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Isolationist Intentions

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Was Japan isolated during the Tokugawa (Edo) period? 

It certainly appeared so. In 1639, the Tokugawa shogunate abruptly issued a series of edicts that effectively cut off Japan from the rest of the world: the banning of Christianity, the expulsion of Europeans, and the restriction of overseas travel. This self-imposed isolation lasted until the mid-1800s, and the policy came to be known as sakoku (closed country). For a long time, historians of Japan accepted this account of the Tokugawa era’s foreign policy (or lack thereof) as essentially correct. In 1984, however, historian Ronald Toby published State and Diplomacy in Early Modern Japan, a text that aimed to upend Japanese historiography as we knew it. His thesis was as simple as it was significant: sakoku had never existed in early Tokugawa Japan. Deriding the term as ignorantly eurocentric, Toby argued that the shogunate had in fact maintained healthy international relations within East Asia, establishing a coherent set of foreign policies that sought to replace the long-standing Sinocentric diplomatic order with a Japan-centric one. Only a few years later, Reinier Hesselink published Prisoners from Nambu, in which he sought to restore the historiographical orthodoxy that Toby had overturned. Toby, Hesselink argued, had gone too far in revising Japan’s isolationist history. 

This historiographical disagreement is revealing, not just for what it says about each historians’ respective argument, but for what it reveals about their conception of “isolation.” I want to argue that Toby and Hesselink’s disagreement arises from their competing understandings of Tokugawa Japan’s foreign diplomatic contacts. Though this disagreement initially appears to suggest Hesselink and Toby define “isolation” differently--the former in terms of foreign contacts (or lack thereof), the latter in terms of intentionality--we'll eventually find that both authors agree on a common conception of it. Their disagreement centers not on the meaning of sakoku, but rather on the evidence in its favor.

The common theoretical ground between Toby and Hesselink is most obvious in their assessment of Tokugawa Japan’s attempt to dethrone China’s primacy in East Asian affairs: that it failed in reality but succeeded in fantasy, and that it was said fantasy that ultimately legitimized the domestic rule of the Tokugawa dynasty. As Toby explains: “the bakufu was able to create the illusion [emphasis mine] of an East Asian world order that was Japanese in design and Japanese in focus.”[1] So long as this illusion was “not crushed by the overwhelming weight of undeniable experience,” it “helped to sustain the system that had devised and relied upon it.”[2][3] Hesselink agrees, and he both assumes and argues this at various points in his reconstruction of the Bresken affair through Prisoners from Nambu. For example, he notes that Japan allowed the Dutch to get away with sending a bogus ambassador because “all that really counted in Japan was a procession of an unusual number of Dutchmen in colorful uniforms, flying the Dutch colors, trumpeting Dutch sounds to announce the coming of a special envoy from Holland”—that is, all that mattered was the domestic consumption of such spectacle, which established the Tokugawa dynasty’s ostensible international standing.[4] 

Hesselink and Toby argue the same thing: that the Tokugawa bakufu’s elaborate foreign policy machinations— refusing relations with China, granting the shogun a title that competed with and refuted that of the Chinese king, forcing ambassadors to acknowledge primacy of Japanese terminology—was an exercise in mythmaking that was instrumental to legitimizing the Tokugawa as the rulers of a country that sat at the heart of the East Asian order, but that it was ultimately just that: mythmaking. Japan's foreign policy was about the appearance of strength, not necessarily the actual possession of it.

But though both historians may agree that Japan’s claim to East Asian centrality was more myth than reality, they disagree on the degree to which this myth was accepted by the Tokugawa’s foreign contemporaries. Toby argues that Japan’s mythmaking molded outsiders’ perceptions of Japan, whereas Hesselink does not. That Toby makes this argument is evident in the narrative of decline that he posits. He does not simply argue that sakoku never existed; rather, he argues that it only became a reality late in the Tokugawa period. While the Tokugawa shogunate initially engaged extensively with the outside world, it atrophied into a truly isolated country as its internal stability grew and the utility of foreign diplomacy declined. In the 1800s, as the Western powers became more insistent on entering Japan, the bakufu attempted to “give the appearance that the world still recognized the claims of the Tokugawa.”[5] Japan had lost the ability to project its idealized self-image to its neighbors, who once the mirage dissipated had no reason to cater to Japan’s inflated sense of importance. This argument assumes, of course, that Japan’s neighbors had once brought into its delusions of supremacy.

