Uniquely Japanese-Sakoku

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The final shogun family in Japan was the Tokugawa Shogunate, also called the Bakafu. Under the rule of the Tokugawa, Japan entered into a period of isolation, called the Sakoku Jidai, translating to time of national isolation or exclusion of foreigners. The policy was enacted between 1633-39 by Tokugawa Iemitsu, and relations and trade between Japan and all other countries was severely limited. Japanese commoners were forbidden to leave the country and nearly all foreigners were barred from entering (apart from a few exceptions).

Extensive trade with China continued through Nagasaki. The Japanese held Chinese learning and products in very high esteem. Very limited trade was permitted to continue, with the Ryukyu Kingdom (indigenous people of Okinawa) through Kagoshima, in the south of Kyushu. Also with the Ainu (indigenous people of Hokkaido) through Matsumae Domain, in Hokkaido. With Korea through the Tsushima Domain in Nagasaki. Finally, the only Europeans who were permitted to stay and trade, the Dutch. Dutch trade and indeed all Dutch activity was limited to the very small island of Dejima, a tiny island in the Nagasaki Bay. The Dutch were not allowed to leave the island, except for the required visit to Edo (Tokyo) to report to the Shogun. The relationship with the Dutch is interesting. Tokugawa liked them, as they were not interested in pushing their faith onto the local population and because he liked the firearms and knowledge they bought with them. Rangaku is the name given to “Dutch learning” or “Western learning”, which included much scientific, technological and medical innovation.

The Tokugawa Shogunate believed that closing the country’s borders would protect Japan from both colonial and religious influence. Particularly from the Portuguese and Spanish. Until this time Christianity had flourished in some areas, particularly Kyushu. After Sakoku was established, it became illegal to be Christian, and anyone caught practicing the religion was persecuted. Christian priests had a price put on their heads and the manner in which they were tortured made for an interesting, if difficult to watch movie by Martin Scorsese called Silence.

The period of isolation lasted until 1853, when Commodore Matthew Perry of the United States Navy, sailed into Tokyo Bay and declared that trade and relations with the West should be reestablished. This began a series of events that resulted in the end of Shogunate rule, the Bakumatsu, and the restoration of power to the Emperor. This was known as the Meiji Restoration, which occurred in 1868.

During Sakoku Japanese culture remained unaffected by outside influence. This meant that although they were not advancing in the same way the rest of the world was, the culture, customs, art, theatre and etiquette were being honed and perfected almost to a point of being stylised. This preservation of culture is unique to Japan, and it is evident in every aspect of Japanese life. It is clearly visible to a foreign visitor, and I believe one of the things that makes Japan so enticing to visit. The tea ceremony, ikebana floral arrangement, Geisha, Noh and Kabuki theatre, kaiseki meals, many everyday things, are beautifully (and proudly) preserved, and travelling in super modern, neon-lit Japan, you can’t help but feel Feudal Japan walking alongside you, pervading every aspect of your experience.

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