japan closes its doors to the world -- 6/09/22

Today's encore selection -- from A Short History of The World by Christopher Lascelles. For more than 200 years, Japan succeeded in closing its doors to the world:

"While Europeans were busy exploring the world, the Japanese were being forbidden to travel outside their country unless accompanying an army. In the 16th century, Japan had only just emerged from a lengthy period of anarchy and civil war, in which military governors -- or Shoguns -- managed the country in the name of the emperor. Under the last and most powerful Shogunate -- founded by Tokugawa Ieyasu in 1603, and based in the city of Edo (present-day Tokyo) -- Japan enjoyed some 250 years of peace.

"The Portuguese had been the first Europeans to visit Japan in 1543. They were followed by other Europeans who were successful in introducing trade and Christianity to the islands, not to mention firearms. However, fearing military conquest by the Europeans and considering them a potential threat, the Japanese expelled them in the early 17th century. By 1635, Japanese citizens were forbidden from leaving the country, and those already abroad were not permitted back. In 1641, all trade with Europeans was limited to the port of Nagasaki, all foreign books were banned, and the country effectively locked out foreign interference for the next 200 years. ...

"The Tokugawa shogunate oversaw a period of relative peace for the country, but a growth in population and a number of natural disasters in the 19th century led to increasing unrest. Having witnessed China's treatment by the West, the Japanese had sought to protect themselves against foreign interference by isolating themselves. Nevertheless, as had happened with China, trade was forced upon them, in this instance by the Americans.

Emperor Meiji moving from Kyoto to Tokyo, end of 1868, as imagined by Le Monde Illustre

"In 1853 a heavily armed American fleet sailed into Tokyo Bay, and forced the country to abide by the trade terms it stipulated. 'The ignominy of these terms led directly to the collapse of 700 years of shogun rule, and to the emperor's restoration to the Japanese throne in 1868. 'The period came to be known as 'the Meiji restoration', or period of enlightened government. Despite attempts by traditional isolationists to prevent any change to the status quo, huge efforts were made to modernise and industrialise the country so that it could regain its independence from the Europeans and Americans.

"Where China failed, Japan succeeded: universal conscription was introduced, with the Samurai replaced by a regularly conscripted army modelled on that of the Prussians. The British navy served as the model for the new Japan's new navy. Japanese scholars were sent abroad to study Western science; railways were built, and a European-style parliament was introduced. Class distinctions were abolished, education was improved, and Western dress was adopted. Within a few decades, the country succeeded in turning itself from an agrarian and feudal society into a powerful industrialised nation -- one which, to everybody's surprise, succeeded in defeating both China and Russia in two wars at the turn of the century."

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Christopher Lascelles


A Short History of the World


Crux Publishing Ltd.


Copyright 2011 Christopher Lascelles


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