Tokugawa Japan (1603 – 1867)

A case-study in isolationist politics.

Tokugawa Japan
Tokugawa Ieyasu
Rangaku (Dutch learning)
Electric lighting
Woodblock prints

Who were the Japanese?

For most parts of the world, the early modern period was a time of exploration, colonization, and cultural exchange. But in early modern Japan, the exact opposite took place.

In 1633, the country closed its borders to the outside world and focused on internal growth. They still interacted, here and there, with foreign traders, but for the most part foreigners could not enter Japan.

For the next two hundred years, Japan developed its own rich and unique culture, including Kabuki theater, woodblock prints, and Haiku poetry. This period was known as Tokugawa Japan, and it was a rare example of a country existing in a state of isolation.

The origins of Tokugawa Japan

In the 16th century, Japan was divided, and rocked by civil war. Officially, an emperor was in charge of the country, but he was marginalized and largely ignored. This is often known as the ‘warring states period’.

In 1603, a powerful warlord named Tokugawa Ieyasu managed to unite the states. He declared himself shogun – a kind of military dictator – who took control of the country as a whole.

The emperor still existed, but the role was now purely ceremonial. Tokugawa Ieyasu had complete control. He and his descendants would rule Japan for more than two hundred years, which is why the period is referred to as Tokugawa Japan.

Closed country

In the 1630s, Tokugawa Ieyasu’s grandson, Tokugawa Iemitsu, took the decision to close Japan’s borders to foreign trade and travel. This policy was known as ‘sakoku’, which translates as ‘closed country’.

This decision was made because Iemitsu was concerned about the growing influence of European powers. He did not want his country to be Christianized by missionaries, or colonized by the Spanish, as was already happening in other parts of the world.

He did not close the borders completely. Dutch traders were still allowed to visit the tiny island of Dejima in Nagasaki harbor. This allowed important books, like Western medical journals, to enter the country. Japan wanted to be independent, but not to fall behind.

Dutch learning

Japanese scientists thoroughly studied the European medical books which were allowed to enter the country through Dejima. This was known as ‘rangaku’, or Dutch learning.

They performed their own experiments to corroborate the things they read. For example, three Japanese scientists dissected the body of a deceased criminal, and were impressed to find that the body matched the Dutch books.

These scientific advances led people to question the social hierarchies that had been part of Japan for many centuries: nobles and samurai at the top, and merchants and criminals at the bottom. Dissections showed that everyone was the same on the inside, which meant these hierarchies were artificial.

Art and culture


The Tokugawa period saw many great artistic achievements, as the country developed unique artforms without the influence of foreign nations.

For example, traditional Japanese woodblock prints were able to flourish. Some of the most famous works from this era were Katsushika Hokusai’s *36 Views Of Mount Fuji*. This iconic work captured the beauty and majesty of Japan’s highest mountain, with each print depicting it from a different angle or season.

Other artists took a more subversive approach. He-Gassen (‘Fart Battle’) paintings became especially popular; they showed nobles and samurai producing unflattering farts, which undermined the people at the top of the traditional social pyramid.

Religion and spiritualism

While most of the world in the early modern period was influenced by Christianity or Islam, Japan remained largely untouched by these religions, and instead continued its own traditional spiritual beliefs.

Neo-Confucianism was a dominant philosophy during this time. It valued harmony with nature, and respect for living things; it was at odds with religions like Christianity that placed humans above the natural world.

Many people in Japan also believed in kami spirits – small deities which existed as part of the rocks, the animals, the trees. The landscape was littered with torii gates, which were said to mark the border between the human world and the spirit world.


Gunboat diplomacy

The ‘closed country’ period of Tokugawa Japan came to a sudden end in 1853, when America sent a fleet of warships, and demanded that the country open its borders to foreign trade.

The Japanese were reluctant, but they eventually agreed after the Americans began to fire their cannons at Japan’s coastal towns. This is sometimes known as ‘gunboat diplomacy’, and it is one of many examples, throughout the early modern period, when gunpowder proved decisive.

The Japanese signed a Treaty of Amity and Commerce, which officially opened their borders to the world. This also marked an important moment in American history. Not long before, they had just been a collection of British colonies, but now they were stamping their authority on world affairs.


The decline of Tokugawa Japan

In the wake of opening their borders to the world, Japan underwent a major political upheaval. The Tokugawa shogunate was overthrown, and replaced by a government who wanted to rapidly modernize the country.

In 1868, a new government charter proudly declared that “knowledge shall be sought throughout the world so as to broaden and strengthen the foundations of imperial rule.” They actively invited foreign influence, after two centuries trying to avoid it.

It was not long before people in Japan were wearing Western-style clothing, such as top hats and frocks, instead of traditional robes and kimonos. Tokugawa building styles were also replaced by Western architecture, while steam-powered ships and gunpowder rifles were used to modernize the Japanese army.


Mourning Japanese traditions


Many people embraced the modernization of Japan, but some people mourned the Tokugawa traditions which had been replaced by Western ideals.

This feeling of loss is reflected in two famous works from the 1900s: Junichiro Tanizaki’s essay *In Praise Of Shadows*, and Soetsu Yanagi’s book *The Beauty Of Everyday Things*.

Both works lamented the passing away of old traditions. Tanizaki argued that electric lighting had robbed Japan of the soft, beautiful shadows once cast by candles and sunlight. Yanagi, meanwhile, celebrated the beauty of everyday objects like handmade pottery, which could not be matched by mass-produced items from abroad.

The legacy of Tokugawa Japan

When Tokugawa Japan opened its borders to the world, Western influence quickly eroded its culture and way of life. In the decades since, this trend has only continued.

Modern Japan is highly Westernized, with a culture influenced by American society, music and television. Even their language has been influenced by the West, with many English words and commercial slogans entering the Japanese vernacular.

But at the same time, many traditional elements from Tokugawa Japan have managed to survive this process. Traditional artforms, like woodblock prints and haiku poetry, are still celebrated throughout the country. Overall, the modern country has struck a balance between Western modernity and Tokugawa-inspired tradition.

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