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New look at old Edo’s window to the West

by Florian Coulmas

Japan’s seclusion policy (sakoku) from the early 17th to the mid-19th century is commonly studied from the point of view of the bakufu, the Tokugawa government in Edo that exercised central control over the other domains of the realm.

DEFINING ENGAGEMENT: Japan and Global Contexts, 1640-1868, by Robert I. Hellyer. Harvard University Asia Center, 2010, 281 pp., $39.95. (hardcover)

Much research has also been directed at Deshima — often called “Japan’s only window to the West” — in Nagasaki harbor where the Dutch East Asia Company VOC maintained a commercial factory, enjoying trade privileges for more than 200 years.

Japan’s engagement with the outside world during that time was tightly regulated, but it was far from shut off.

Observing with much trepidation Western aggressive intrusions by missionaries, military and merchants in China and other parts of Asia, the Tokugawa government was on its guard and did its best to maintain the power to control Japan’s destiny and its own authority. This power was far from absolute.

While the Tokugawa dominated the Japanese feudalistic polity, their vassals, despite the system of compulsory alternate residence in Edo and in their domains, enjoyed a fair degree of autonomy. This is particularly evident when we consider outlying domains, such as Satsuma in southern Kyushu, Tsushima in the Korea Straits, and Matsumae in Ezo, present-day Hokkaido.

The first to be reached by overseas maritime traffic, these domains maintained international trade relations throughout the centuries of “seclusion.”

In “Defining Engagement” it becomes very clear that the China market, which was predicated on tributary relationships, encompassed the most important and profitable trade in which Japan was engaged throughout the Edo Period (1603-1868).

A single figure serves to illustrate this point. While at peak times there were as many as 5,000 and on average 2,000 merchants in the Chinese residence in Nagasaki, the VOC compound on Deshima never housed more than 20 men at the same time.

The Western powers interfered in China to the detriment of the Chinese, most obviously when the British forced opium down their throat in the name of free trade.

“Defining Engagement” recounts the story of how Japan tried and partly succeeded in avoiding a similar fate.

The author’s perspective is from the periphery. His attention is focused on Satsuma and Ryukyu, present-day Okinawa, on one hand and on Tsushima, on the other. By controlling Ryukyu, which — thanks to a dual tribute relationship with the Qing Court and the Tokugawa Shogunate — enjoyed a semi-independent status between Japan and China, Satsuma played a key role in the China trade.

Tsushima had a special relationship with the Choson Kingdom on the Korean Peninsula, which in turn was a vassal state of the Qing.

Satsuma and Tsushima had their own interests that did not necessarily coincide with those of the Tokugawa, and they had a measure of agency in diplomatic and trade relations, as Hellyer, using fashionable political science terminology, puts it.

One of the main themes he develops in the book is that, in the Edo Period polity, there was no single actor creating a coherent national policy for dealing with international relations. A Japanese foreign policy in this sense only took shape after the domains had been abolished in the wake of the Meiji Restoration.

This point is well taken, although the terms Hellyer uses to make it are not always convincing. Instead of “colonialism” and “European expansion,” he prefers to speak of “globalization.”

This is problematic, for instance, when he explains how “bakufu leaders reacted against globalization”; for if they so did, they certainly didn’t know it.

Taking an anachronistic approach, Hellyer imposes concepts of our time on an epoch when they had no meaning, in hindsight, that is. It is debatable whether labels such as globalization and proto-globalization are really suitable for the case in point. Complex as they were, trade relations in East Asia at the time involved only a handful of actors.

The story of how Japan reacted to Western incursion is a fascinating one. Hellyer’s achievement is to augment the well-known narrative about the Tokugawa bakufu by elucidating the role that the domains of Satsuma and Tsushima — with an occasional reference to Russia’s appearance on the scene at Matsumae — played in this story. He is meticulous and provides a wealth of information, but he shows little mercy to readers.

Perhaps it isn’t fair to criticize a historian for too much detail, but there is and should be a difference between a Ph.D. thesis and a book. A book mustn’t force its readers to struggle from one enumeration of traded goods — sea cucumbers, kelp, abalone, water buffalo horns, ginseng, tea, silk, etc. — to the next, coping with endless repetitions of quantities, places of origin, payments and loans. This sort of presentation is perfectly acceptable, even necessary, in a thesis where evidence must be provided for every point.

The plethora of data sometimes blocks the view on the big story, which is regrettable because many a reader will not muster up as much patience as a thesis’ adviser is obliged to have.

Japan’s part in how the traditional trade system of tribute relationships and embassies in the Sinocentric world was superseded by a system of contract ports and so-called free trade on Western terms is of interest not just for the professional historian.

The same story could have been told on half the number of pages with twice the effect.