The Shogun’s reluctant ambassadors

March 1839: the Japanese cargo ship Cho-ja maru, dismasted and without her rudder, wallows in the Pacific shortly before her surviving crew were picked up by the American whaler James Loper. Artist unknown; Sonkei Archives, Tokyo

When Matthew Perry sailed his squadron of warships into Edo Bay in July 1853 – and compelled the local authorities, under threat of bombardment, to accept a trade treaty with the United States – Japan had been a closed society for well over two centuries. Under the policy known as Sakoku (“locking the country”), practically all trade with the outside world had been strictly prohibited. Christianity was banned, foreigners already in Japan were expelled, and others were forbidden, on pain of death, from entering imperial territory. The Japanese, similarly, were not permitted to leave. For 220 years, the country remained almost entirely isolated, mostly peaceful, and profoundly mysterious and alluring to outsiders.

Whatever the reasons for Japan’s self-imposed seclusion – they are all too frequently reduced to fear of fast-encroaching Christianity, though inevitably they were quite a bit more complex than that [Boxer pp.308-400; Eiichi pp.21-58] – Sakoku produced peculiar results. Japan’s only formal foreign relations were with Korea; strictly limited trade was carried on, but the only westerners allowed anywhere on Japanese territory were the Dutch, and they were favoured largely because, being Calvinists, they had no interest in converting anyone to their religion. Dutch traders, in turn, were restricted to a single “factory,” or base, located on an island just off Nagasaki and chosen to ensure that there could be no easy intercourse with the locals. A few Japanese, specially trained to act as interpreters, had access to the factory, and one or two Dutch merchants, on special occasions, travelled to Edo, the capital, in palanquins. But all but a tiny handful of Japanese had never seen a European and had no access to western thoughts or ideas. Dutch woollen cloth (the principal import) was scarce and hence fashionable and highly sought-after. For the most part, however, it was easy for the Japanese to believe that their visitors were very different to them – indeed, quite possibly, not human:

Most Japanese regarded foreigners (and particularly Europeans) as a special variety of goblin that bore only superficial resemblance to a normal human being. The usual name given to the Dutch was komo or “red hairs,” a name intended more to suggest a demonic being than to describe the actual coloring of the foreigners’ hair. The Portuguese had also at one time been declared by the shogunate to possess “cat’s eyes, huge noses, red hair and shrike’s-tongues” … More