This is a document analysis I did in 2010 regarding the Tokugawa Edict of 1635. It is a little long but it tells the history of the edict and how it changed the future of Japan at the start of Tokugawa rule.
The “Closed country edict of 1635” was the Tokugawa bakufu (government) legislations enforced upon the people of Japan and for those people wanting to enter and/or trade in Japan. The final draft was completed in 1635, was drafted in Edo (Tokyo) and was enforced throughout Japan.
The initial draft for the edict I believe can be traced back to Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s rule which lasted from 1585-1598, and although he did not realise it, it was Hideyoshi’s early policies that Tokugawa Ieyasu began to adapt for his own policies (which we will look at a little more after) when he became shogun in 1603. The initial 1635 draft was made in 1611 by Ieyasu where he demanded all damiyo (feudal lord) swear an oath to the shogun and then initiated his personal general regulations for his people. In 1615 Ieyasu and his son Hidetada, made amendments to draft regulations to also include the military families and court nobles, who now also had to swear a loyalty oath to the Tokugawa Shogun. Early regulations were put in place not to isolate Japan but to keep the Tokugawa bakufu firmly in a position of complete and unassailable domination in the empire of Japan. The final edict of 1635 was issued by Tokugawa Iemitsu, the son of Hidetada and third Tokugawa shogun to reinforce the Bakufu’s political standing with China and Korea and more importantly, to keep Japan free from foreign influences such as Catholicism. In 1642 Iemitsu drafted another regulation specifically for the peasants, to ensure the principles set out by his grandfather in 1611 were enforced which enabled the lower classes the capacity to pay taxes but also to emphasize the distinction between class structures in society.
Before Tokugawa Ieyasu became shogun of the Japanese empire in 1603, previous damiyos such as Oda Nobunaga welcomed foreign influences into his domain. Christianity, commercial goods and weaponry helped Nobunaga become an influencial leader in Japan in the 1560s and 1570s. Toyotomi Hideyoshi succeeded Nobunaga who ruled Japan from the late 1580s until he died in 1598. Hideyoshi continued cordial relations and trade with Europeans after Nobunaga’s death but by 1587 he became suspicious of the Christians, their purpose in Japan and the influence of the Europeans over trade with the state. In 1597 Hideyoshi had 26 Christians executed, Japanese and foreign. I believe it was Hideyoshi’s policies at this time which set the stage for Tokugawa rule. For example, Hideyoshi separated the samurai (military class) from the land (later Ieyasu had all samurai moved from their homes to re-settle in the capital of Edo), he disarmed the peasants and established a tax system that was to last in Japan right through the Tokugawa Bakufu rule. Social classes were defined and each social class had its position in society. Therefore the merchant class during sakoku (closed country) had a monopoly on all trade through Nagasaki port because it stated in the edict samurai were not allowed to directly trade with foreign ships. Exclusive trade rights enabled merchants to become a powerful and wealthy sector of Japanese society.
The Tokugawa Bakufu had good relations with various imperial powers in Europe up to the 1630s until it decided to reject all but a few foreign contacts. The decision to self impose sakoku was a way to eradicate subversive ideology such as Roman Catholicism, to monopolise the profits of foreign trade in the hands of the Bakufu, and to obtain total cessation of Japanese travel outside of Japan so that Japanese would not be influenced by outside powers. But despite what the so called sakoku meant, it did not mean that Japan was totally cut off from the rest of the world. The Tokugawa Bakufu continued to trade with China, Korea, The Ryukyus (modern Okinawa) and the Dutch.
Historians have traditionally emphasized the negative aspects of the sakoku period and although Japan did close its doors with Christian nations, (except for the Dutch) at the same time the Edo period constructed a positive foreign policy towards its closest neighbours, China and Korea and quite successfully traded with both countries. China and Holland both traded in Nagasaki directly with the Bakufu under strict regulations under the 1635 edict know as inbound trade while the Koreans and The Ryukyus dealt directly with the local governments of Satsuma and Tsushima know as outbound trade.
