“The evolution of political thought in this relatively isolated island nation during the period in question is unique to the point of being somewhat freakish.”

This gives a reader pause. Freakish? The judgment is historian Hiroshi Watanabe’s in “A History of Japanese Political Thought, 1600-1901,” his 2010 book whose title defines “the period in question.”

“Nor,” he adds, “did it (Japanese political thought) have much impact on thought outside the Japanese archipelago. In this sense, it may call to mind the strange animals of the Galapagos Islands, pursuing their own evolutionary path.”

Japan, Galapagos: The association seems irresistible and recurs frequently, expressing bewilderment, frustration, amusement, sometimes admiration at Japan’s tendency, even today, to be startlingly different from other “Western” developed democracies.

Early-modern Japan was truly a political and cultural Galapagos. Apart from a handful of Chinese and Dutch traders restricted to an island off Nagasaki, it was a “closed country”; Japanese could not leave, foreigners could not enter — on pain of death. Seventeenth- and 18th-century Japan to all intents and purposes was not part of the world. It was a world unto itself.

The Tokugawa shoguns, its rulers from 1603 to 1867, were acting in self-defense against foreign powers they saw, reasonably enough, as predatory — not that Japan was a shining live-and-let-live exception, as its 1592 invasion of Korea showed; but the issue was practical, not moral. Isolation, deemed the best defense, was ruthlessly imposed.

In a sense it came naturally. Geographical isolation helps explain why Japan circa A.D. 300 had barely graduated from the stone age to primitive agriculture. That might have sounded a warning, had the shoguns been historians. Isolation has a price: backwardness. Inevitably? Perhaps not.

Was Tokugawa Japan backward? To U.S. sailors who came in “black ships” to pry it open in the 1850s, it seemed so; they vaunted their “triumphant revelation to a partially enlightened people of the success of science and enterprise.” On the other hand … there is always an “other hand.”

Tokugawa Japan was in intellectual ferment, but one occurring in a vacuum. These years correspond to Europe’s Age of Reason, its Enlightenment. Fresh air! Experiment, observation, free thought. A thing was no longer true merely because Aristotle or the Church had said it. Philosophers began by doubting everything they thought they knew. They sought new knowledge. They went back to square one. They challenged each other, spurred each other on, built on each others’ findings. This was an intellectual, created “new world” to match the physical, discovered New World: America.

All this Japan missed. “Ours is a world in which living things are confined and regimented as if dead things” — so wrote a despairing artist, scholar and samurai named Watanabe Kazan, one whose restlessness in the shuttered little world he was born into led to his suicide in 1841 at age 48. In 1821, while traveling on domain business, he stopped at the island of Enoshima off present-day Kanagawa Prefecture, and wrote in his diary: “How wonderful! How marvelous! From here to the southeast is what the Westerners call the Pacific Ocean and the American states! They must be very close!”

Kazan was one of a coterie of “Dutch scholars” — so called because the Dutch traders and Dutch books were their prime sources — who congregated in Edo (now Tokyo) to share what little they knew of Western science, gunnery, medicine, history, geography and politics. Their talk was considered subversive by an absolutist regime determined at all costs to remain absolute. Watanabe barely escaped execution — he was rusticated instead.

He and his friends of course represented the future, though few at the time would have seen that. To most of its subjects, Tokugawa rule must have seemed unshakable. What preoccupied the intellectual mainstream? This question in particular: Is the nation’s true path the Confucian Way, or the Japanese Way?

Watanabe, the historian, has a beautiful passage about time machines: “Investigating the past, one is often seized with the desire to board a time machine to walk the city streets and meet the people of some specific period. … In fact we already have a highly advanced time machine: the written word.”

Reading past thinkers’ works is a salutary reminder of how the world is subject to wildly varying interpretations. Was Confucius a fool, and his Tokugawa followers dupes for believing all problems were at bottom moral; that disasters natural, political and economic occurred only when sage-rulers failed to govern according to rites and music?

Arai Hakuseki (1657-1725), a shogunal adviser and great Confucian thinker, wrote: “Rites and music are not properly practiced, and there are places where the qi (spirit) of heaven and earth is disturbed. Thus, without the assistance of the gods and spirits, it is possible that the principle of germination cannot be achieved” — an admonitory reference to Shogun Tokugawa Yoshimune’s failure to produce an heir.

But the swelling ranks of anti-Confucian nativist thinkers sneered at this Chinese frippery. One, Kaibara Ekiken (1630-1714), wrote, “The path of the soldier is a deceitful one. Depending upon the circumstances of the moment, one might trick or betray one’s allies, usurp the spoils won by others, or throw the land into turmoil and seize it from above: As a matter of military tactics, there is nothing wrong with this. It is the way of warfare in Japan. If one adopted the Chinese Way, it would be difficult to conduct warfare in the Japanese manner. Japan is a martial nation; it would be impossible to triumph here following the undissembling and soft customs of the Chinese.”

So much for rites and music. The trouble was, Tokugawa Japan was a martial nation at peace. It’s an impossible contradiction. The looming crisis was unseen but inevitable.

This is the first installment of a column that will appear on this page on the fourth Sunday of each month. Michael Hoffman’s two latest books are “Little Pieces: This Side of Japan” (2010) and “The Naked Ear” (2012).

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