Hesselink does not accept this narrative. Indeed, key to Hesselink’s rejection of Toby’s attempted historiographical intervention is his argument that the world didn’t actually recognize Japan’s claim of a Japan-centric diplomatic order as valid. In some ways, the entirety of Prisoners from Nambu serves to make this simple point. The book is premised on the idea that the Breskens affair provided shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu and his advisors an opportunity to expand Japan’s “formal influence overseas.”[6] They were “on the lookout” for such opportunities, in turn, because Japan’s military government understood that “the confirmation of Japan’s centrality by embassies sent from [Korea and Ryuku] was more apparent than real.”[7] Korea and the Ryuku Islands sent embassies, Hesselink contends, not because they bought into Japan’s conceited fantasies, but because they thought such gestures pacified the country. Aware of this, the shogun and his advisors searched for alternative foreign vassals by which they could make reality their vision of a Japan-based international order. The Dutch were the victims of this impulse, an impulse that would have been unnecessary had Japan’s neighbors accorded the shogunate the respect it craved. Thus, from the outset, Hesselink frames his reconstruction of the Breskens affair as a challenge to Toby’s attempted revision of Tokugawa Japan’s foreign policy. Prisoners from Nambu’s engagement with Toby’s argument is thus not incidental—it is fundamental to the construction of the book’s historical account.

This is not immediately clear, however, as Hesselink wryly avoids mentioning Toby until the conclusion of the book, after he has elaborated a narrative that appears to confirm his argument rather than Toby’s. The crux of Hesselink’s argument-as-narrative comes when he describes the climax of the Breskens affair, when Japan demanded that Holland send a formal ambassador. For Hesselink, the Dutch’s decision to send a dying schoolmaster—that is, a bogus ambassador—evidenced their refusal to play the diplomatic game on Japanese terms. To Holland, “the Japan trade was too unimportant to become a matter of state…just because of the illegal seizure of a few men.” The shogunate could not bully Holland into submission the way it had Korea and the Ryukyu Islands.[8] The power this account affords Hesselink’s main argument is obvious: if Japan could not force its only European contact in the early modern era to obey its foreign policy dictates, and in fact continued to maintain contact even after the humiliation of the fake 1849 embassy, then in what sense can we say the world recognized the shogun’s vision of a Japan-centered East Asian diplomatic order?

And thus we arrive at the central divide between Toby’s and Hesselink’s perspectives: their differing understandings of the meaning, and the significance of, of the relations that Tokugawa Japan maintained with Korea, the Ryuku Islands, and the Dutch. While Toby believes that these foreign relations deconstruct the concept of sakoku, Hesselink argues they affirm it. Hesselink clarifies his disagreement with Toby in the conclusion of his book: while Toby showed that the Western view of Tokugawa Japan as “a country with no foreign relations” was incorrect, the concept of sakoku “still has considerable vitality.”[9] To Hesselink, then, Toby appears to define “isolation” as the absence of foreign relations. For Toby, any evidence that Japan did maintain contact with several East Asian and even European countries proves that it was not isolated. However, Hesselink opines that these foreign relations in fact evidence Japan’s seclusion. Japan's handful of foreign diplomatic contacts is exactly what allowed it to be isolated—they acted as “channels through which essential intelligence could be obtained,” thus providing Japan the information it needed to preserve its seclusion.[10] Hesselink thus seems to adopt a more complex, more sophisticated, and ultimately more demanding criterion for determining “isolation” than does Toby. He implies that Toby’s renunciation of sakoku is as simple his understanding of it—the definition of isolation that Toby adopts and his reason for rejecting said definition both ascribe too much importance to the mere existence, or not, of international communications.

Implicit in Hesselink’s rejection of Toby’s argument is an alternative conception of “isolation.” His focus on the motives of the Tokugawa dynasty in establishing diplomatic contacts reveals his broader understanding of isolationism in terms of intentionality. Whereas Toby appears to accept the mere existence of overseas outreach as evidence that Japan remained internationally integrated, Hesselink discounts the significance of these foreign relations because they were not intended to involve Japan into the world order but rather to enable its seclusion. A country that reached out to the world in order to lock it out cannot, in Hesselink’s dictionary, qualify as open. For Hesselink, the intentions behind diplomatic contact, not the mere fact of it, are the primary factor in determining sakoku.[11]

And yet we would be mistaken to conclude that Toby defines “isolation” in terms of diplomatic contact while Hesselink defines it in terms of the mindset undergirding diplomatic contact. This distinction is simplistic because the intentionality of the bakufu features prominently in Toby’s argument for isolation as well. To be sure, the mere existence, or lack thereof, of foreign diplomacy is essential to Toby’s conception of sakoku, as evidenced by his argument that the late Tokugawa era was truly isolationist because of its decreased international activity.[12] However, Toby also appeals to the bakufu’s “intentions” to explain how the apparently isolationistic edicts of 1639 were not actually isolationist at all. Indeed, Toby argues that “the bakufu never intended entirely to isolate Japan from foreign intercourse.”[13] 

His argument that the late Tokugawa era was actually isolationist, not because but in spite of the early bakufu’s intentions, crystallizes the duality of his conception of isolationism: it is based on both the existence of foreign relations and the goals underlying such relations. That Tokugawa Japan eventually became isolationist despite the original intent of the bakufu’s policies indicates the importance of foreign relations to defining “isolation;” that the 1639 edits expelling foreigners and restricting travel were non-isolationist because they were not intended as such indicates the equal importance of intention to determining isolation. Toby’s conception of sakoku is therefore more complex than Hesselink gives him credit for, and in fact has far more in common with Hesselink’s own understanding of sakoku than he appears to realize. Hesselink is not wrong to think that he and Toby disagree on the question of Japan’s isolation—however, he is wrong to believe that their disagreement concerns the definition of isolation itself. They both deem intentionality crucial to understanding it.

