Sakoku, Tokugawa Policy, and the Interpretation of Japanese History

Prof. Louis M. Cullen (Trinity College, Dublin)

Lecture 2004-02-16
Venue: Embassy of Ireland Residence

Once again we enjoyed the lavish hospitality of the Irish ambassador, H.E. Mr. Pádraig Murphy, for what was an all-Irish evening, as our speaker was Prof. Louis M. Cullen, professor emeritus of Modern Irish History, Trinity College, Dublin. He had taken as his subject "Sakoku, Tokugawa Policy, and the Interpretation of Japanese History", and spoke with the ease of a man who was a master of his subject, although, as he said, his interest in it had only come about through a chance contact.

There was a certain advantage, Prof. Cullen said, in coming from a different background of study, as he was able to contrast the situation in Japan and Europe. By 1700 there was a highly developed bureaucracy in Europe, with documents surviving in toto. The situation in Japan was very different. Many source documents from that period had been lost, or existed only thanks to haphazard copying into nikki, the diaries of private persons, which were handed down in their families where their preservation was a matter of luck. So Western historians of the sakoku were faced with many gaps, which were often filled by recourse to stereotyping and repeating the views expressed by earlier writers. This stereotyping began around 1820, when the West wished seriously to challenge Japan's sakoku, and much of it was based on Kaempfer, whose comments on this policy written after reflection in Europe were more positive than those he recorded in Japan at the time. The initial negative view of Japan was further exacerbated by the lack of sympathy for the Tokugawa era shown by the Meiji regime, which used the word Bakufu as a term of abuse for what was, in fact, a complex civil administration. An even more negative slant was added in the inter-war years of the last century by the progressive spread of the Marxist approach to history, which remained dominant in Japanese universities until its exponents retired. Ironically, their characterization of the age as one of poverty, oppression and unrest was also reinforced by American postwar historians, who, for Cold War purposes, wished to emphasize the capitalistic modernization process carried out in Meiji times.

A whole mythology about obsessive secrecy in Tokugawa Japan arose: maps were not to be shown to foreigners, the metsuke were spies, foreigners were prevented from getting to know Japanese. In reality, maps were readily shown to foreigners, and the refusal to let von Siebold (an unpleasant man) use a certain map was a special case. The metsuke were senior officials with the responsibility of watching out for subversive movements. True, the heads of the foreign communities changed every year, and so had little contact with Japanese, but those in lower positions stayed on. A man like Titsingh got on well with his counterparts, whom he treated as equals, and commented that many foreigners did not try to learn about Japan.

There were two remarkable leaders in the Tokugawa period. The first was the eighth shogun, Yoshimune (1716-45). He had had administrative experience as a daimyo, and created statistics of trade and population. He encouraged scientific thought, and Dutch studies flourished from the mid 18th century onwards. Government passed from the hands of the shogun to a council of rōjū, the chief of whom was virtually the Prime Minister, among whom Matsudaira Sadanobu, a grandson of Yoshinobu (in office 1787-93), stands out particularly. He organized a system of defence and followed a policy of avoiding confrontation with Russia. He also created a think tank of advisers from among the Hayashi family of Confucian scholars.

Sakoku itself was a defensible policy as long as it was realistic. However, from the 1790s the Russians sought trade, and the French and British launched surveying missions. The learning of these languages became important, and in 1811 the Bansho-wage-goyō (Office for Translating Foreign Books) was set up in Edo under Baba Sajūrō, the brightest star in the Nagasaki Dutch interpreter corps, who had also mastered English and French. When English-speaking whalers began to appear on the scene in the 1820s, the standard questions put to foreign sailors in Dutch were translated by Baba into halting English. These phrases set out the prohibition on coming to Japan, offered fuel, water and food, and instructed the visitors to leave without further delay and not come back. Surprisingly, the whalers did disappear from Japanese waters for a time, and it was not until after 1844 that foreign vessels became numerous. By that time, the main interpreter, Moriyama, had learned English from Ranald MacDonald who had been a castaway in the late 1840s.

