Sakoku (鎖国, "locked country") was the isolationist foreign policy of the Japanese Tokugawa shogunate under which, for a period of 214 years during the Edo period (from 1603 to 1868), relations and trade between Japan and other countries were severely limited, and nearly all foreign nationals were barred from entering Japan, while common Japanese people were kept from leaving the country.
The policy was enacted by the shogunate government (or bakufu (幕府)) under Tokugawa Iemitsu through a number of edicts and policies from 1633 to 1639, and ended after 1853 when the American Black Ships commanded by Matthew C. Perry forced the opening of Japan to American (and, by extension, Western) trade through a series of treaties, called the Convention of Kanagawa.
It was preceded by a period of largely unrestricted trade and widespread piracy. Japanese mariners and merchants traveled Asia, sometimes forming Nihonmachi communities in certain cities, while official embassies and envoys visited Asian states, New Spain (known as Mexico since the early 19th century), and Europe. This period was also noted for a large number of foreign traders and pirates who were resident in Japan and active in Japanese waters.
The term sakoku originates from the manuscript work Sakoku-ron (鎖国論) written by Japanese astronomer and translator Shizuki Tadao in 1801. Shizuki invented the word while translating the works of the 17th-century German traveller Engelbert Kaempfer concerning Japan.
Japan was not completely isolated under the sakoku policy. Sakoku was a system in which strict regulations were placed on commerce and foreign relations by the shogunate and certain feudal domains (han). There was extensive trade with China through the port of Nagasaki, in the far west of Japan, with a residential area for the Chinese. The policy stated that the only European influence permitted was the Dutch factory at Dejima in Nagasaki. Western scientific, technical and medical innovations flowed into Japan through Rangaku ("Dutch learning"). Trade with Korea through the Joseon Tongsinsa was limited to the Tsushima Domain (today part of Nagasaki Prefecture). Trade with the Ainu people was limited to the Matsumae Domain in Hokkaidō, and trade with the Ryūkyū Kingdom took place in Satsuma Domain (present-day Kagoshima Prefecture). Apart from these direct commercial contacts in peripheral provinces, trading countries sent regular missions to the shōgun in Edo and at Osaka Castle.
During the sakoku period, Japan traded with five entities, through four "gateways". The largest was the private Chinese trade at Nagasaki (who also traded with the Ryūkyū Kingdom), where the Dutch East India Company was also permitted to operate. The Matsumae clan domain in Hokkaidō (then called Ezo) traded with the Ainu people. Through the Sō clan daimyō of Tsushima, there were relations with Joseon-dynasty Korea. Ryūkyū, a semi-independent kingdom for nearly all of the Edo period, was controlled by the Shimazu clan daimyō of Satsuma Domain. Tashiro Kazui has shown that trade between Japan and these entities was divided into two kinds: Group A in which he places China and the Dutch, "whose relations fell under the direct jurisdiction of the Bakufu at Nagasaki" and Group B, represented by the Korean Kingdom and the Ryūkyū Kingdom, "who dealt with Tsushima (the Sō clan) and Satsuma (the Shimazu clan) domains respectively".
Many items traded from Japan to Korea and the Ryūkyū Kingdom were eventually shipped to China. In the Ryūkyū Islands and Korea, the clans in charge of trade built trading towns outside Japanese territory where commerce actually took place. Due to the necessity for Japanese subjects to travel to and from these trading posts, this resembled something of an outgoing trade, with Japanese subjects making regular contact with foreign traders in essentially extraterritorial land. Commerce with Chinese and Dutch traders in Nagasaki took place on an island called Dejima, separated from the city by a narrow strait; foreigners could not enter Nagasaki from Dejima, nor could Japanese civilians enter Dejima without special permission or authorization. For the island's inhabitants, conditions on Dejima were humiliating; the police of Nagasaki could harass them at will, and at all times a strong Japanese guard was stationed on the narrow bridge to the mainland in order to prevent them from leaving the island.
Trade-in fact prospered during the sakoku period, and though relations and trade were restricted to certain ports, the country was far from closed. In fact, even as the shogunate expelled the Portuguese, they simultaneously engaged in discussions with Dutch and Korean representatives to ensure that the overall volume of trade did not suffer. Thus, it has become increasingly common in scholarship in recent decades to refer to the foreign relations policy of the period not as sakoku, implying a totally secluded, isolated, and "closed" country, but by the term kaikin (海禁, "maritime prohibitions") used in documents at the time, and derived from the similar Chinese concept haijin.
