National Isolation (鎖国)

National Isolation ("Sakoku" in Japanese) refers to the policy of seclusion by which the Edo Bakufu (Japanese feudal government headed by a shogun) prohibited Japanese citizens from going abroad, while imposing restrictions on diplomatic exchanges and trade with foreign countries. National isolation also refers to the isolated condition in diplomatic relations resulting from the policy. However, Japan was not absolutely isolated from the world. In other words, Japan's national isolation indicated a regime in which the Bakufu restricted and controlled not only authority of diplomacy, but also controlled trade.

In addition to Japan, countries of East Asia also adopted seclusionism during the same period which was called 'Kaikin.'
Modern historical science tends to use the term 'Kaikin Policy' instead of 'Sakoku' in light of East Asian history.


Tadao SHITSUKI, a Rangakusha (one who studied Western sciences through the Dutch language) in the Edo period, first used the term 'Sakoku' in the book "Sakoku-ron" (literally: "theory of national isolation") written in 1801.

Engelbert KAEMPFER, who had experienced the duty of Edo Sanpu (duty imposed on the curator of the Dutch trading house in Dejima to visit Edo-jo Castle for paying tribute to the Shogun) while staying in Japan, wrote a book titled "The History of Japan" (published in 1712) after he returned home.
A chapter at the end of the book has a title which means 'quite a convincing theory why the Japanese government prohibits its citizens from going abroad and foreigners from entering the country, as well as why Japan severs diplomatic relations with counties worldwide.'
Tadao SHITSUKI translated the title to 'Sakoku-ron.'
While the term 'Sakoku' was newly coined at that time, it was not widely used until the Meiji period.
Since that time, seclusionism in the past was also referred to as 'Sakoku.'
Therefore, in modern times, there is a movement to replace the term 'Sakoku' with 'Kaikin,' the word used for seclusionism used in East Asian countries. As a side note, Engelbert KAEMPFER undoubtedly supported Japan's seclusionism.

The following is a summary of KAEMPFER's book: 'Japan enjoys having a developed industry due to having its own resources and a more diligent nation than other countries; in other words, Japan is rich for its self-sufficiency, and it is reasonable and recommendable for Japan to close the diplomatic door to protect itself from snares of wicked deeds, greed, fraud and wars laid by foreigners without resources.'
Shitsuki newly coined the term 'Sakoku' from this standpoint.


Seclusionism dated back to the era of the Hidetada TOKUGAWA shogunate, accomplished during the era of the Iemitsu TOKUGAWA shogunate, namely in the Kanei era.

In 1616, the Bakufu limited the arrival of ships from abroad to Nagasaki City and Hirado City, excluding those from the Ming Dynasty China.

In 1623, England closed its Hirado trading house.

In 1624, the Bakufu broke diplomatic relations with Spain, prohibiting the arrival of Spanish ships.

In 1631, the Bakufu launched the Hosho-sen system (a system which only allowed ships to trade if they had both a Shuin-jo [shogunate license to trade] and a Hosho [license to trade issued by a Roju--member of shogun's council of elders]). Shuin-sen (a shogunate-licensed trading ship) was requested to carry both Shuin-jo and Roju Hosho (Hosho issued by a Roju).

In 1633, the Bakufu issued the first National Isolation Edict. All ships except Hosho-sen (a trade ship with both Shuin-jo and Hosho) were prohibited from making a passage. In addition, the Bakufu prohibited Japanese nationals living in foreign countries for five years or more from coming home.

In 1634, the Bakufu issued the second National Isolation Edict. A directive was made to renew the first National Isolation Edict.

In 1635, the Bakufu issued the third National Isolation Edict. The Bakufu limited the arrival of ships from abroad, such as China and the Netherlands, to Nagasaki. The Bakufu prohibited Japanese nationals from visiting as well as from returning to Japan.

In 1636, the Bakufu issued the fourth National Isolation Edict. 287 Portuguese, including their families (half-Japanese half-Portuguese children were also contained), whose jobs were irrelevant to trade were banished to Macau. The remaining Portuguese were transferred to Dejima, Nagasaki.

The Shimabara War broke out, lasting two years from 1637 to 1638.

