Successful Sakoku?

Talking about the semi-seclusion policies of the Tokugawa polity in class recently, and a student asked “was it a successful policy?” I had already outlined the various exceptions: foreigners allowed into Japan (Dutch, Chinese, Korean); Japanese allowed out and back in again (And I note that Michael Wood is leading the students, who presented in the summer at ASPAC, to the AAS this spring, bringing their fascinating material to a wider audience); limited trade contacts, and information flows. The question was not about whether it was a full seclusion policy, but about whether it accomplished the goals set for it and generally positive results.

I had to stop and think about that. I know that there is some disagreement over the economic implications of trade limitation, but Tokugawa growth is pretty substantial and its hard to argue that it’s a serious problem, even if growth could, theoretically have been greater without serious social problems resulting. The policy certainly is a success — along with investigations and temple registrations — from the standpoint of the suppression of Christianity in Japan, reducing a growing population to a few “hidden Christian” sects. From a cultural standpoint, including science and technology, Japan isn’t much more isolated or xenophobic than China during the same period (and China doesn’t, in the end, come out as well as Japan, so perhaps China would have been better off more isolated) and manages to catch up with the 18-19c military technology pretty quickly when push comes to shove.

Is it a success? Is it a mistake to talk about historical phenomena in those terms?


  1. In my opinion, I do not think that it is a ’mistake’ to discuss whether it was a mistake or not. Rather that it should be encouraged, yet misinterpretations can be done if one uses the “wrong” perspective on the matter.
    In this ‘historical phenomena’ we must consider what the purpose was at the time it was issued. I have not read sakokurei, 鎖国令, and can therefore not say much. Does anybody know if there is an English translation? It was given out at least 4 times between 1633 and 1639, my Japanese history book mention I, III IV and V, but not II. Could not the goal for the policy be found here?
    From the economical viewpoint the Dutch merchants send more ships to Japan than the Portuguese had done before. Using 15 years as an example, 1652-1667, the Dutch sent 120 ships to Japan, an average of 8 per year.
    As for suppressing the Christian presence I agree with you and I think that this goal might have been one of their primary aims. Yet, had the British factory remained at this time, would that have been allowed to stay?

  2. David Lu’s Japan: A Documentary History includes a few of the edicts (1635 and 1639) in its Tokugawa section.

    My recollection is that the British, as Protestants, were permitted to stay, but abandoned their trade with Japan voluntarily as they couldn’t make it pay.

    And I agree that it’s OK to talk about policy success in historical terms, but we have to distinguish carefully between immediate goals (preventing colonization and Christianization) and long-term effects (cultural isolation and political stagnation). And economic measures are tricky, because any evaluation of the effects of the trade restriction (which was, as you note, actually an expansion in scale) requires some consideration and assumptions of the counterfactuals.

  3. This isn’t a comment on ‘success’ or ‘failure’ per se, but I was recently reminded of the weight the events of the early 17th century still carried in the Bakumatsu period. Serious political choices were made in the mid-19th century based on arguments of ‘my family was on the winning/losing side at Sekigahara and I therefore owe the Tokugawa bakufu loyalty for the reward we recieved/enmity for the reduction in my families fortunes.’ It was only when the bakufu was gone that the shishi could evaluate the response to the new influx of Westerners on its own merits. Sakoku, by reducing external challenges to insignificance, allowed an ossification of social and political positions. Whether this represents stability, and therefore success, or stifling of creative potential and a loss to society, is a matter of individual interpretation.

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