If we told you this was a story about a nation trying to close its borders and reduce foreign influence, you would be forgiven for thinking that this is a news article about a certain country south of the Canadian border.

However, this story goes back a bit further—almost 400 years further to be exact. This is the story of Japan under the Tokugawa shogunate. Specifically, under the rule of the third shogun, Tokugawa Iemitsu.

Shoguns were originally the highest military leaders in Japan, and the title was awarded by the Emperor himself. However, Shoguns eventually became the military dictators of Japan, virtually ruling the country for stretches of time between 1185 and 1868. Iemitsu ruled Japan from 1623 to 1651 and during this period, he enacted a series of edicts in an attempt to close the borders of Japan to foreign pressure and control.

Tokugawa Iemitsu – By 投稿者がファイル作成 – ブレイズマン Public Domain

During the time Iemitsu ruled, Europeans were considered the “bad hombres” in Japan. They had powerful weapons and were travelling the world with colonization on their minds.

The Spanish conquest of the Philippines was recent enough to still cause concern for expansionist attitudes, and Christian Missionaries were making their way East, trying to spread Christianity and replace local religions and beliefs.

The popularity of European trade goods was another cause for concern—especially because some trade ships were thought to smuggle in missionaries; and let’s not even get started on the potential for the spread of plague and pestilence like smallpox.

This generated a lot of worry, and Iemitsu tried to put a stop to the advance of Western culture. He did not use a wall, but instead used a series of edicts starting in 1633—the most well-known being the Sakoku Edict.

In Japanese, Sakoku literally means closed country. However, when it comes to closing the borders of his country, Iemitsu didn’t start with a silly immigration ban, he went all-in. Here are a few examples of what was covered in the Sakoku Edict:

  • Japanese ships are strictly forbidden to leave for foreign countries.
  • No Japanese is permitted to go abroad. If there is anyone who attempts to do so secretly, he must be executed. The ship so involved must be impounded and its owner arrested, and the matter must be reported to the higher authority.
  • If any Japanese returns from overseas after residing there, he must be put to death.
  • All incoming ships must be carefully searched for the followers of the priests.

As part of the rules of these edicts, trade was heavily regulated and permitted to occur in only certain ports, Japanese ships were forbidden from going abroad, and Christian priests could be tortured into renouncing their religion or killed. The story of one of these priests was recently turned into a movie, Silence, by Martin Scorsese.

While the Sakoku Edict itself was proclaimed in 1635, the Shogun’s views on Christian beliefs and actions were reinforced in 1637 when mostly Christian rebel peasants—with the aid of rōnin (master-less samurai)—rose up in the Shimabara Rebellion .

I wonder how you say, “I told you so” in Japanese.

Map of the Siege at Hara Castle – one of the main battles of the rebellion. Image: Public Domain.

The impact of the edicts

The isolation of Japan did not pre-date the arrival of foreigners. In fact, prior to the edicts, foreign contact between Japan and other countries was quite extensive, with trade occurring between China, Korea, and many of the major European powers.

Commerce was quite popular, and items such as eyeglasses, clocks, firearms, and artillery were in high demand. When the Sakoku Edict was introduced, however, it led to Japan closing its doors to all European powers (except the Dutch), and limiting the influence of other nations.

And the edicts didn’t stop in 1635. The Sakoku edict was neither the first nor the last of them. The concept of a closed country was continuously evolving, as shown by the 1639 Exclusion of the Portuguese edict.

Unfortunately, the exclusion of much foreign contact was a detriment to the Japanese, as it contributed to a lag when competing with Western powers technologically. However, the long period of isolationism could also be considered a contributor to Japan’s unique and fascinating culture.

The end of the edicts

The “closed country” edicts of Japan stayed in force for 220 years, isolating Japan from much of the world around them. The edicts ended in 1852 when the overwhelming power of the US navy, under Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry (not the actor from Friends), effectively forced the Japanese to open their markets and resume contact with the Western world with the Convention of Kanagawa.

Now the world is free to take advantage of and enjoy many Japanese exports such as auto parts, motor vehicles, semi-conductors and steel—not to mention animation, fashion, and food!


Cover image: Inside the tomb of shogun Iemitsu in Nikko. Photo from the book “Japan And Japanese” (1902)