No Japanese ship ... nor any native of Japan, shall presume to go out of the country; whoever acts contrary to this, shall die, and the ship with the crew and goods aboard shall be sequestered until further orders. All persons who return from abroad shall be put to death. Whoever discovers a Christian priest shall have a reward of 400 to 500 sheets of silver and for every Christian in proportion. All Namban (Portuguese and Spanish) who propagate the doctrine of the Catholics, or bear this scandalous name, shall be imprisoned in the Onra, or common jail of the town. The whole race of the Portuguese with their mothers, nurses and whatever belongs to them, shall be banished to Macao. Whoever presumes to bring a letter from abroad, or to return after he hath been banished, shall die with his family; also whoever presumes to intercede for him, shall be put to death. No nobleman nor any soldier shall be suffered to purchase anything from the foreigner.
It is conventionally regarded that the shogunate imposed and enforced the sakoku policy in order to remove the colonial and religious influence of primarily Spain and Portugal, which were perceived as posing a threat to the stability of the shogunate and to peace in the archipelago. The increasing number of Catholic converts in southern Japan (mainly Kyūshū) was a significant element of that which was seen as a threat. Based on work conducted by Japanese historians in the 1970s, some scholars have challenged this view, believing it to be only a partial explanation of political reality.
Before the Tokugawa, Toyotomi Hideyoshi had previously begun to turn against the European missionaries after the Spanish conquest of the Philippines began, and the gradual progress of the Spanish there led to increasing hostility from the Tokugawa as well.
The motivations for the gradual strengthening of the maritime prohibitions during the early 17th century should be considered within the context of the Tokugawa bakufu's domestic agenda. One element of this agenda was to acquire sufficient control over Japan's foreign policy so as not only to guarantee social peace, but also to maintain Tokugawa supremacy over the other powerful lords in the country, particularly the tozama daimyō. These daimyō had used East Asian trading linkages to profitable effect during the Sengoku period, which allowed them to build up their military strength as well. By restricting the ability of the daimyō to trade with foreign ships coming to Japan or pursue trade opportunities overseas, the Tokugawa bakufu could ensure none would become powerful enough to challenge the bakufu's supremacy. This is consistent with the generally agreed rationale for the Tokugawa bakufu's implementation of the system of alternate attendance, or sankin-kōtai.
Directing trade predominantly through Nagasaki, which came under Toyotomi Hideyoshi's control in 1587, would enable the bakufu, through taxes and levies, to bolster its own treasury. This was no small matter, as lack of wealth had limited both the preceding Kamakura bakufu and the Muromachi bakufu in crucial ways. The focus on the removal of Western and Christian influence from the Japanese archipelago as the main driver of the kaikin could be argued to be a somewhat eurocentric reading of Japanese history, although it is a common perception.
Nevertheless, Christianity and the two colonial powers it was most strongly associated with were seen as genuine threats by the Tokugawa bakufu. Once the remnants of the Toyotomi clan had been defeated in 1615, Tokugawa Hidetada turned his attention to the sole remaining credible challenge to Tokugawa supremacy. Religious challenges to central authority were taken seriously by the bakufu as ecclesiastical challenges by armed Buddhist monks were common during the sengoku period. The Empress Meishō (1624–96) also had grave doubts when she heard about how the Spanish and Portuguese were settling in the New World, and thought that Japan would soon become one of the many countries in their possession.
Protestant English and Dutch traders reinforced this perception by accusing the Spanish and Portuguese missionaries of spreading the religion systematically, as part of a claimed policy of culturally dominating and colonizing Asian countries. The Dutch and English were generally seen by the Japanese to be able to separate religion and trade, while their Iberian counterparts were looked upon with much suspicion. The Dutch, eager to take over trade from the Spanish and Portuguese, had no problems reinforcing this view. The number of Christians in Japan had been steadily rising due to the efforts of missionaries, such as Francis Xavier and daimyō converts. The direct trigger which is said to have spurred the imposition of sakoku was the Shimabara Rebellion of 1637–38, an uprising of 40,000 mostly Christian peasants. In the aftermath, the shogunate accused missionaries of instigating the rebellion expelled them from the country, and strictly banned the religion on penalty of death. The remaining Japanese Christians, mostly in Nagasaki, formed underground communities and came to be called Kakure Kirishitan.
All contact with the outside world became strictly regulated by the shogunate, or by the domains (Tsushima, Matsumae, and Satsuma) assigned to the task. Dutch traders were permitted to continue commerce in Japan only by agreeing not to engage in missionary activities. Today, the Christian percentage of the population (1%) in Japan remains far lower than in other East Asian countries such as China (3%), Vietnam (7%) and South Korea (29%).
