stayed for four days and met with the Governor of
Edo and several high
officers representing The Emperor. They were given several presents
and allowed to leave unmolested, but told never to return.
On July 20, 1846, Commander James Biddle, sent by the United States
Government to open trade, anchored in
Tokyo Bay with two ships,
including one warship armed with 72 cannons, but his demands for
a trade agreement remained unsuccessful.
On July 24, 1846, the French Admiral Cécille arrived in Nagasaki, but
failed in his negotiations and was denied landing. He was accompanied
by two priests who had learnt the Japanese language in Okinawa: Father
Forcade and Father Ko.
In 1848, Half-Scottish/Half-Chinook
Ranald MacDonald pretended to be
shipwrecked on the island of Rishiri in order to gain access to Japan.
He was sent to Nagasaki, where he stayed for 10 months and became the
first English teacher in Japan. Upon his return to America, MacDonald
made a written declaration to the United States Congress, explaining
that the Japanese society was well policed, and the Japanese people
well behaved and of the highest standard.
In 1848, Captain
James Glynn sailed to Nagasaki, leading at last to
the first successful negotiation by an American with "Closed Country"
James Glynn recommended to the
United States Congress
United States Congress that
negotiations to open
Japan should be backed up by a demonstration of
force, thus paving the way to Perry's expedition.
In 1849, the Royal Navy's
HMS Mariner entered Uraga Harbour to conduct
a topographical survey. Onboard was the Japanese castaway Otokichi,
who acted as a translator. To avoid problems with the Japanese
authorities, he disguised himself as Chinese, and said that he had
learned Japanese from his father, allegedly a businessman who had
worked in relation with Nagasaki.
In 1853, the Russian embassy of
Yevfimy Putyatin arrived in Nagasaki
(August 12, 1853). The embassy demonstrated a steam engine, which led
to the first recorded attempts at manufacturing a steam engine in
Japan, by Hisashige Tanaka in 1853.
These largely unsuccessful attempts continued until, on July 8, 1853,
Commodore Matthew Perry of the U.S. Navy with four warships:
Mississippi, Plymouth, Saratoga, and Susquehanna steamed into the Bay
Edo (Tokyo) and displayed the threatening power of his ships'
Paixhans guns. He demanded that
Japan open to trade with the West.
These ships became known as the kurofune, the Black Ships.
End of isolationism
Commodore Perry's fleet for his second visit to
Japan in 1854.
The following year, at the
Convention of Kanagawa
Convention of Kanagawa (March 31, 1854),
Perry returned with seven ships and forced the Shogun to sign the
"Treaty of Peace and Amity", establishing formal diplomatic relations
Japan and the United States. The
United Kingdom signed the
Anglo-Japanese Friendship Treaty at the end of 1854.
Between 1852 and 1855, Admiral
Yevfimiy Putyatin of the Russian Navy
made several attempts to obtain from the Shogun favourable trade terms
for Russia. In June 1853, he brought to
Nagasaki Bay a letter from the
Karl Nesselrode and demonstrated to Tanaka Hisashige
a steam engine, probably the first ever seen in Japan. His efforts
culminated in the signing of the
Treaty of Shimoda
Treaty of Shimoda in February 1855.
Within five years,
Japan had signed similar treaties with other
western countries. The Harris Treaty was signed with the United States
on July 29, 1858. These "Ansei Treaties" were widely regarded by
Japanese intellectuals as unequal, having been forced on
gunboat diplomacy, and as a sign of the West's desire to incorporate
Japan into the imperialism that had been taking hold of the continent.
Among other measures, they gave the Western nations unequivocal
control of tariffs on imports and the right of extraterritoriality to
all their visiting nationals. They would remain a sticking point in
Japan's relations with the West up to the turn of the 20th century.
Missions to the West
The son of Nadar, photographed with members of the Second Japanese
Europe in 1863. Photographed by Nadar.
Several missions were sent abroad by the Bakufu, in order to learn
about Western civilization, revise treaties, and delay the opening of
cities and harbour to foreign trade.
A Japanese Embassy to the United States was sent in 1860, on board the
In 1861 in the
Tsushima Incident a Russian fleet tried to force open a
harbour not officially opened to foreign trade with foreign countries,
but was finally repelled with the help of the British.
An Embassy to
Europe was sent in 1862, and a Second Embassy to Europe
Japan also sent a delegation and participated to the 1867
World Fair in Paris.
Other missions, distinct from those of the Shogunate, were also sent
to Europe, such as the Chōshū Five, and missions by the fief of
Haijin (海禁) – Maritime restrictions; kaikin in Japanese.
Paradise sakoku (パラダイス鎖国) – A kind of Galápagos
Convention of Kanagawa
Dutch missions to Edo
Joseon missions to Japan
Ryukyuan missions to Edo
List of Westerners who visited
Japan before 1868
^ Gunn, Geoffrey C, First globalization: the Eurasian exchange, 1500
to 1800, Google Books, p. 151
^ a b Tashiro, Kazui. "Foreign Relations During the
Edo Period: Sakoku
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^ a b Toby, Ronald (1984). State and Diplomacy in Early Modern Japan.
Princeton: Princeton University Press.
^ Toby, Ronald (1977). "Reopening the Question of Sakoku: Diplomacy in
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^ Straelen, H. van (1952) Yoshida Shoin, Forerunner of the Meiji
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^ a b Hellyer, Robert I. (2009). Defining engagement:
Japan and global
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^ Laver, Michael S. (2011). The
Sakoku Edicts and the Politics of
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Agence France-Presse (2009-01-31). "S.
Korea president faces
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^ 先島諸島火番盛 [Sakishima Beacons] (in Japanese). Agency for
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^ Hall, J (1955). Tanuma Okitsugu, 1719–1788, p. 105.
^ Cullen, L.M. A History of Japan, 1582–1941. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 2003. p. 39
^ Glynn Barratt. Russia in Pacific Waters, 1715-1825. UBC Press, 1981.
ISBN 9780774801171. Pages 35-37.
^ Islands and empires: Western impact on the Pacific and east Asia by
Ernest Stanley Dodge p.302
^ Ridley, Scott (2010). Morning of Fire: John Kendrick's Daring
American Odyssey in the Pacific. HarperCollins. pp. 221–25.
ISBN 978-0-06-170012-5. Retrieved 30 July 2012.
^ K. Jack Bauer, A Maritime History of the United States: The Role of
America's Seas and Waterways, University of South Carolina Press,
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^ John, Derby. "The Derby Family" (PDF). Peabody Essex Museum.
p. 3. Retrieved 15 December 2016.
^ Asia Society of Japan, Long lecture.
^ Polak 2001, p. 19
Hall, John Wesley. (1955) Tanuma Okitsugu: Forerunner of Modern Japan.
Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Oshima, Akihide. (2009)
Sakoku to iu
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"Numismatist in Commodore Perry's fleet (1853–54)", Journal of
Antiques, August 2005 .
Foreign relations of Japan
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Dutch missions to Edo
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