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Defining Engagement: Japan and Global Contexts, 1640-1868 by Robert I. Hellyer (review)

From: Monumenta Nipponica
Volume 67, Number 2, 2012
pp. 341-343 | 10.1353/mni.2012.0034

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The study of Japanese foreign relations in the early modern period has advanced rapidly over the past several decades, with credit for much of this activity going to Japanese schol­ars such as Yasunori Arano and Kazui Tashiro. Seminal work by non-Japanese researchers such as Ronald P. Toby, however, has taken the field in new directions, and without question Defining Engagement, by Robert Hellyer, is another important and original contribution to this branch of Japanese history.

Hellyer has fully absorbed previous scholarship by Japanese historiographers and on that basis proceeds to offers a comprehensive new narrative of the history of Japan's foreign rela­tions spanning the entire Tokugawa period, from the very beginning of the sixteenth cen­tury to the Meiji Restoration.

As a narrative history rather than simply a presentation of new information, the book is an engaging read, and its structure and arguments are both well organized. Following the introduction, chapters 1 and 2 set out the framework of Tokugawa foreign relations through the mid-eighteenth century, which principally continued to exist throughout the early modern period. Chapter 3 is a sensational contribution. This chapter offers a new interpretation of the history of the Tokugawa period, demonstrating that the year 1764 was a watershed in the his­tory of Japan's foreign relations. At that time Japan began to interact with the outside world, forming a basis for further changes in the late shogunate period. Japan's selective interaction at both the local and national levels following the middle of the eighteenth century is inves­tigated in chapters 4 and 5, while chapters 6 and 7 take up Tokugawa Japan in its final phase, examining the various changes that occurred after the opening of the country in the second half of the nineteenth century.

One unique merit of this book is the author's particular concern with the nineteenth century. Seclusion under the sakoku policy remained in effect throughout the Tokugawa period against a backdrop of large-scale global change that included the industrial revo­lution, Western colonization of Asia, and the opening of Chinese treaty ports as a result of the Opium War. Hellyer delves beneath the surface appearance of a static, old-fashioned regime to explore the domestic and internal changes that were in fact occurring, as well as the ways in which Japanese society was impacted by external events more than two centuries before the 1853 arrival of the American expedition commanded by Matthew C. Perry.

The reasons for Hellyer's focus on the nineteenth century become clear when seen in the context of Arano's monumental work Kinsei Nihon to Higashi Ajia (Tōkyō Daigaku Shup­pankai, 1988). That book, which provoked a reconsideration of sakoku, represented a new movement in the historiography of Japanese foreign relations during the Tokugawa period. It provided a new framework based on case studies from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and within this framework Hellyer has constructed a long-term narrative that employs knowledge of the seventeenth century in order to understand the foreign relations of both the late Tokugawa and the early Meiji periods. Hellyer then proceeds to shed new light on the Japanese history of the whole early modern period.

The author is also to be commended for his decision to focus on the two gateways of Tsushima and Satsuma. Backed by a detailed examination of these local domains and their contacts with the shogunate and with foreign governments such as Chosŏn (Korea) and the Ryūkyū kingdom, he argues persuasively that foreign relations indeed had a major impact on Japanese society even when sakoku was still the law of the land. In this sense, Defining Engagement successfully implements the methodology proposed by Toby in his book State and Diplomacy in Early Modern Japan: Asia in the Development of the Tokugawa Bakufu (Princeton University Press, 1983).

Hellyer, however, goes even beyond the scope of Toby's methodology to create a new, and wider, analytical framework. The examination of both domains (including the Naga­saki trading authorities) together with other relevant agents is appealing, and this approach proves useful in discussing Japanese foreign relations as a whole. Looking at only one of the two...

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