井の中の蛙

12/11/2004

Successful Sakoku?

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 2:55 am

Talking about the semi-seclusion policies of the Tokugawa polity in class recently, and a student asked “was it a successful policy?” I had already outlined the various exceptions: foreigners allowed into Japan (Dutch, Chinese, Korean); Japanese allowed out and back in again (And I note that Michael Wood is leading the students, who presented in the summer at ASPAC, to the AAS this spring, bringing their fascinating material to a wider audience); limited trade contacts, and information flows. The question was not about whether it was a full seclusion policy, but about whether it accomplished the goals set for it and generally positive results.

I had to stop and think about that. I know that there is some disagreement over the economic implications of trade limitation, but Tokugawa growth is pretty substantial and its hard to argue that it’s a serious problem, even if growth could, theoretically have been greater without serious social problems resulting. The policy certainly is a success — along with investigations and temple registrations — from the standpoint of the suppression of Christianity in Japan, reducing a growing population to a few “hidden Christian” sects. From a cultural standpoint, including science and technology, Japan isn’t much more isolated or xenophobic than China during the same period (and China doesn’t, in the end, come out as well as Japan, so perhaps China would have been better off more isolated) and manages to catch up with the 18-19c military technology pretty quickly when push comes to shove.

Is it a success? Is it a mistake to talk about historical phenomena in those terms?

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