Japan Lifts Ban on Foreign Books Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Tokugawa shogunate lifted a nearly century-long ban on books containing minor references to Christianity. In harmony with Shogun Yoshimune’s policy of promoting “practical learning,” the Japanese began to import science and technology books, most of which were well illustrated and were either Chinese translations of European works or books in Dutch. Christian religious books, however, remained banned.

Summary of Event

A general ban on Christianity Christianity;in Japan[Japan] in Japan was first introduced in 1587 by Toyotomi Hideyoshi Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-1598), the de facto military ruler of Japan. Hideyoshi, and the early Tokugawa shoguns, Tokugawa shogunate suspected that Portuguese traders and missionaries were using conversions to Christianity as a means to extend their sphere of influence in the country. Restrictions sporadically continued and became more severe under the Tokugawa shogunate. By 1639 the Portuguese Portugal;trade with Japan were permanently banned from Japan. A limited number of Chinese, China;trade with Japan Korean, Korea;trade with Japan and Dutch Netherlands;trade with Japan traders, restricted to the Nagasaki area, were the only foreigners allowed to reside in the country. [kw]Japan Lifts Ban on Foreign Books (Dec., 1720) [kw]Books, Japan Lifts Ban on Foreign (Dec., 1720) [kw]Foreign Books, Japan Lifts Ban on (Dec., 1720) [kw]Ban on Foreign Books, Japan Lifts (Dec., 1720) [kw]Lifts Ban on Foreign Books, Japan (Dec., 1720) Book censorship;Japan Censorship;Japan [g]Japan;Dec., 1720: Japan Lifts Ban on Foreign Books[0580] [c]Cultural and intellectual history;Dec., 1720: Japan Lifts Ban on Foreign Books[0580] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;Dec., 1720: Japan Lifts Ban on Foreign Books[0580] [c]Education;Dec., 1720: Japan Lifts Ban on Foreign Books[0580] [c]Government and politics;Dec., 1720: Japan Lifts Ban on Foreign Books[0580] [c]Science and technology;Dec., 1720: Japan Lifts Ban on Foreign Books[0580] Tokugawa Yoshimune Aoki Kon’yō Katsuragawa Hochiku Noro Genj{omacr}

Among the anti-Christian measures adopted was a ban on the importation or possession of any foreign books containing references to Christianity. Even nonreligious European books of all sorts were suspected by the Japanese authorities to contain peripheral references to Christianity. Such references put books on the forbidden list, no matter how unrelated they might be to the books’ main contents or topics. Virtually all European books, as well as books in Chinese dealing with European subjects, were effectively banned. Foreign books were assumed to have subversive content, and their importation and possession were forbidden as a matter of course.

Tokugawa Yoshimune became shogun in 1716 and retained that position for almost three decades, until his retirement in 1745. His immediate predecessors, Tokugawa Ietsugu (r. 1713-1716), who was shogun for four years and died at the age of seven, and Tokugawa Ienobu (r. 1709-1712), shogun for only three years, were controlled by powerful advisers. Yoshimune set aside most of the people and policies that had held sway, and on his own he began carrying out institutional change, known as the reforms of the Kyoho era Kyoho era reforms (1716-1736).

Yoshimune emphasized frugality in private and public life, the modernization of a moribund administrative system, and a pragmatic policy of encouraging jitsugaku, or useful learning, Jitsugaku (useful learning) which had practical applications. In line with this policy, he concluded that the virtually total de facto ban on foreign books was restricting needed Westernization;Japan access to knowledge of new developments in science and technology overseas. Yoshimune consequently ordered restrictions lifted on foreign books containing incidental references to Christianity, while maintaining the ban on the importation of books that were primarily Christian.

Yoshimune wanted knowledge of Western science and technology to be available to merchants and artisans, as well as to privileged scholars, so foreign books began to sell and circulate quite freely in Japan. While only a limited number of Japanese specialists could read books in Dutch, many merchants and artisans were able to read a number of Chinese translations or summaries of important European books, summaries known as kanyaku yosho, or foreign books in Chinese translation, which also became readily available. Though Chinese rather than Dutch was often the language through which people acquired knowledge of the West, this emerging field became known as rangaku, Dutch studies Rangaku (Dutch studies) Dutch studies in Japan or Dutch learning.

Because the emphasis was on the pragmatic acquisition and application of new information from Europe, and because Western religious works were still banned, relatively little attention was paid to European philosophy or political theory. However, practical applications of Western knowledge did eventually give rise to new developments in theories related to technology, science, and the arts.

A number of educated people in the urban merchant class had a special interest in mathematics because it had a direct application to business transactions. Such people were attracted to the newly available Chinese versions of European texts dealing with Western mathematics, but some of them went on to study other European innovations in science and technology. In addition, a growing interest in European styles and techniques of drawing and painting began to develop, largely because of the detailed and realistic Art;realism Art;Japan illustrations in Dutch books. Some Japanese artists were so impressed by realistic European methods of representation that they adapted these techniques to create copperplate engravings and illustrations of their own, depicting traditional Japanese themes in a new, realistic way.

