Japan:From Isolation to Adaptation
In 2019, if you are riding a train in Tokyo while reading this article, there is a huge possibility that you will find at least one foreigner traveling in the same carriage as you. Moreover, today it is common to see a second-generation brown or black child going on a school trip with 20 other Japanese students. But the question is, whether the story was the same or not back in the 90s.
At least, foreigners I know who came to Japan at that time have a totally different story than what foreigners now will have. They shared with me stories where Japanese people used to give weird looks to foreigners.
It was also almost impossible to find an apartment where foreigners were allowed at that time. Even more so, some Japanese people would not sit beside a foreigner in the train . Some pretty strong arguments were made by the Japanese at the time to validate their stance, saying that foreigners do not follow the Japanese rules or break rules every now and then causing annoyance and disturbance.
Though of course, most of the Japanese people were kind to foreigners and maybe that is why we can see the surprising growth in the number of foreigners nowadays. However, it can not be denied that Japanese people always preferred to be somewhat isolated from the rest of the world. So, today we are going to learn more about the story of an isolated country, of Japan.
Have you ever heard the word “Shogunate”? Shogunate refers to the Military rulers who dictated Japan from 1192 to 1868. In 1192, the local ruler of Japan (who was called Daimyo) with the help of the Samurais, took control over the government and started the Shogunate system in Japan. The first shoguns were Kamakura Shogunate who were at the top of the power from 1192 to 1333. Then from 1336 to 1573, Ashikaga and from 1600 to 1868, the Tokugawa. Shoguns introduced the class system in Japanese society. Though the Emperor was in the pinnacle of the class system, in reality, Shoguns controlled everything. In the class system, Daimyo or local rulers were under the control of Shoguns. Daimyo used to control small domains which were called Han. The power of the domains at that time depended on how much rice they produce per year as the Daimyos had to pay taxes to Shoguns with rice. Interestingly, all the domains at the time had their own currency system that is totally different with the others.
Every local ruler or Daimyo had their own group of Military Personnel who were called Samurai. Samurais used to get a salary from the Daimyos and generally lived near where the Daimyos live. These Samurais were not allowed by the law to own land in their name. In a word, these Samurais were people who directly controlled the general people. On the other hand, the general people were allowed to buy lands albeit with high taxes which they will then pay to the local dictators.
Edo or Tokugawa Period
Throughout the 1600s, the local lords (also called Daimyos) were fighting against each other to take control of Japan. Consequently, in the war of Sekigahara, Tokugawa Ieyasu centralized the power in his castle of Edo. Tokugawa rulers were careful about the foreign strike and colonization in Japan. They found that Christianity can be a way for foreign culture to enter Japan. So, they hatched a plan to banish Christianity from Japan. For instance, around 300,000 Christians were in Japan during the rise of the Tokugawa rulers and within years almost all of them disappeared into thin air. Rulers also understand that import and export trade has to be banned to control foreign influence in Japan. So, they banned all kinds of business with Western countries. Japanese people were also forbidden to cross the border for trade.
This movement was put into force with the help of the Act of Seclusion (1636), and thus Japan detached itself from western countries. The only exception at the time were the Dutch, who were connected through the Nagasaki Harbour (which was also controlled tightly). This isolationist policy is called the Sakoku policy and it went on to exist in Japan for more than 200 years.
Though the connection between western countries and Japan were very limited, because there were still some forms of communication with the Dutch, Japan still managed to learn about some advancements of western technologies and medicine.
Sayings of the Dutch by Morishima Chūryō in particular explored microscopes, hot air balloons, paintings, printing technology, and physics and geography theories. This process of learning from the Dutch was called as the ‘Rangaku’. Despite being mostly detached from the world, Rangaku helped Japan advance their education, technology, and medical fields to a certain extent.
During the Tokugawa period, only four classes existed: Samurai, Artisans, Farmers, and Merchants. It was against the law to change one’s class. Although it was later revised to allow the Samurais to participate in trade or join civil service, they were not able to participate in the ventures fully as they had to prioritise their warrior self above all else.