Thus we arrive at a surprising conclusion: Toby and Hesselink mostly agree on what “isolation” means in the abstract, and completely agree on what it means in the context of early modern Japan. Their differing interpretations of sakoku center not on its definition, but rather on whether or not the evidence validates its existence. It’s because both historians base their understanding of “isolation” on not just the brute fact of diplomatic contacts but also the motivation for maintaining (or deleting) such contacts that they can come to such diametrically opposed positions. This is how Hesselink argues that actions that appeared internationalist (Korean embassies, trade with the Dutch) were actually isolationist, and how Toby argues that actions that appeared isolationist were actually internationalist (the Christian bans, expulsion of the Portuguese). 

What this entire discussion reveals, ultimately, is the difficulty in determining “isolationism” when it is based on something as difficult to prove as “intention.” Indeed, Hesselink’s work in Prisoners of Nambu testifies to this difficulty—from Kanzeamon’s false report that Lord Noatoki accompanied him on his first visit to the Breskens[14] to the shogun’s fabricated claims of Dutch’s misbehavior[15], the book repeatedly demonstrates the potential pitfalls of literally interpreting historical documents written by individuals invested in misrepresenting reality. Confirming the intentions—that is, the interior world—of historical actors is a historiographical challenge, and Toby and Hesselink, by rendering intentionality so essential to understanding sakoku, bring that difficulty to our understanding of early modern Japan’s foreign policy. We thus find that sakoku, far from being a simple idea, is remarkably complex. As such, the question of whether or not early Tokugawa Japan was “isolationist” is likely to continue for a long time to come. As Toby and Hesselink have shown us, agreement on a definition of “isolation” is no buffer for disagreement.


Hesselink, Reinier H. Prisoners from Nambu: Reality and Make-Believe in Seventeenth-Century Japanese Diplomacy. Honolulu: University of Hawaiʹi Press, 2005

Toby, Ronald P. State and Diplomacy in Early Modern Japan. Princeton University Pres, 2016

[1] Toby, Ronald P. State and Diplomacy in Early Modern Japan. Princeton University Pres, 2016, p. 234

[2] Ibid, p. 233

[3] Ibid, p. 230

[4] Hesselink, Reinier H. Prisoners from Nambu: Reality and Make-Believe in Seventeenth-Century Japanese Diplomacy. Honolulu: University of Hawaiʹi Press, 2005, p. 147

[5] Toby, Ronald P. State and Diplomacy in Early Modern Japan. Princeton University Pres, 2016, p. 239-241

[6] Hesselink, Reinier H. Prisoners from Nambu: Reality and Make-Believe in Seventeenth-Century Japanese Diplomacy. Honolulu: University of Hawaiʹi Press, 2005, p. 15

[7] Ibid, p. 15

[8] Ibid, p. 147

[9] Hesselink, Reinier H. Prisoners from Nambu: Reality and Make-Believe in Seventeenth-Century Japanese Diplomacy. Honolulu: University of Hawaiʹi Press, 2005, p. 168

[10] Ibid, p. 167

[11] Now, Hesselink may at first appear to contradict himself by taking this position—after all, he does agree with Toby that Tokugawa Japan really was trying to reject the Sinocentric model of international relations in favor of a reimagined world with Japan at its center. He assumes this diplomatic impulse to have instigated the events that comprise Prisoners from Nambu, specifically the shogunate’s attempt to exploit the Breskens debacle to strong-arm Holland into recognizing Japanese supremacy. There thus appears to be a tension between Hesselink’s conclusion (Japan was indeed isolated) and the steps he takes to get there (the Breskens affair, which resulted from Japan trying to extend its foreign contacts so that it may reorganize the international order). Hesselink offers us a hint as to how he resolves this tension when he tells us that foreign embassies from Korea and Ryuku allowed the bakufu to “have its isolationist cake and eat it,” because these embassies provided the domestic spectacle that entrenched the illusion of Japan’s worldwide prestige (see Hesselink, Reinier H. Prisoners from Nambu: Reality and Make-Believe in Seventeenth-Century Japanese Diplomacy. Honolulu: University of Hawaiʹi Press, 2005, p. 168). In other words, Hesselink argues that Japan’s diplomatic shenanigans, while aimed at the outside world, fulfilled the unique domestic purpose of legitimizing and thereby empowering the Tokugawa dynasty. Japan’s international activity was really about its national politics.

[12] Toby, Ronald P. State and Diplomacy in Early Modern Japan. Princeton University Pres, 2016, p.

[13] Ibid, p. 8

[14] Hesselink, Reinier H. Prisoners from Nambu: Reality and Make-Believe in Seventeenth-Century Japanese Diplomacy. Honolulu: University of Hawaiʹi Press, 2005, p. 35

[15] Ibid, p. 116

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