Isolation as a means of mind control
Japan’s history is one of furious independence, in feudal times from its big brother China and then later from the West. Japan’s closed country policy from 1639 to 1854 is known as Sakoku. It was adopted by the Tokugawa shogunate (1603 – 1867) in an effort to minimize threatening outside influences to its authority and thus strengthen its hold on the Japanese people.
The Shogunate believed that the best way to hold onto power was to remove any foreign religious or colonial influence, primarily from Portugal and Spain.
The main elements of this Sakoku policy were:
- The exclusion of Roman Catholic missionaries and traders
- The proscription of Christianity in Japan
- The regulation of foreign trade
- The prohibition of foreign travel by Japanese
After 92 years of trading and missionary zeal by the Portuguese and other Europeans, the Tokugawa shoguns became very concerned with the threat to their authority and to Japanese culture in general. The Shogun wished to severely tighten and restrict this increasing Western influence. This seclusion was not total, since Dutch, Chinese and Koreans were permitted restricted access to Japan. The only Japanese port open to Dutch and Chinese was at Nagasaki on the island of Kyushu, whilst the Korean were limited to the small island of Tsushima just off Kyushu.
In 1636 the shogunate constructed Dejima, a man-made island in the port of Nagasaki to segregate Portuguese residents from the Japanese population so as to control their missionary activities and tighten trade relations. By this action the Tokugawa shoguns now had much greater control over Western trade activities.
A few years later, with the continued conversion activities of the Jesuits, the Shogun finally expelled the Portuguese from Japan, granting exclusive yet restricted trading rights to the ‘heretical’ merchant Dutch. However trust in Westerners was severely diminished and thus the Shogun moved the Dutch Trading Station, formally located in Hirado, to this island of Dejima. The Dutch were the only remaining Westerners allowed in the country and through them the Shogunate kept abreast of Western technology and medicine during this isolation period.
With the arrival of Commodore Matthew Perry in 1853 the shogun was made acutely aware of the superiority of Western technology and was forced to abandon its seclusion policy. National seclusion was formally brought to an end by the Kanagawa treaty of 1854 and the Ansei Commercial Treaties of 1858.
History of Christianity in Japan
The first Europeans to Japan came from Portugal and landed on Kyushu in Western Japan in 1542. They introduced both gunpowder and Christianity. The Japanese lords on Kyushu welcomed these new visitors for the weapons they brought with them and tolerated the Jesuit missionaries that came as part of the package.
The missionaries were eventually successful in converting considerable numbers of people in Western Japan, including members of the ruling class. Christianity could be practiced openly, and in 1550 Francis Xavier undertook a mission to Kyoto to seek an audience with the Emperor.
However in 1587, in an era of European colonization and Christianization of the nearby Philippines, then Shogun, Toyotomi Hideyoshi issued an edict banning missionaries from the country due to the religion’s growing power, intolerant behaviour towards Shinto and Buddhism, and involvement in the sale of Japanese people as slaves overseas. In 1597 Hideyoshi outlawed Japanese Christians from proselytising and crucified 26 Japanese Christians in Nagasaki as a warning.
Intent to bring Japan under complete control, the succeeding Tokugawa Shogunate fully banned Christianity in Japan in 1620, accusing the religion of obstructing the authorities, antisocial behaviour and intolerance towards the established religions.
As a result of a rebellion on the Shimabara Peninsula that involved many peasant Christians in 1637/38, thousands of rebels were executed and the earlier full ban on Christianity was now strictly enforced. Only small pockets of ‘Hidden Christians’ continued to secretly practice their religion.
Following the Meiji Restoration in 1868, freedom of religion was promulgated and the number of Japanese Christians has ever since been slowly increasing.
Nagasaki was the forerunner of modernization
The Sakoku period of Japan’s isolation dedicated that Nagasaki remained prosperous as the only harbour that was open to the West.
Knowledge of the scientific and technological revolution occurring in Europe during the 17th and 18th Centuries reached Japan via Nagasaki’s Western contact. This helped Japan’s intellectual elite build up a base of theoretical and technological science, which in turn partly explains Japan’s success in radical and speedy modernization following the forced opening by America of the country to foreign trade in 1858.
Japan’s Uniqueness preserved in Modern Society
Through its isolationist policies Japan was able to stay off colonisation by the West during a significant period of Western dominance and cultural rape. During the 17th and 18th Centuries the dominant belief by the West was that its culture was superior and all other cultures were subordinate and thus not valid. Japan understood this threat, particularly since the Portuguese were amongst the worst of these Western offenders and this was illustrated so strongly through Jesuit zealots.
Whilst other cultures succumbed to Western value systems and cultural dominance only Japan and Thailand within Asia remained independent. Today Japan’s modern way of life is a direct reflection of its traditional cultural values. It is one of the very few societies that modernised by looking internally at its own structures and not simply supplanting a Western model on its traditional society.
Nagasaki is well worth a visit
Nagasaki is a city that has been shaped by long and constant contact with the West, from the early Chinese, Portuguese traders and missionaries to the massive destructive power of ‘Fat Man’, the plutonium bomb on 9 August 1945 that ended Word War II. Along with Hiroshima and its destruction by the ‘Little Boy’ atomic bomb, Nagasaki plays an important role for the abolition of nuclear weapons and world peace.