Most of the sixteenth century in Japanese history was characterized by almost incessant civil war and significant societal chaos. This all ended with the reunification of Japan at the turn of the century. Tokugawa Ieyasu (1542-1616) assumed the title of shogun, moved Japan’s capital to Edo, (present-day Tokyo) and completely unified the country in 1615. Members of the Tokugawa family held the office of shogun until 1868 The years 1600-1868 constitute the Tokugawa era of Japanese history.
Primarily in response to European Christian missionary activities and mass conversions, the Tokugawa Government "closed" Japan to foreigners in 1630. Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the military leader who preceded Tokugawa Ieyasu, actually began to limit Japanese contact with the outside world in the latter sixteenth century. However, the late historian Marius Jansen is probably correct in referring to the barrier between Japan and the outside world as a "bamboo" blind rather than an "iron" curtain. This was particularly true throughout the seventeenth century, when Japan’s silver exports constituted thirty percent of all silver in world circulation, and Japanese copper exports to the Dutch were a major factor in the economic rise of the Netherlands. Still, although Japanese trade with the Dutch, Chinese, and Koreans would continue throughout the Tokugawa years, other foreigners were not allowed into Japan, and only a few Japanese traveled to other countries during the period.
Neo-Confucianism, with its hierarchal class structure, was the ruling political ideology. Samurai, who received classical educations and military training, constituted the highest class and merchants were in theory societies’ least valued class. Although there were some parallels between Medieval European feudalism and the Tokugawa political/legal order, the differences between Europe and Japan are at least as numerous as the similarities.
In general, many Japanese benefited from economic prosperity, wide-spread literacy, and in the urban centers and even smaller towns, cultural accoutrements, including widespread availability of books, a variety of goods, and flourishing popular arts and entertainment, ranging from ukiyo-e (wood-block prints) to bunraku and kabuki theater. Perhaps most importantly, Japan was at peace during the Tokugawa years.
The quietude of the Tokugawa years abruptly ended on July 8, 1853, when US Navy Commodore Matthew Perry and his expedition sailed into Edo Bay. Subsequent historical developments would lead to sweeping changes in Japanese society.
Please only answer two of the three questions below. Answers to each of the questions should be approximately 250 words or less. Disregard discussion questions at the end of the essay links above.
- (required)How has working with these materials broadened and deepened my understanding of both early modern Japan and of early interactions between the US and Japan?
- (optional)What concepts or materials from this assignment can you use with students and how might you use the materials?
- (optional)If you are not able to use this material in your own class, how might you share it with other teachers in your school?