The famous uchi harai policy (firing on and expelling foreign vessels) decreed in 1807 was at first confined to Russian vessels, but was extended to all European vessels in 1825. When it was seen that such actions could prove provocative, the policy was amended in 1842 to admit of succour to the crews of vessels in distress. If the crews remained aboard their vessels there was no problem; but what if they came ashore -- were they infiltrators? This dilemma was a matter of constant debate.

When the real challenge came in 1853 and 1854, the Japanese were surprisingly well equipped to deal with it. First, they had had fifty years of preparation for this confrontation, and had gained knowledge of the outside world and studied the political organizations of the West. Second, they were the equals of the outsiders in negotiating. Third , there was no division of opinion on principle (no-one wanted to open up the country) but only on whether Japan would be able to hold its own if war was declared as a result of their refusing concessions. The point at issue was whether Japan should face the threat as a unitary state under the shogun or as a confederation of han. There was a division between the fudai daimyo who supported the shogun, and the tozama daimyo such as Tokugawa Nariaki of Mito, which led to a fluctuation in shogunal policy.

The Japanese public sphere is at first hard to comprehend, because, in contrast to Europe, all business was private; in other words, there was no public sphere. In the West, official documents were carefully filed and kept in the offices of ministers and high officials; sensitive documents were marked 'secret', and copying was done only when explicitly authorized. In Japan, there was ceaseless copying of documents into nikki, and many sensitive documents were kept separately from the files of kanjō bugyō officials; in Nagasaki, for example, they were kept by the 'colleges' of Chinese and Japanese interpreters. Another contrast with Europe was that Japanese civil servants were prominent, not hiding anonymously behind their ministers; also officials were regularly rotated from one area of responsibility to another. it was not until the 1860s that a shift began towards Western-style bureaucracy; ministries were gradually established, beginning with the Gaimusho.

The result is that modern historians have to rely heavily on nikki, and not only the originals but the multiple copies made at the time. Where large collections of Tokugawa administrative documents have been amassed, as at Nagasaki, it is frequently impossible to distinguish between the originals which had once lain in the bugyōsho and copies made and held privately. Many of these were simply thrown away, or even sold to waste paper recyclers, but fortunately there were private individuals who saw the antiquarian value of these papers and salvaged a huge corpus of materials on which later research could be based.

Prof. Cullen answered a number of questions, the first of which was "Where did the stability of the Tokugawa policy come from?" This was a central question which still needed research especially into the 17th and 18th centuries, since in Japanese history the system was fluid, people did not usually remain in office for long, and there was a great deal of factionalism. It was to ease the rift in the Tokugawa ranks, when the opening up of Japan was imminent, that Prime Minister Abe Masahiro handed over to Hotta Masayoshi in 1885. Japanese officialdom is still different, as the bureaucratic structure is less single-minded and the factionalism continues.

A retired Japanese diplomat asked if the present government could learn from the past in the manner of having the various groups of officials in nearby rooms so that interaction was easy; was this the basis for the Meiji Restoration? Prof. Cullen opined that at that time the small print became important, and there was a greater interest in petty detail.

Another questioner mentioned that Britain and Japan were the first industrialized nations in their regions; was this because both had had feudal systems that provided a basis of law and order? Prof. Cullen said that the pre-industrial revolution system had not been feudal; but that Japan still has a bakufu.

A final question, brief and to the point, invited Prof. Cullen to name Western historians of the Sakoku period of whom he approved. The reply was that all were at fault, some were more generous than others. Marius Jansen was the most interesting. Most see the West as special but Japan as not special in its own right. The view from a small country was different: the Western influence on the countries of Africa and Asia had been disastrous; and the Japanese had made the same mistake when they imitated imperialism.

The meeting closed with a vote of thanks proposed by Dr. Beatrice Bodart-Bailey, who observed first that historians of Japan tended to be a closed society, whereas Prof. Cullen had written some excellent books before coming to Japanese studies! She then added some comments based on her own research. For example, all official documents in Japan were handwritten until the coming of computers, whereas in the West they had long been printed as a matter of course. Further, as Japan is a land prone to natural disasters, records were constantly being destroyed, even when they were kept in special bunko-kura, so that it was purely a matter of chance as to which documents had been preserved.

After the meeting, the assembled company lingered on for the best part of two hours to enjoy the ambassador's hospitality and to deepen acquaintance.