Imagine living in a “closed country.” Japan was such for over two centuries, from the anti-Christian hysteria of the 1630s to the incursion in the 1850s of the American “Black Ships.”

Imagine living in a doorless, windowless, airless room. You know there’s life beyond the walls — you keep hearing voices, though you can’t make out the words. You’re stifling, you feel your mind atrophying. It craves nourishment, but Confucian thought no longer nourishes, and anything else is criminal.

One fall day in 1838 an informal club called the Shoshikai held a meeting. The club’s name can be translated as Old Men’s Association. The members were young, restless. Youth and restlessness were subversive. The name was chosen to conceal, not reveal.

The first meetings, a year before, had discussed the dreadful famines that all too frequently wracked the land. The founding members were Confucian scholars, but others, known as rangakusha, also drifted in. Rangakusha were students, more or less furtive, of “Dutch learning” — of Western science generally, wisps of which were filtering into Japan via a handful of Dutch traders confined to an island off Nagasaki. This was Japan’s sole window on the outside world throughout the long years of sakoku (closed country).

The Shoshikai’s agenda broadened. Rumor filled the air. What was true? What was not? There were no newspapers, there was no news, everything was secret. One rumor concerned an American ship called the Morrison. It was said to be on its way, its mission to repatriate a number of Japanese castaways. When it arrived, some had heard, it was to be immediately fired upon, based on an edict of 1825 known as the “No Second Thought Expulsion Order.”

Russian and British ships had become frequent visitors in Far Eastern waters. They demanded provisions, sought trade, wheedled, threatened. Informed that Japanese law forbade traffic with foreigners, they did not always accept the rebuff with grace. There were scuffles and altercations. The “No Second Thought” order was Japan’s warning to anyone daring to test her resolve that they had better not.

The trouble was, Japanese gunnery was pitifully primitive. Primitive force risked provoking sophisticated force. Didn’t the bakufu (shogunal government) know this? The Shoshikai members did, or sensed it, feared it, and had assembled, on that day in 1838, to discuss the matter — little knowing, so dim was the awareness of even the best informed people, that the Morrison, far from being en route, had in fact paid its call a full year earlier and, unarmed to emphasize its peaceful intention, had been driven off at gunpoint. As though alarmed by its own temerity, the bakufu, without actually repealing “No Second Thought,” never applied it again.

They knew nothing, these Shoshikai “old men,” of what was going on, even in their own country, let alone in the great world outside. They knew they knew nothing and craved knowledge as the starving crave food, as the choking crave air. One member went home from the meeting and began to set down his churning thoughts in an essay. Having written it, he kept it to himself. Its implicit criticism of the government was potentially a capital offense. Perhaps he had gone too far?

Perhaps he had. Spies were everywhere. The fact that he made no attempt to publish the essay did not save him from arrest — only from the death penalty. No matter. Released after months of interrogation to the custody of his domain, he committed seppuku, consumed with guilt for having betrayed, if only in thought, his country and his heritage.

His name was Watanabe Kazan. He was born in 1793, a high-ranking but impoverished samurai of the remote domain of Tahara, in today’s Aichi Prefecture. He was a painter, a brilliant one. And a thinker — no mean one. Confucian to the core, he was drawn nonetheless to rangaku. Perhaps the European “barbarians” knew something the Confucian sages didn’t? In 1821, traveling on domain business to the island of Enoshima, he 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!”

If rangaku has a founder, the honor must go to a physician named Sugita Genpaku (1733-1817). Medicine, like every other branch of learning, was Confucian. Happening on a Dutch translation of a German anatomy textbook, Sugita was awed: “I couldn’t read a word, of course, but the drawings of the viscera, bones and muscles were quite unlike anything I had seen before, and I realized that they must have been drawn from life.”

He and two colleagues learned Dutch from scratch and spent four years translating the book. Diehard Confucians stuck to their guns. The sages had not erred. Barbarian anatomy was for barbarian bodies, not for Japanese. If that sounds foolish to us, we ought to reflect that European medical pioneers of the 16th and 17th centuries faced similar objections from diehard practitioners of classical Greek medicine.

Watanabe’s essay, writes historian Donald Keene in “Frog in the Well: Portraits of Japan by Watanabe Kazan, 1793-1841,” though “written in white-hot indignation,” is no call to revolution. Watanabe defends sakoku, fearing above all its vulnerability unless Japan fortifies itself with European technology. But there is another strain. In the West, Watanabe speculates, “people choose the profession they will follow, whether academic or technical, depending on their individual talents. They do not consider some professions as noble and others as base; they reserve their criticism for men who fail to realize their talents.”

How he and the other “old men” yearned to do just that — “realize their talents”!

A culpable ambition. Guilty as charged, said the verdict — of being “a blind devotee of foreign learning.”

Watanabe is a tragic figure, a man out of his time — born too early, or too late. He died in 1841. The “American states” were very close indeed. The Black Ships were 12 years away. Sakoku crumbled like a sand castle.

Michael Hoffman is the author of “In the Land of the Kami: A Journey into the Hearts of Japan” and “Other Worlds.”