Essay: Japan in Isolation
Tags: Japanese History
The problem question being dealt with is “To what extent was Tokugawa Japan’s policy of isolation a benefit or drawback when examined in terms of social stability, treatment of foreign influences, and standard of living?” The benefits of isolation when looked at by the subject of social stability are numerous. The social stability of Japan during isolation was something to be looked at upon with great respect. Isolation gave Japan stability and internal solidarity at a time when these factors were urgently needed. Under the new system of Tokugawa merchants were at the bottom however, encouraged by the availability of money, they bought, sold, traded and developed a new system of credit and became wealthy. Also during this time of isolation businesses created new farms and mines that strengthened the growing national economy. Finally enterprising farmers who produced a surplus could sell their excess for coin, invest in more land, and grow cash crops like cotton and tobacco.
There were some drawbacks of the isolation on the social stability of Japan. Ironically, as Japan became increasingly sealed off, the rest of the world was being opened up to an unprecedented interchange of goods and ideas on comprehensive scale. The rate of social and technological change and development in the West grew dramatically in the two centuries after 1640. In Japan, the rate of change the rate of change was deliberately slowed down by the Tokugawa policy. When Japan reopened its doors after 1853, there was much ground to make up, but the skilled, hard working population was in a strong position to close the gap rapidly.
The second criteria for the isolation of Japan are the treatment of foreign influences. Japan was not open to any foreign influences during their period isolation, except for the Netherlands. Some benefits did arise from this, one of the most noted is the perfection of the sword in Japan. The Japanese samurai voluntarily gave up the use of firearms, even after Japanese craftsman had advanced the use of matchlocks (a type of gun). They decided that it was dishonorable to use firearms in combat. Traditional weapons regained their importance. Japan made the best swords in the world. Tests done in the twentieth century showed a Japanese blade cut a European sword and even cut through the barrel of a machine gun.
The drawbacks of the isolation when concerning foreign influences are also apparent as well. Christianity was a very disputed topic among the Japanese before isolation took place. The Catholic missionaries came to be regarded as agents of foreign powers. In 1613, leyasu decreed that all missionaries had to leave Japan and that all Japanese Christians had to join a Buddhist sect and prove they had genuinely switched faiths. There were repeated deportations of missionaries from Japan and repeated incidents of oppression of believers up to 1687. The Exclusion Acts of the 1630’s included the prohibition of overseas voyages and restrictions on trade. Those living abroad were considered corrupted and not allowed to return. Meanwhile, in 1637a bloody revolution of Christian peasants in Nagasaki, which was brutally crushed, hastened the policy of isolation. Finally another drawback of isolation and the treatment of foreign influences was with no new ideas entering from foreign countries it set them apart and Japan fell behind excessively in technological discoveries. Instead of advancing they digressed.
The final criteria that will be looked at is the standard of living in Japan during the period of isolation. There were some great benefits that came along with this plan of isolation for the standard of living, one of them is the fact that with the extra money farmers were making off of other extra crops they could grow cash crops such as tobacco and cotton. With this the farmer could now afford extras like sake (rice wine), fashionable clothes and other previously unattainable luxuries. There were also some Social-climbing merchants who had money and paid to become adopted by a samurai family.
There were also some drawbacks to this plan of isolation by Japan when regarding standards of living. For instance it was the samurai who were most drastically affected by Tokugawa peace and stability. The cherished principles of loyalty, simple living, and honor had previously enriched their high social status, but these were earned in a time of war. Peace undermined these virtues. With no major wars to fight, the samurai became listless. Since their wages were fixed at a time when prices were rising, their money bought less. Only the samurai could carry two swords as a sign of distinction, but this did not always compensate for financial distress. As the daimyo who paid them, the samurai spent lavishly, borrowed exceedingly, and fell into dept.
In conclusion even with the major drawbacks that did occur during this time of isolation it is certain that the benefits were more substantial to Japan’s well being as a nation and for the well being of the residents who lived there.