Education About Asia: Online Archives

Japan and the World, 1450-1770: Was Japan a “Closed Country?”

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Half-truths make the world go round. One conceit American pundits seem most determined to nurture is that in 1853 the US “opened” Japan to “civilization,” ending its days as a backward “closed country” (sakoku). Even though scholars—Ronald Toby most convincingly—established decades ago that Japan was not “closed,” the notion lives on in popular culture and public perceptions.1 The image of Japan as “closed” or “isolated” is reinforced by the companion notion, still found even in some textbooks, that Europeans were the most important part of Japan’s external world, at least during post-Columbus centuries.2 They were not. During the centuries to about 1800, Japan’s “world” consisted primarily of Korea and China, and only marginally included Southeast and South Asia and regions beyond. Contact with Korea and China was never banned, although it was carefully regulated after 1600, as we shall see.

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