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Reviewed by:
  • Defining Engagement: Japan and Global Contexts, 1640–1868
  • Mark Ravina (bio)
Defining Engagement: Japan and Global Contexts, 1640–1868. By Robert I. Hellyer. Harvard University Asia Center, Cambridge, Mass., 2009. xvi, 281 pages. $39.95.

This book is a welcome contribution to the growing literature on trade and diplomacy in early modern East Asia. Hellyer’s research builds on the wellknown work of Arano Yasunori and Ronald Toby from the 1980s. They demonstrated that, contrary to the then-dominant interpretation, the shogunate did not establish a comprehensive isolationist policy (sakoku) in the 1630s. Rather, the “closed country” edicts of the early 1600s focused narrowly on specific problems, such as the danger of Christianity. The term sakoku itself did not appear until the 1800s, and before then the shogunate did not proscribe foreign contacts but sought to shape those contacts so as to enhance shogunal prestige and legitimacy. Once radical, the Arano-Toby thesis has become established wisdom and Hellyer refines it, adding his own insights. Hellyer looks at early modern trade and diplomacy from the perspective of two domains: Tsushima and Satsuma. He demonstrates elegantly that both domains chafed under shogunal oversight and deceived the Edo government in order to advance their local interests. The result is a fresh perspective that integrates local history with transnational history.

A great strength of Hellyer’s study is how he finds parallels in unlikely places. It is difficult to image two domains more different than Tsushima and Satsuma. The Shimazu lords of Satsuma were powerful country-holding (kunimochi) daimyō who had ruled the same territory since the thirteenth century. Proud of their military accomplishments, they refused to yield to Hideyoshi until he launched an invasion of Kyushu. Under the Tokugawa, they launched an invasion of Ryukyu in 1609, capturing the Shō king and making him a vassal of both the Shimazu and the shogunate. In the bakumatsu era, Satsuma samurai aggressively promoted military modernization and even managed something of a triumph in the Satsuma-English War of 1863. Although the British destroyed much of the city of Kagoshima through naval bombardment, Satsuma artillery inflicted casualties on the British as well, including the commander of the British flagship. In the Meiji era, men from Satsuma were prominent in national politics, mostly notably Ōkubo Toshimichi and Saigō Takamori. The spirit of Satsuma autonomy also made the Seinan sensō (Satsuma rebellion) a bloody and protracted war.

The Sō daimyō of Tsushima, by contrast, were more conquered than conquering. Tsushima was a base for pirate raids until 1419, when the Korean court launched a punitive attack, forcing the Sō to sue for peace. Because [End Page 407] of that defeat, some Yi officials spoke of Tsushima as Korean territory even in the Tokugawa era. In the summer of 1861, Russian warships established an outpost in Asō Bay, and the Sō, rather than offer military resistance, appealed to the shogunate for transfer to another domain. Tsushima was less than one-tenth the size of Kagoshima and could not survive without trade. The Sō became adept at avoiding confrontations in order to promote commerce, and their survival all but required prevarication. The most famous example was Sō Yoshitoshi’s alteration of a letter from Tokugawa Ieyasu designed to restart trade with Korea: Yoshitoshi changed Ieyasu’s title in order to please the Yi court and secure the 1609 trade treaty. In this way, Tsushima was more like Ryukyu than Satsuma, dependent on trade and caught between greater military powers.

Despite these pronounced differences, both the Sō and the Shimazu sought to work within the framework of Tokugawa diplomacy, advancing their local interests without needlessly challenging Tokugawa supremacy. Both were threatened by the same policies, particularly Tokugawa attempts to reduce silver exports by debasing the Japanese currency or restricting imports. And both domains developed rhetoric linking their local interests to shogunal or national concerns. The Sō insisted that silver exports to Korea through Tsushima were essential because trade provided valuable information about the outside world and thereby contributed to the “protection of all Japan” (p. 64). Korea was also a key source of ginseng, and Tsushima argued that this medicinal was a valuable contribution to the greater social...


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