Leave Us Alone

Japan – Tokugawa Shogunate and Isolationism – 1500 > 1700


            Over the course of its existence, its unique geography right off the tip of eastern Asia allowed it to always determine the extent to which it wanted to be touched by the civilizations of others.  In the book The Clash of Civilizations, Samuel Huntington speaks of eight civilizations – Sinic, Hindi, Islamic, Western, Orthodox, Latin American, African and Japanese.  Seven of these civilizations span multiple continents.  Only one is a country in and of itself.  Only one has been able to remain separate from the world, choosing on its own terms when it wanted to open its doors to outsiders, and to what extent they wanted to keep their doors open.  Only one has been able to choose its path. 


            Japan had run-ins with the Koreans, the Chinese and the Mongols.  Each was repelled.  In the 16th century, when European powers spanned the globe looking for willing (oftentimes reluctant) trading partners, Japan at first warily welcomed the hygienically-challenged, red-haired devils.  Yet within a century, these strangers were banished, and the island nation returned to isolation, taking what it wanted from European culture and forbidding all that might contaminate Japanese society.  In the next three hundred years, as Europe gradually put one country after another under its sphere of influence, Japan remained inaccessible, immune to the progress of the known world.

            But it still was progressing.  Just on its own timetable.

             First, Japan had to escape its own Middle Ages.  In Europe for a thousand years, the Middle Ages meant thousands of independent lords ruled over their fiefdoms, demanding allegiance and wheat from their peasants in exchange for protection secured by well-trained knights.  Japan’s feudal world looked fairly similar.  In Japan, the lords weren’t barons or dukes or counts, but daimyos, and the peasants’ grain of exchange was rice.  These daimyos employed sword-yielding samurai to protect the peasants and to ensure the timely payment of rice tributes.  Both of these feudal worlds would come to an end.  For Europe, the continent would need a plague, a Renaissance, an Age of Exploration and gunpowder to exit the Middle Ages.

            For Japan, the 6,852 islands would need three men.  The Three Unifiers.

            Oda Nobunaga.  Toyotomi Hideyoshi.  Tokugawa Ieyasu. 

            These three men all came from relatively humble origins.  They weren’t the wealthiest or the most powerful daimyos  In fact one, Hideyoshi, was simply a lowly peasant.  But the three together ended the centuries of chaos, violence and regional warfare, uniting Japan in a 250-year period of peace.  Though at times allies and at other times foes, these three men each played a vital role in creating modern Japan.  Even today, Japanese school children memorize the poem of the great unifiers, a tale that shows how each man distinctively approached the challenge of unification.  In this poetic allegory, the three men sit in a room watching a cuckoo bird that refuses to sing.  They responded...