In 1639, the Bakufu issued the fifth National Isolation Edict. The Bakufu prohibited the arrival of Portuguese ships.

In 1640, Portuguese ships came from Macau to ask the Bakufu to resume trade with Portugal. The Bakufu executed 61 members of the envoy.

In 1641, the national isolation system was completed. The Dutch trading house was moved to Dejima.

In 1647, two Portuguese ships came to ask the Bakufu to resume trade with Portugal. The Bakufu refused the request again. Thereafter, Portugal stopped sending ships to Japan.

In 1853, the United States Fleet commanded by Matthew PERRY came to Japan. They demanded the Bakufu open the country to the world and then returned home.

In 1854, Perry came again, resulting in the conclusion of "The Treaty between the United States of America and the Empire of Japan." Japan opened the ports of Shimoda and Hakodate.

After contracting "The Treaty of Amity and Commerce between the United States and Japan" with Townsend HARRIS in 1858, Japan marked the end of a long period of isolation.


Under seclusionism, nongovernmental trade was strictly prohibited, while controlled trade was allowed via the following four routes.

Via Nagasaki trading house--for ships from the Netherlands and China

Via the Tsushima Domain--for ships from Korea

Via the Satsuma Domain--for ships from Ryukyu

Via the Matsumae Domain--for the Ainu tribe
Among these routes, trade with China boasted the highest amount of trade, while trade with the Netherlands was minimal. During this time the Chinese government had not approved trade except for paying tributes to the court, so private Chinese merchants undertook the trading between Japan and China.

Japan initially suffered from a massive outflow of gold and silver due to a drastic trade deficit. The Bakufu then enacted the Kaihakugoshi Shinrei (or the Shotoku-Nagasaki Shinrei) in 1715 in an effort to control the amount of trade.

Trade in Nagasaki then became sluggish.

Incidentally, this ordinance also restricted the number of trading ships annually. To increase the amount of trade as much as possible, it is believed that the tonnage of ships from the Netherlands gradually increased.

Although the Bakufu cracked down on free nongovernmental trade, it is believed that Japanese merchants were actually trading illegally with ships from abroad.

Chosen Tsushinshi (the Korean Emissary); envoys dispatched from The Ryukyu Kingdom to the Edo Bakufu for paying tribute; world information delivered by ships from the Netherlands and world information delivered by ships from the Tang Dynasty - interrogating castaways

Background of the national isolation

After Francis Xavier came to Japan, the number of Christians increased in Kyushu and other regions due to missionaries from Spain and Portugal ardently propagating Christianity, as well as a number of Sengoku daimyo (Japanese territorial lord in the Sengoku period) and feudal lords during the Edo period becoming followers of Christianity.

It is believed that the Edo Bakufu changed its policy to seclusionism after obtaining this information from merchants of Britain and the Netherlands who were aiming to oust Spanish and Portuguese power from Asia, even though the Edo Bakufu during the era of the Ieyasu TOKUGAWA shogunate had positive relations with foreign countries (another theory suggests that Iemitsu was simply a xenophobia.)
Another conceivable reason for the Bakufu's regulation on diplomatic exchanges was the threat posed to the Bakufu by an increase in Japanese having faith in Christianity and their unity.

The critical incident that urged the Bakufu to launch into seclusionism was the Shimabara War in 1637. This war made the Bakufu believe that Christianity might shake the feudal system that was characteristic of the shogunate. The Bakufu then ousted Spain and Portugal from Japan so that missionaries from these countries could never again propagate Christianity. The Dutch East India Company of the Netherlands was the only company permitted to carry out trade in exchange for paying an annual rental fee to use Dejima for 55-kan (obsolete unit of currency/weight; 1 kan = approx. 3.75 kg, 8.3 lb) of silver. Another theory suggests that the permission resulted from the promise the company made to the Bakufu that it would never conduct missionary work.

Another reason for the permission was the fact that it was Catholic Christians that ardently conducted overseas missionary work during those days, so the Bakufu could not find a necessity to oust the Protestant Dutch. Another viewpoint claims that the Bakufu embarked on strengthening its quarantine practices in addition to establishing the Bakufu Seyaku-in (Pharmacy Institution), citing the threat of infectious diseases brought in by foreign ships entering ports in various regions in conditions that were no better than drifting ships.

