Japan Admits Western Traders

As part of his consolidation of the central authority of the shogunate, the first Tokugawa shogun, Ieyasu, set out to monopolize Japanese trade with European nations. He pursued trade links with the Spanish, Portuguese, English, and Dutch, causing a brief boom in Japanese-European contact as well as important linkages that would last the entire period of Tokugawa rule.

Summary of Event

In 1549, Jesuit Francis Xavier visited Japan, which at the time was in a period of civil war and lacking a strong central ruler. Xavier established the nation’s first Christian mission. Other missionaries followed Xavier, and in the following decades many Japanese, including the lords of several powerful fiefs in the south of the country, were converted to Christianity. Trade and other contact with Europeans accelerated from 1571, when Portuguese ships began to visit Nagasaki with greater frequency. Spanish ships also began frequent trading voyages. [kw]Japan Admits Western Traders (1602-1613)
[kw]Western Traders, Japan Admits (1602-1613)
[kw]Traders, Japan Admits Western (1602-1613)
Trade and commerce;1602-1613: Japan Admits Western Traders[0250]
Economics;1602-1613: Japan Admits Western Traders[0250]
Diplomacy and international relations;1602-1613: Japan Admits Western Traders[0250]
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Japan;trade with Europeans
Trade;Japan with Europe

In 1587, Toyotomi Hideyoshi Toyotomi Hideyoshi , a military strongman who was continuing the consolidation of central power begun by his deceased lord, Oda Nobunaga Oda Nobunaga , issued an edict ordering the expulsion of foreign missionaries. At the time, Hideyoshi was attempting to gain control of Kyūshū, the southernmost of the major Japanese islands and a center of Christian belief. There is evidence to suggest that he saw Christianity Christianity;Japan as a threat to his authority. There is also evidence that Hideyoshi was worried by reports that a missionary presence in other parts of Asia such as the Philippines had been a precursor to the expansion of European political control. At first, Hideyoshi’s edict went unenforced, but the situation changed dramatically and came to have a negative impact on trade as well in 1596, when Hideyoshi ordered the confiscation of the Spanish ship San Felipe and the imprisonment of its crew.

The situation worsened in 1597, when twenty-six Japanese and foreign Christians were crucified on Hideyoshi’s orders. Hideyoshi, however, died in the following year, prompting a struggle for authority, during which the powerful eastern lord Tokugawa Ieyasu Tokugawa Ieyasu gained authority over Japan’s disparate domains after defeating his rivals at the Battle of Sekigahara Sekigahara, Battle of (1600) in 1600. In 1603, Ieyasu assumed the political title of shogun and began to consolidate his position as Japan’s absolute ruler. Ieyasu formally retired from the office of shogun in 1605 in favor of his son Tokugawa Hidetada Tokugawa Hidetada , in order to guarantee the succession and ensure the establishment of a Tokugawa dynasty. He continued to wield authority from behind the scenes, however, remaining the effective ruler until his death in 1616.

One of Ieyasu’s major projects was a redefinition of Japan’s trading relations with the countries of Europe. He had taken bold steps to improve Japan’s trading relationship with Spain even before he had become shogun Spain;Japan and . In 1602, Ieyasu welcomed the crew of a Spanish galleon that had blown ashore in Japan. This reception, contrasting markedly with the treatment of the San Felipe by Hideyoshi, was designed to facilitate a closer trading relationship with Spain and its New World colonies such as Mexico. In 1611, Ieyasu met with Sebastian Viscaino, Viscaino, Sebastian the viceroy of New Spain, and it appeared as if Spanish-Japanese relations were entering an important period of development. This situation began to change rapidly, however, in 1612, when the Tokugawa shogunate began to return to Hideyoshi’s policies by putting forward the first in a series of anti-Christian decrees. The shogunate’s resistance to Christianity was to prove unacceptable to the Spanish, who eventually began to limit their trading relationship with Japan.

In the context of Spanish-Japanese relations, the decision to restrict Christianity may seem like a rash one. However, this decision was made in a larger international context. In 1600, a Dutch ship, the Liefde, landed in southern Japan. Despite the fact that the Dutch were denounced by the Spanish and Portuguese and said to be little more than pirates, Ieyasu eventually accepted overtures for the beginning of a trade relationship with them. In 1609, the Dutch were permitted to establish a factory at Hirado, in the south of the country. In 1613, the year after the ban on Christian missionary activities was enacted, English traders began to visit Japan, and they too were allowed to set up a factory on the southern Japanese island of Kyūshū.

