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Tuesday, May 9, 2000

'Shuttered' to the West, Japan opened to the East

Staff writer
CHINA IN THE TOKUGAWA WORLD, by Marius B. Jansen. Cambridge, Mass. and London: Harvard University Press, 2000, 137 pp., $8.50 (paper).

With the 400th anniversary of Japanese-Dutch relations upon us, interest has been rekindled in Japan's foreign relations during the Tokugawa period, and the part played by Nagasaki as Japan's sole international portal. Often overlooked, however, is China's role as a window on the world in Nagasaki at that time. Thus the re-release in paperback of Princeton Professor Marius Jansen's concise and readable 1992 study is timely.

Jansen's intentions in writing this book were twofold: to focus on Japan's extensive contacts with China from the late 16th to the late 19th centuries, a subject largely ignored by historians writing in English, and to challenge the dominant notion in Western scholarship of Japan as an isolated nation cut off from the outside world for most of the Tokugawa period.

This latter perspective, argues Jansen, is largely a result of the habit of Western historians "viewing the period solely in terms of Japan's ties with the West, at the expense of its relationship with closer Asian neighbors."

The term "sakoku" (closed country) first appeared in a translation of German historian Engelbert Kaempfer's account of his stay in Japan, explains Jansen, and it chiefly had meaning with respect to Japan's relations with the West, not to those with its East Asian neighbors.

While acknowledging the importance of Holland's ties with Japan in the Tokugawa period, Jansen says Japan's relations with Asian countries such as China were far more extensive.

"Dutch trade at Nagasaki was always smaller in amount than the Chinese trade, and it is in good part the ethnocentrism of the West that has led to our obsession with seclusion when the Nagasaki door was always ajar and sometimes wide open."

China's impact on Japan was significant commercially, culturally and politically, Jansen says.

In the commercial realm, the China trade provided luxury goods for a growing Japanese market "whose elite wanted more of everything the ships could bring."

By the final years of the 17th century, trade with China was booming. In 1688 alone, 193 junks visited Nagasaki. Japanese officials, alarmed by the drain of copper out of the country, decided in 1689 to establish a Chinese residence in Nagasaki, which dwarfed that of the Dutch on Deshima, to better regulate Chinese trade.

The Chinese quarters occupied over three hectares and at its peak housed close to 5,000 Chinese. Later, as the shogunate cut imports in an effort to stem the flow of precious metals out of the country, the settlement housed an average of 2,000 sailors and merchants. Over 300 Japanese were employed in the Chinese customs offices.

While the Chinese presence in Nagasaki was highly institutionalized for many years, "by late Tokugawa days it was not unusual to find Chinese traders hawking their goods on the streets of Nagasaki," says Jansen.

Relations between the Chinese and the people of Nagasaki were also friendly on the whole, Jansen says. The Chinese were often called "acha-san," a term of "affection and respect." Chinese curios and songs were popular among the Japanese, and "entertainers" in the city's amusement quarters charged the Chinese less than the Dutch because their company was preferred.

While Sino-Japanese commercial relations were significant, their importance was overshadowed by the impact of Chinese political and cultural ideals on Japan, which peaked in the Edo era, Jansen says.

"Direct access to Chinese nationals at Nagasaki was important to the scholarly achievements of most of the official projects at Edo," says Jansen.

In addition, after Tokugawa Yoshimune relaxed in 1721 the prohibition on books affected by the West -- part of an effort to accelerate economic growth -- China became an important conduit for books on Western science, astronomy and geography.

Later, as new concerns arose about Western expansion in the 19th century, "the introduction of current Chinese discussions of war and defense brought home to samurai intellectuals the imminence of threats to the country and helped draw them into politics," writes Jansen.

Interestingly, the writing of Chinese poetry -- a skill all educated Japanese were expected to master -- served as an important medium for political discourse.

"By the early 19th century, Chinese poetry was serving to convey nationalist and political dialogue," says Jansen, "and many leading figures of late Tokugawa politics prided themselves on their ability to write poetry in Chinese."

Particularly compelling is Jansen's tracing of how Japanese views of China shifted in late Tokugawa and the early Meiji era from respect and admiration to scorn as the Western imperial powers flexed their impressive muscles and China increasingly appeared decadent and backward -- a view that was confirmed in the minds of thousands of young Japanese during the Sino-Japanese War of 1894 and the Russo-Japanese war a decade later.

China's influence on Japan, Jansen says, "declined in economic and intellectual importance as Japan achieved self-sufficiency and cultural confidence. It left no consciousness of benevolence on the one side and even less sense of obligation on the other."

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