The sakoku policy was also a way of controlling commerce between Japan and other nations, as well as asserting its new place in the East Asian hierarchy. The Tokugawa had set out to create their own small-scale international system where Japan could continue to access the trade in essential commodities such as medicines, and gain access to essential intelligence about happenings in China while avoiding having to agree to a subordinate status within the Chinese tributary system.
Japan's generally constructive official diplomatic relationship with Joseon Korea allowed regular embassies (Tongsinsa) to be dispatched by Korea to Japan. Together with the brisk trade between Tsushima and Korea, as well as the presence of Japanese in Pusan, Japan was able to access Chinese cultural, intellectual and technological developments throughout the Edo period. At the time of the promulgation of the strictest versions of the maritime prohibitions, the Ming dynasty had lost control of much of China and it was unnecessary, and perhaps undesirable, for Japan to pursue official diplomatic relations with either of the Ming or the Qing governments while the issue of imperial legitimacy was unsettled.
Japan was able to acquire the imported goods it required through intermediary trade with the Dutch and through the Ryukyu Islands. The Japanese actually encouraged the Ryūkyū Kingdom's rulers to maintain a tributary relationship with China, even though the Shimazu clan had surreptitiously established great political influence in the Ryukyu Islands. The Qing became much more open to trade after it had defeated the Ming loyalists in Taiwan, and thus Japan's rulers felt even less need to establish official relations with China.
Liberalizing challenges to sakoku came from within Japan's elite in the 18th century, but they came to nothing. Later on, the sakoku policy was the main safeguard against the total depletion of Japanese mineral resources—such as silver and copper—to the outside world. However, while silver exportation through Nagasaki was controlled by the shogunate to the point of stopping all exportation, the exportation of silver through Korea continued in relatively high quantities.
The way Japan kept abreast of Western technology during this period was by studying medical and other texts in the Dutch language obtained through Dejima. This developed into a blossoming field in the late 18th century which was known as Rangaku (Dutch studies). It became obsolete after the country was opened and the sakoku policy collapsed. Thereafter, many Japanese students (e.g., Kikuchi Dairoku) were sent to study in foreign countries, and many foreign employees were employed in Japan (see o-yatoi gaikokujin).
Many isolated attempts to end Japan's seclusion were made by expanding Western powers during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. American, Russian and French ships all attempted to engage in a relationship with Japan but were rejected.
These largely unsuccessful attempts continued until, on July 8, 1853, Commodore Matthew Perry of the U.S. Navy with four warships: Mississippi, Plymouth, Saratoga, and Susquehanna steamed into the Bay of Edo (Tokyo) and displayed the threatening power of his ships' Paixhans guns. He demanded that Japan open to trade with the West. These ships became known as the kurofune, the Black Ships.
The following year, at the Convention of Kanagawa (March 31, 1854), Perry returned with eight ships and forced the Shogun to sign the "Treaty of Peace and Amity", establishing formal diplomatic relations between Japan and the United States. The United Kingdom signed the Anglo-Japanese Friendship Treaty at the end of 1854.
Between 1852 and 1855, Admiral Yevfimiy Putyatin of the Russian Navy made several attempts to obtain from the Shogun favourable trade terms for Russia. In June 1853, he brought to Nagasaki Bay a letter from the Foreign Minister Karl Nesselrode and demonstrated to Tanaka Hisashige a steam engine, probably the first ever seen in Japan. His efforts culminated in the signing of the Treaty of Shimoda in February 1855.
Within five years, Japan had signed similar treaties with other western countries. The Harris Treaty was signed with the United States on July 29, 1858. These "Ansei Treaties" were widely regarded by Japanese intellectuals as unequal, having been forced on Japan through gunboat diplomacy, and as a sign of the West's desire to incorporate Japan into the imperialism that had been taking hold of the continent. Among other measures, they gave the Western nations unequivocal control of tariffs on imports and the right of extraterritoriality to all their visiting nationals. They would remain a sticking point in Japan's relations with the West up to the turn of the 20th century.
Several missions were sent abroad by the Bakufu, in order to learn about Western civilization, revise treaties, and delay the opening of cities and harbours to foreign trade.
In the 1861 Tsushima Incident, a Russian fleet tried to force open a harbour not officially opened to foreign trade with foreign countries, but it was repelled with the help of the British.