The warm reception offered to the English and Dutch, who continued to enjoy special privileges after the enactment of the anti-Christian ordinances, was based in religious issues. England and Holland were Protestant nations, uninterested in missionary activities in Asia, which were then predominantly the provenance of the Jesuits and other Catholic orders. As a result, trade with these two countries was seen as more desirable than trade with the Catholic nations that were actively interested in transforming the religion and culture of Japan. Such a transformation would not merely disrupt Japan’s traditional values and way of life: It was also likely to destabilize the power of the Tokugawa shogunate itself, as the shoguns well knew.

A Dutch trader attempts to gain favor with Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu by warning him against dealing with Spain and Portugal. The Dutch were the only Europeans who would maintain trade relations with Japan during the period of national seclusion.

(Francis R. Niglutsch)

While Ieyasu had initially been indifferent and sometimes even receptive to Christianity and the Catholic missionary presence, the idea that foreign missionaries represented a threat to the central government’s policies, a concept that had existed since Hideyoshi’s day, was still an influential one in Japanese politics. In addition, recent research has suggested that, aside from limiting the ability of the outer lords to gain any advantage against the central government, it was the intention of Tokugawa Ieyasu to create the impression that the Europeans were also subject to his authority. The missionary presence made this difficult with respect to the Spanish and Portuguese, but the Dutch in particular proved willing to accept the ceremonial conditions of a tributary relationship in exchange for trading privileges.


The successor of Tokugawa Hidetada, Tokugawa Iemitsu Tokugawa Iemitsu , was far more aggressive in persecuting Christians—both Japanese and foreign missionaries—than Ieyasu and Hidetada had been. In 1624, the Spanish, whom Iemitsu suspected of both smuggling missionaries into Japan and supporting those who were living in the country in hiding, were banned from entering Japanese ports. In the 1630’, efforts were also made to ensure that Japanese citizens could not leave the country, and expatriates were prohibited from returning. In 1639, the Portuguese were barred from Japan. In short, the anti-Christian policies begun during Ieyasu’s time in power eventually resulted in what is known as the sakoku
Seclusion policy, Japan , or “closed country,” policy. Japanese were banned from going overseas, and contact with foreign traders was strictly controlled. The English, not finding the Japan trade to be profitable enough, left of their own accord in 1624. The Dutch, meanwhile, maintained the trading relationship with Japan that they had begun between 1600 and 1609. However, in 1641, all Dutch trade with Japan was confined to the island of Dejima Dejima in Nagasaki harbor.

Despite its limited scope, the continued Dutch presence was enormously influential. Through the Dutch factory at Dejima, Japan—a “closed country” according to official rhetoric—was afforded a window into international affairs and kept apprised of important European developments in areas such as medicine. In a similar vein, Europe was given a window into Japan. Important scholars—such as Engelbert Kaempfer, Kaempfer, Engelbert who visited Japan with the Dutch traders in the late seventeenth century, and Philipp Franz Von Siebold, who visited in the early nineteenth century—wrote voluminously about the Asian nation. This relationship between Japan and Holland continued to be very important until the 1850’, when American initiatives forced Japan to abandon its one-sided relationship with the Dutch and enter the larger world of international politics.

Further Reading

  • Chaiklin, Martha. Cultural Commerce and Dutch Commercial Culture: The Influence of European Material Culture on Japan, 1700-1850. Leiden, the Netherlands: Leiden University Press, 2003. Discusses the impact of the Dutch in Japan on a cultural level. Contains significant background on the Dutch contact in the early seventeenth century.
  • Hasselink, Reinier. Prisoners from Nambu: Reality and Make-Believe in Seventeenth Century Japanese Diplomacy. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2001. An extended discussion of the place of the Dutch traders in the worldview of the Japanese shogunate in the seventeenth century.
  • Totman, Conrad. Early Modern Japan. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993. The most comprehensive single-volume treatment of the Edo period of Japanese history in English. Includes an extensive discussion of the trade between Japan and European countries in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

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