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  • Defining Engagement: Japan and Global Contexts, 1640-1868
  • Brett L. Walker
Defining Engagement: Japan and Global Contexts, 1640-1868 BY Robert I. Hellyer. Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center, 2009. Pp. xvi + 281. $39.95.

Nearly twenty years after the publication of Ronald P. Toby's State and Diplomacy in Early Modern Japan: Asia in the Development of the Tokugawa Bakufu, the notion that Japan was a "closed country" (sakoku) during the Tokugawa years (1603-1868) still defines the scholarly debate about Japan's early modern foreign relations.1 But why has the concept sakoku proved so resilient in the face of decades of compelling scholarship to the contrary? In my view it is because the implementation and later erosion of this concept neatly delineates the line between Japan's early modern and modern worlds. When Commodore Matthew C. Perry and his black ships opened "locked Japan," as Herman Melville's intrepid Starbuck once called the country, Japan lurched, at first reluctantly, into a modern, globally connected age.2 Not only does the use of the metaphors of "locked" and "unlocked" Japans neatly separate the early modern and modern worlds; it also confirms that the West held the only key to the modern age. Only with the dismantling of sakoku and Japan's embracing of global modernity could the "impenetrable" (another of Melville's descriptors) island-country blossom into a modern nation.

Illustrating this point, L. M. Cullen, in A History of Japan, 1582-1941: Internal and External Worlds, recently resurrected sakoku as a critical instrument of Tokugawa domestic authority. To be sure, Cullen fully recognized that Japan was on the path to internal modernization prior to its unlocking; he did, however, forcefully argue that Japan's early modern architects implemented sakoku because they feared the European menace. (What they actually implemented were called "maritime prohibitions" [kaikin], not the "closed country" directives as is often thought.) Indeed, for Cullen, sakoku proved to be an irreplaceable component of Tokugawa power; its erosion spelled the end of Tokugawa rule. Of Toby and other historians who question whether [End Page 205] Japan was ever a "closed country," he writes, "The problem with this line of argumentation is that it underestimates the scale of Japanese fears in the seventeenth century and their doubts even about the Dutch; it also sees sakoku in terms of trade policy rather than an overall policy, and ignores the fact that fear of Christianity was a form of shorthand for an omnibus fear about Western intentions."3

I disagree that Toby's analysis focuses excessively on trade, as he actually devotes more space to diplomacy, but it is possible that some sakoku critics focused so much on the "four windows" of commercial exchange (that is, Satsuma, Tsushima, Nagasaki, and Matsumae) that at times they failed to see the overall Tokugawa strategy. Given the European expansion of the seventeenth century, closing Japan, particularly to the gold-hungry and arms-peddling padres, proved prudent, if at times bloody. In the San Felipe Incident (1596), for example, the pilot of the wrecked Spanish galleon of that name impressed upon Hideyoshi's lieutenants that Spanish friars represented a "fifth column" dispatched to convert distant people to Christianity in order to ease Spanish conquest.4 The Taikô became alarmed, with some justification; closing the country, one could argue, spared Japan the brunt of the crippling European brutality that, starting with the Jesuit padres and ending with British gunboats, eventually savaged China in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

This backdrop is important because in Defining Engagement, Robert Hellyer provides additional nuance to the sakoku debate by arguing that two dominant forces actually shaped Tokugawa foreign relations: domestic competition between the bakufu and certain domains (Tsushima and Satsuma), and Japan's testing of the waters of seventeenth-and eighteenth-century global commerce. Regarding sakoku, Hellyer states plainly: "Japan's foreign relations were not defined by an overriding ideology of seclusion, as is conventionally argued" (p. 4). Rather, he argues, "because the system of foreign relations was divided among several actors—the bakufu, Tsushima, and Satsuma—it included multiple voices and agendas which went beyond a single and commonly held ideology of seclusion" (p. 12). With...


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