In addition to making Western books generally accessible to the reading public, Shogun Yoshimune had more personal interests in the promotion of European science and technology. He was so impressed with the Confucian scholar Aoki Kon’yō, who was studying the newly approved books in Chinese to master the basics of Western learning, that he appointed Aoki shomotsu-kata, the official in charge of collecting books and gathering documents for the shogunate library in Edo Castle. Aoki was instructed to collect a basic library of Chinese books on Western subjects, as well as works in Dutch. Yoshimune also had Aoki learn the Dutch language and arranged for him to have periodic conferences on Western learning with officials from the Dutch trading enclave in Nagasaki.

One of the shogun’s own doctors, Katsuragawa Hochiku, used Western Medicine;Japanese surgical techniques. Katsuragawa’s teacher, Arashiyama Hoan (1632-1693), a doctor trained by the Dutch in Nagasaki, became a physician treating the aristocracy at the imperial court in Kyoto. In 1724, Yoshimune sent Katsuragawa to consult with Dutch physicians, also from Nagasaki, to learn more about Western medicine. Katsuragawa’s heirs continued to serve as shogunate doctors, and his seventh-generation successor, Katsuragawa Hoshu (1826-1881), helped compile a Dutch-Japanese lexicon (1855-1858).

Yoshimune also had his court herbal physician, Noro Genjō, learn Dutch, so Noro could learn about pharmacology Pharmacology Medicine;pharmacology from Dutch doctors and from books in Dutch. Noro subsequently translated the Cruydeboeck (A Nievve Herball, Nievve Herball, A (Dodoens) “a new herbal,” 1578), a 1554 Dutch work on botany Botany;and pharmacology[pharmacology] and its pharmacological applications by the physician Rembert Dodoens Dodoens, Rembert (1517-1585), also known as Dodonaeus. The Cruydeboeck was the major work in its field at the time. While Noro’s translation was imperfect, the Cruydeboeck was probably the first European scientific work to appear in Japanese. Noro also published Japanese digests of material gathered from Dutch books on botany, entomology, and ichthyology.

Yoshimune also applied the foreign data Noro and other shogunate scholars gathered on botany and agriculture Agriculture;Japan at an experimental agricultural center he established in 1722, where foreign methods were used to grow both domestic and foreign plants and produce hardier crops. Yoshimune encouraged the widespread cultivation of new plants from overseas, such as sugarcane and sweet potato, in the hope that such new crops might help alleviate the periodic famines that afflicted Japan. Aoki Kon’yō, Yoshimune’s resident Dutch studies librarian, also wrote a work on the merits of sweet potato cultivation as well as treatises on Dutch currency and the Dutch language.


Under the rules of Tokugawa Yoshimune and his successor, the irresponsible Shogun Ieshige, the main focus of learning Western knowledge remained that of “useful learning” and its practical applications. The next generation contained numbers of people who were able to learn directly from books in Dutch. There was continued progress in Japanese technology, art, and education, in part because of the increasing practical application of Western learning. A famous example is a research team led by Maeno Ryotaku (1723-1803), a student of Aoki Kon’yō, and Sugita Genpaku (1733-1817), who had learned Western medicine from a shogunate physician. This team worked from a 1734 Dutch translation of Anatomische tabellen Anatomische tabellen (Kulmus) (1725; illustrated anatomy) by the German physician Johann Adam Kulmus Kulmus, Johann Adam (1689-1745), carrying out the first scientific dissections in Japan. The team went on to translate the Kulmus text in 1774 (Kaitai Shinsho Kaitai Shinsho (Kulmus) ), the first full-scale translation of a European scientific text into Japanese.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Boxer, Charles R. Papers on Portuguese, Dutch, and Jesuit Influences in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century Japan: Studies in Japanese History and Civilization. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1979. A detailed account, by a recognized authority, of Japan’s early encounters with European cultures and religious ideologies.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Goodman, Grant Kohn. Japan and the Dutch, 1600-1853. Richmond, Surrey, England: Curzon, 2000. Examines 250 years of an exclusive relationship between Tokugawa Japan and the Netherlands. Extensive and detailed bibliographical references.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Johnson, Hiroko. Western Influence on Japanese Art. Amsterdam: Hotei/KIT, 2004. A historical study of the Akita Ranga School, an artistic by-product of rangaku, or Dutch studies, in eighteenth century Japan.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kasaya, Kazuhiko, ed. Dodonaeus in Japan: Translation and the Scientific Mind in the Tokugawa Period. Leuven, Belgium: Leuven University Press, 2001. Explores how the European pharmacological tradition in Dodonaeus’s book of herbs was adapted by Tokugawa intellectuals, and its effect on the development of modern scientific discourse in Japan.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Keene, Donald. The Japanese Discovery of Europe, 1720-1830. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1969. Keene examines the relaxation of the ban on Western books, which ultimately resulted in a nationalistic Japanese version of Western medicine.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sansom, George Bailey. The Western World and Japan; A Study in the Interaction of European and Asiatic Cultures. New York: Random House, 1974. A classic history of cultural relations between Japan and the West, containing many interesting anecdotes.

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