The Bakufu had to address the crucial problem of medical missionaries using opium. At the time, the use of opium outside of medical purposes was legal in Europe.

Another theory

Japan produced a large amount of gold and silver (especially silver) during this time, using these abundant resources for trade. However, Japan's trade with China showed an overwhelming excess of imports and gold and silver gradually flowed out of Japan. Moreover, inflation (price revolution) on a global scale broke out following the discovery of the New World.

A theory suggests that the inflation resulted in a steep decline in gold and silver holdings, which obliged the Bakufu to close the country. It is uncertain, however, whether or not the Bakufu would be able to learn in such a global background. Several historical materials suggest that the Bakufu had an abundance of information about Northeast Asia, Russia, Southeast Asia, etc. to analyze, despite its seclusionism. This means that the Bakufu had far more knowledge about politics and the global situation than what people today imagine when they think of the Bakufu. At the very least, the Bakufu was uneasy about the knowledge of Russia expanding southward.

Research from a modern standpoint suggests that the Bakufu implemented controlled trade to monopolize profits, which was realized by incorporating the flourishing harbors, such as Dejima in Nagasaki and Sakai, into dominions under direct control of the Bakufu or Daimyo domains of Fudai and Shinpan (hereditary Daimyo and relatives of the Tokugawa family).

Evaluation of the national isolation

The evaluation of 'national isolation' roughly splits into two main arguments. One evaluation of 'national isolation' argues that, outside of exceptional cases, severing relations with foreign countries let Japan form its original culture. Another evaluation, typified by Tetsuro WATSUJI, argues that Japan fell behind the global current because of its inability to introduce technology and culture similar to what was being developed during the Industrial Revolution in Europe (later in the United States as well) due to its prohibition on exchanging with other countries; this not only resulted in the failure of Japan to make a scientific culture permeate throughout the nation (science courses were disregarded), but also became an underlying cause of defeat in the Pacific War.

However, many Asian countries during this time did not have the capability to compete on equal terms with West European countries that had already mastered strong oceanic technology through the Age of Geographical Discovery. If Japan had not strived to eliminate overseas powers by closing the country, it might have become a colony of West European countries similar to Southeast Asia.

The latest research suggests that the Qing Dynasty (the Ming Dynasty) had advanced oceanic technology. However, it is uncertain whether its technology was advanced enough to compete with West European countries on even terms. Some hold to the view that national isolation was indispensable, given the fact that the dynasty later became a half-colonized country. This leads to the sympathetic viewpoint suggesting that national isolation might be the best resistance for undeveloped nations. However, it is difficult to say whether or not this viewpoint can connect national isolation with the reason why Japan did not become a colony of West European countries.

In the first place, an armed clash might have broken out if European countries had a strong desire to colonize Japan, and just because Japan was under 'national isolation' would have had little meaning.

From another critical viewpoint, it is suggested that the Bakufu failed to take adequate measures upon the arrival of the Black Ships due to a lack of knowledge involving diplomatic procedures resulting from excessively severing exchanges with foreign countries, and this resulted in the Bakufu being forced to sign an unequal treaty.

On the other hand, among Asian countries that were not colonized, Japan was the only country in which the study of Europe spread, typified by the Western learning boom observed in and after the 18th century. In China, a Christian missionary group had stayed in Beijing. Due to Sino-centrism embraced by the Chinese, however, the missionaries learned Chinese while only a small number of Chinese studied languages used in European countries. In Korea, only technology was indirectly imported from the West through China.

Despite being under seclusionism, Japan had not closed the country completely, giving people the freedom to learn about the state of affairs of foreign countries as well as the latest studies, excluding Christianity through the Dutch language. This became the basis of Japan's rapid and independent attainment of modernization after the Bakufu opened the country during the end of Edo period.

