Japan’s Seclusion Policy Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Japan’s Tokugawa shogunate introduced a series of laws, referred to collectively as the sakoku, or seclusion policy, that placed limits on foreign trade and outlawed foreign travel. The policy sought to eliminate the influence of Christianity in Japan and to prevent daimyos from gaining an advantage against the central authorities by trading directly with the West.

Summary of Event

The Tokugawa shogunate Tokugawa shogunate was established by Tokugawa Ieyasu Tokugawa Ieyasu in 1603. After nearly 150 years of civil war, Ieyasu defeated all of his major rivals, consolidated central power, and began to take legal and administrative steps to ensure that power would remain in the hands of his family. To this end, disruptive influences like Toyotomi Hideyori Toyotomi Hideyori , the son of Ieyasu’s predecessor, Toyotomi Hideyoshi Toyotomi Hideyoshi , were eliminated. Legal codes like the Buke shohatto Buke shohatto , a series of laws governing the samurai warrior houses, were also enacted in order to ensure the continued loyalty of the various feudal lords, or daimyos, to the Tokugawa family. Other elements in Japanese society proved harder to control, however. [kw]Japan’s Seclusion Policy (1624-1640’) [kw]Seclusion Policy, Japan’s (1624-1640’) Diplomacy and international relations;1624-1640’: Japan’s Seclusion Policy[0940] Government and politics;1624-1640’: Japan’s Seclusion Policy[0940] Trade and commerce;1624-1640’: Japan’s Seclusion Policy[0940] Economics;1624-1640’: Japan’s Seclusion Policy[0940] Cultural and intellectual history;1624-1640’: Japan’s Seclusion Policy[0940] Japan;1624-1640’: Japan’s Seclusion Policy[0940] Japan;seclusion policy Seclusion policy, Japan

Christianity Christianity;Japan , since its arrival in Japan in the 1540’, had made major gains, particularly in the southern island of Kyūshū. Since the time of Hideyoshi, however, Christianity was believed by the Japanese elite to be a dangerous influence and an obstacle to the centralization of power. Hideyoshi began to persecute Christians in 1587, and while Ieyasu was initially sympathetic to the faith because of his desire to trade with European nations, persecution of Christianity began again in earnest in the 1610’. Under Tokugawa Iemitsu Tokugawa Iemitsu , the third Tokugawa shogun, who inherited the office in 1623, the persecution of Christians Persecution, religious;Christians in Japan in Kyūshū increased in severity. The Spanish, suspected by the government of transporting priests to Japan and supporting those hiding in the country, were expelled from Japan and banned from entering Japanese ports in 1624. This prohibition is considered the beginning of the legal measures that eventually became a comprehensive formal policy of national seclusion known as sakoku, or the “closed country” edicts.

After the expulsion of the Spanish, Iemitsu’s persecution of Japanese Christians increased in intensity. Torture was used to force believers to abandon their faith or to inform on their fellows. Efforts to find and eliminate foreign priests hiding in Japan also increased. In 1633, another edict was promulgated requiring a license for anyone wishing to leave or enter Japan. Japanese who had lived abroad were banned from returning unless they met certain strict conditions or had been unavoidably detained for a short period. A stricter system of searches for foreign priests was commenced, and significant cash rewards were offered to those who would turn them in. Another, more strict edict was promulgated in the following year. Sailing abroad was forbidden. Japanese caught trying to enter the country were to be executed. These harsh measures enacted against Japanese trying either to leave or to enter the country were intended to block any further Christian influence.

In 1637, as a result of persecution and oppressive land taxes, peasants in the Shimabara Shimabara Revolt (1637-1638) region of northern Kyūshū revolted against the local lords and the shogunate. The revolt was brutally suppressed and all thirty-seven thousand participants were massacred in the following year. During the revolt, the Dutch, whose Protestant beliefs the shogun Iemitsu did not see as dangerous, were recruited to assist the shogunate by bombarding the rebels from the sea.





After the rebellion was put down, the final elements of the policy of national seclusion were put into place. In 1639, the Portuguese, former strong trading partners, were barred from entering Japanese ports because of suspicion that they were continuing to transport foreign priests to Japan. In 1641, the Dutch were moved from their factory at Hirado to the island of Dejima Dejima in Nagasaki harbor. The Dutch, along with Chinese and Korean merchants, were allowed to continue trading with Japan, but their actions were strictly controlled. These groups continued to be very influential in Japan: The Dutch imported scientific and medical knowledge, as well as information about events in the outside world, while the Chinese influenced the nation’s artistic and literary culture. Together, they made Nagasaki into something of a cosmopolitan center. However, with the exception of this carefully controlled center of cosmopolitanism, Japan had effectively closed its borders to contact with other nations.

While scholars often focus on the anti-Christian elements of Japan’s policy of national seclusion, Tokugawa Iemitsu’s sakoku edicts may also be seen as an attempt to reorient power relations in the region. The Dutch, Koreans, and Chinese were required to pay tribute to the shogun, and this requirement has been increasingly interpreted as an attempt by the Japanese leadership to create the illusion of a total primacy of Japanese rule in world affairs. In the context of Japanese domestic politics, this type of illusion proved useful, as it allowed the government to claim a greater level of authority and legitimacy. Also important in the context of domestic power relations was the shogunate’s monopoly on trade. Trade was strictly controlled by the central authorities, ensuring that regional lords could not gain an advantage in technology by trading with the West or gain a financial advantage through the lucrative trade with Asian nations. In short, not only was the sakoku policy a means of controlling and eventually stamping out Christian influence, it was also a means by which the shogunate was able to increase its power over the rest of Japan’s daimyos.


The policy of seclusion, while by no means total, had a great impact on the character of Japanese society during the Edo period (1603-1867). The strict control of information from the outside world combined with the prohibitions keeping most of the individual domains from engaging in international trade or travel helped to maintain the power structure established by Tokugawa Ieyasu in the early seventeenth century. The sakoku policy was a major factor in the shogunate’s ability to maintain a rigid social order for over 250 years. The policy also effectively forced Japan’s burgeoning Christian community underground. Japanese Christians still practiced their faith in hiding but were unable to worship publicly until the 1870’. This was seen as a necessary measure to maintain order by the Tokugawa.

Trade with the Dutch, as well as with Chinese and Korean merchants, was still carried out under strict conditions. Despite the official seclusion policy, foreign knowledge was studied by a small number of Japanese scholars. European languages and medicine proved influential. In addition, Chinese painting and verse continued to form the main cultural pursuits of a small intellectual elite. Despite this limited contact, however, the seclusion policies ultimately resulted in the deterioration of Japanese science and military technology, which had rivaled that of the Western powers in the seventeenth century. Developments in the West eventually led to the reopening of Japan to foreign contact through gunboat diplomacy, which neither the Tokugawa nor individual domains were able to resist.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">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 under the sakoku system.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hesselink, 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 world view of the Japanese shogunate in the seventeenth century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Toby, Ronald. State and Diplomacy in Early Modern Japan: Asia in the Development of the Tokugawa Bakufu. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1984. A discussion of the role of Asia in the formation of Japan’s seclusion policies and the continued relationship between Japan and China and Korea in the early Edo period.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Totman, Conrad. Early Modern Japan. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993. The most comprehensive single-volume treatment of the Edo period in English. Includes a comprehensive discussion of the development of the policy of seclusion and its lasting effects.
Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Seventeenth Century</i>

Tokugawa Ieyasu; Tokugawa Tsunayoshi. Japan;seclusion policy Seclusion policy, Japan

Categories: History