Tax from the land was a big income for the rulers. So, peasants were only allowed to do works that are related to farming, ensuring continuous income for the government.
Because of agricultural development, Japan made great strides in the economic sector. Japan’s industrial sector was also booming at that time. This made the Merchant class taste the sweetness of overflowing money and as a result, Kyoto, Osaka, and Tokyo turned into colorful cities and entertainment area for the merchant class. For instance, the Kabuki theater and Bunraku puppet theater were also established at that time.
On the other hand, the Samurai or the warrior class gradually deteriorated in both power and wealth compared to the merchants. From the mid 18th century, the Tokugawa Shoguns started to lose power, which gave rise to an uprising by the powerful Choshu and Satsuma clans.
In the year of 1868, the Tokugawa Shogunate was thrown out of the throne and the Emperor reclaimed true power. During his reign, the Emperor took the name “Meiji” and hence the act came to be known as the Meiji restoration.
At the beginning of Emperor Meiji’s regime, Japan had a very fragile army and the whole country was dependent on unstable agriculture. Because of the detachment from western interaction, Japan was left behind in the dust in terms of technology.
In 1853, Commodore Matthew Perry went to Japan with a letter from the American President Millard Fillmore, asking that the Samurais open the Japanese Maritime Borders for the Americans in order to trade. But the Japanese warriors did not allow him to do so. As a result, Methew Perry blasted the Japanese with modern guns before leaving the country, horrifying the Japanese.
A year later, Perry returned to Japan with more weaponry and demanded a response. The terrified Japanese were left with no choice but to succumb to American pressure and thus, the Convention of Kanagawa was signed and the Shimoda and Hakodate ports were opened for the Americans. That is how for the first time, Japan was forced to start a relationship with the foreign world and got out of the isolationist policy.
In the same year, Japan and Britain also signed up a treaty commonly called “The Anglo-Japanese Friendly Treaty”. As a result, Hakodate and Nagasaki ports became free to use for the British. Then comes the Ansei Treaty where Japan signed with the U.K., Russia, Netherlands, France, and America to establish diplomatic relations, opening 5 ports for these countries to trade with Japan.
However this treaty was not an equal one for the Japanese, they even lost control over taxation for these trades. This caused great annoyance for the Emperor and eventually he declared a fight against foreigners starting the Shimonoseki War.
However, that battle only resulted in the overwhelming loss of the Japanese. The following battles also resulted in disgraceful outcomes for the Japanese as the Satsuma domain was lost in the Satsuma War against the British and the Boshin war resulting with the Shoguns being forced out of Edo.
Time passed and now the Japanese Government understood that they have to develop themselves rapidly to cope with the Western powers. Japan tried very hard to adapt to western culture in order to learn about modern technologies and educate themselves thus, many native and foreign advisors were hired by the government, kicking off a big change in the society.
The class system was entirely eradicated by the rulers, the prefecture system was introduced, weaponry was improved and the samurai were conscripted as soldiers to Japanese Army. This change resulted in the easy victory of the Japanese army during the Satsuma Rebellion, proving how much they improved in a short amount of time.
Japan also organized the Iwakura Mission where Japanese Scholars and Diplomats went to different countries. They learned about foreign technologies and immediately implemented them in Japan. From Germany, they learned about the education system and started the compulsory education system in Japan. Industrialization, especially, coal business boosted the Japanese economy. The train network and telegraph technology connected the whole of Japan through an invisible thread. Japan also started to standardised the currency system and the Bank of Japan started to print money for the country. This was how Japan rose to be an industrialised power during the daybreak of world wars.
While that may be so, one can argue that Japan hasn’t really broken out of their isolationist shell. And has only now begun to do so. For example, 20 years ago, it was really tough to find a Japanese person who could speak in English. Now, a lot more Japanese people are going to different countries for different purposes and interacting with foreign culture. In my opinion, the result is already visible in the new generation of Japanese people as they are really interested in foreign countries and cultures. What do you think?
Anik / Bangladesh