The edict was also a means of removing foreign ideology such as Catholicism. The expulsion of the Catholics in 1639 was not part of a xenophobic policy of the Tokugawa Bakufu but was merely a way for the Bakufu to remove an element to which it was not able to control.
Japanese Historian Toby writes,
“I suggest that the policy sought the preservation of three independent conditions: Japanese security, Japanese sovereignty and Tokugawa legitimacy. To the extent that the continued toleration of Christianity might make the Bakufu appear unable to guarantee either of the first two, the third was undermined.”
Confucianism was also stamped out as it was still considered a foreign ideology in the early Tokugawa period and was inappropriate for the socio-political conditions then prevailing in Japan. It is interesting though that in the later part of the Tokugawa period that Confucianism did actually go on to become an accepted religion by the Bakufu.
I believe the significance of the 1635 edict was a way for the Tokugawa Bakufu to legitimise its rule. The sakoku period we can see was not just a reactionary ban on foreign trade, travel and religion but a carefully planned policy to centralise the source of authority where the Bakufu could carefully enforce its ideology. Nobunaga and Hideyoshi failed to bring all centres of competence in foreign affairs under their control, by the time Iemitsu inherited the shogunal rule all was in place for him to fully utilise what was basically established before him. Besides the Edo period being labelled as the “closed country” period and with the strict regulations of the 1635 edict it is hard to believe that Japan was as closed as we may believe.
The 1635 edict below.
1. Japanese ships are strictly forbidden to leave for foreign countries.
2. No Japanese is permitted to go abroad. If there is anyone who attempts to do so secretly, he must be executed. The ship so involved must be impounded and its owner arrested, and the matter must be reported to the higher authority.
3. If any Japanese returns from overseas after residing there, he must be put to death.
4. If there is any place where the teachings of the [Catholic] priests is practiced, the two of you must order a thorough investigation.
5. Any informer revealing the whereabouts of the followers of the priests must be rewarded accordingly. If anyone reveals the whereabouts of a high ranking priest, he must be given one hundred pieces of-silver. For those of lower ranks, depending on the deed, the reward must be set accordingly.
6. If a foreign ship has an objection (to the measures adopted) and it becomes necessary to report the matter to Edo [modern Tokyo], you may ask the Omura domain [the region surrounding Nagasaki] to provide ships to guard the foreign ship. . . .
7. If there are any Southern Barbarians [Westerners] who propagate the teachings of the priests, or otherwise commit crimes, they may be incarcerated in the prison. . . .
8. All incoming ships must be carefully searched for the followers of the priests.
9. No single trading city shall be permitted to purchase all the merchandise brought by foreign ships.
10. Samurai are not permitted to purchase any goods originating from foreign ships directly from Chinese merchants in Nagasaki.
11. After a list of merchandise brought by foreign ships is sent to Edo, as before you may order that commercial dealings may take place without waiting for a reply from Edo.
12. After settling the price, all white yarns [raw silk] brought by foreign ships shall be allocated to the five trading cities [Kyoto, Edo, Osaka, Sakai, and Nagasaki] and other quarters as stipulated.
13. After settling the price of white yarns, other merchandise [brought by foreign ships] may be traded freely between the [licensed] dealers. However, in view of the fact that Chinese ships are small and cannot bring large consignments, you may issue orders of sale at your discretion. Additionally, payment for goods purchased must be made within twenty days after the price is set.
14. The date of departure homeward of foreign ships shall not be later than the twentieth day of the ninth month. Any ships arriving in Japan later than usual shall depart within fifty days of their arrival. As to the departure of Chinese ships, you may use your discretion to order their departure after the departure of the Portuguese galeota.
15. The goods brought by foreign ships which remained unsold may not be deposited or accepted for deposit.
16. The arrival in Nagasaki of representatives of the five trading cities shall not be later than the fifth day of the seventh month. Anyone arriving later than that date shall lose the quota assigned to his city.
17. Ships arriving in Hirado [a small island off the Japanese coast, near Nagasaki] must sell their raw silk at the price set in Nagasaki, and are not permitted to engage in business transactions until after the price is established in Nagasaki.
You are hereby required to act in accordance with the Provisions set above. It is so ordered.