Moreover, the unification within the country realized by long-lasting peace, as well as the development of industry and finance, was also a basis of its modernization. In addition, a considerable amount of Japanese culture (the Haiku [a Japanese poem in 17 syllables], horticulture, modern Japanese music, Bunraku [Japanese puppet theater], Kabuki [traditional drama performed by male actors], Ukiyoe [Japanese woodblock prints], Netsuke (miniature carving attached to the end of a cord hanging from a pouch), Japanese cuisine, Japanese-style confectionary, ceramic ware, lacquer art, clothing, etc.), which are extolled world wide, started during this period, or developed for establishment.

On the other hand, there is also an opinion that the Japanese government introduced a Europeanization policy (leave Asia, enter Europe) into its culture and its natural features on an such an unprecedented scale due to a backlash against its extended seclusionism, that it layed a foundation for the people of Japan to have an inferior complex to the Caucasian that remains even today.

As the Europeanization policy regarding the culture of Western countries as supreme was promoted, culture evaluated as 'detestable in light of the Caucasian's sense of values' was sometimes abandoned as old-fashioned culture. This has resulted in the Japanese throwing away their original native culture of the sexes on their own and they have lost quite a lot (for instance, some Japanese enjoy Japanese tea ceremony, but no Japanese men make a habit of wearing their hair in a topknot).

During the end of the Edo period, as described by the remarks made by Shonan YOKOI, some people criticized the seclusionism, saying that the policy indicated 'severing contact' not only from foreign countries, but also within each domain.

Yotsu-no-kuchi (The Four Gates)

Seclusionism was a policy by which the Bakufu controlled and managed the authority of trade. Under seclusionism, four gates were opened for foreign countries, which were called Yotsu-no-kuchi.

Nagasaki Gate

Nagasaki was regarded as a shogunal demesne, where trade was carried on under the direct control of the Bakufu.

Tsushima Gate

The So clan in the Tsushima Domain had assumed the role of coordinating the diplomatic exchanges and trade between Japan and Korea since the Medieval period. The Tsushima Domain was allowed to carry authority even during the Edo period, having the honor of coordinating the diplomatic exchanges between the Bakufu and Korea.

Satsuma Gate (Ryukyu Gate)

Having conquered and ruled the Ryukyu Dynasty, the Satsuma Domain was allowed to carry on trade via Ryukyu.

Ezo Gate

The Matsumae clan in the Matsumae Domain had engaged in trade between the northern part of Japan and the Northern Song Dynasty China in Ezo (inhabited area of Ainu). The Matsumae Domain was allowed to carry authority even during the Edo period. The Matsumae Domain derived most of its income from the trade between the northern part of Japan and the Northern Song Dynasty China.

The end of national isolation

Although Bakufu-issued ordinances on isolation policies were implemented consistently, the Matsumae Domain, the Tsushima Domain and the Satsuma Domain, all of which were dealt with as special domains, carried out a variety of illegal trades (also called Nukeni in Japanese), making transactions in excess of the tolerable amount set by the Bakufu. In addition to these domains, a number of other domains with territories facing the ocean frequently traded illegally as well. As a countermeasure, successive leaders of the Bakufu, such as Hakuseki ARAI and Yoshimune TOKUGAWA, often issued prohibitions on these acts. However, such domains suffering from financial difficulties continued illegal trade. Some domains, including the Hamada Domain of Iwami Province, were concerned with illegal trade involving the whole domain.
They even dispatched their own fleet to Southeast Asia (this was the so-called 'Takeshima incident.')
There were also unique people, such as Soha HATONO who stowed away on a ship during the Manji era to study medicine for five years in the Netherlands.

Since the arrival of the Russian named Adam Kirillovich Laksman in 1792, ships from various foreign countries frequently came and urged Japan to open the country. Following the arrival of the Black Ships by Matthew PERRY of the United States in 1853 in Uraga, "The Treaty between the United States of America and the Empire of Japan" was concluded the following year. Afterwards, the national isolation completely ended after the conclusion of "The Treaty of Amity and Commerce between the United States and Japan" in 1858.

Nine years after the Bakufu opened the country, the shogunate system completely collapsed due to the restoration of the imperial rule implemented by Yoshinobu TOKUGAWA, which led Japan into choosing the path to the modern state. Seclusionism was the very lifeline of the Edo Bakufu. It was the Meiji period when the people were allowed to travel abroad.

[Original Japanese]