The Sakoku Years of Japan

The 17th to the 19th century saw Japan adopting a policy that isolated the whole country from the outside world. This long period of national isolation was called sakoku.  During sakoku no Japanese could leave the country on penalty of death, and very few foreign nationals were permitted to enter and trade with Japan.  Sakoku literally meant “chained country.”

Sakoku (鎖国) was a policy enacted by the Tokugawa shogunate (the last feudal Japanese military government)  under Tokugawa Iemitsu through several policies and edicts from 1633 to 1639 and had remained effective until 1853 when the Perry Expedition forcibly opened  Japan to Western trade. The rationale of the shogunate  behind the implementation of sakoku in Japan was to remove any religious and colonial influence, primarily from Portugal and Spain, considered a threat to the shogunate. Japan strictly traded with only five entities from four gateways:

Commodore_Perry's_second_fleet

Matsumae Domain – located in Hokkaido, formerly known as Ezo, traded with the Ainu people.

Sō clan daimyo of Tsushima – had trade relations with Joseon Dynasty Korea.

Dutch East India Company – was permitted to trade in Nagasaki along with private Chinese traders.

Ryūkyū Kingdom – controlled by the Shimazu family daimyo of Satsuma Domain.

Commodore Perry’s second fleet. 

Dutch_tribute_embassy_to_EdoTrading between these entities was further divided in two: Group A included the Dutch and Chinese who fell under the jurisdiction of the Bafuku in Nagasaki, Group B included the Kingdoms of Korea and  Ryūkyū which dealt with the Satsuma (the Shimazu clan) and the  Tsushima (the Sō clan) domains.

Dutch tribute embassy to Edo. | Engelbert Kaempfer

The Convention of Kanagawa on 31 March 1854 established formal diplomatic relations between Japan  and the United States when Commodore Matthew Perry had the Shogun sign the Treaty of Peace and Amity. The United Kingdom also signed the Anglo-Japanese Friendship Treaty at the end of 1854, followed by treaties with other countries in the next few years.

The sakoku period is now a part of Japanese history, but the Hirado Dutch Trading House established by the Dutch East India Company dating back to 1609 is a reminder of the time when Japan closed its doors to the Westerners. It was once the only trading base that linked Japan to the West. There are a dozen buildings in this historical site. One of them is a stone warehouse considered the very first Western building in Japan, now a museum open to the public. The Hirado Dutch Trading House remains a lasting testament to the proud culture and history of the Japanese.

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Hirado Dutch Trading House. | 陳 ポーハン