In Our Time: Japan’s Sakoku Period

For around 200 years (from the 1630s until 1858) Japan pursued a policy of isolation from the rest of the world. The Japanese people were not allowed to leave the country, and foreigners were only allowed in under very controlled circumstances. The experts who discussed it on In Our Time were Richard Bowring (University of Cambridge), Andrew Cobbing (University of Nottingham) and Rebekah Clements (University of Cambridge).

They started by putting the period of the Tokugawa Shogunate into context. 16th Century Japan could be described as chaotic – different warlords in different regions vying for power. Towards the end of that century three successive warlords tried to reunite & stabilise the country, the final one was Tokugawa Ieyasu who founded the Tokugawa Shogunate which was to rule from about 1600 until the 1860s. International relations with nearby countries at this time were strained. In part this was due to recent events – in the 1590s Toyotomi Hideyoshi tried to conquer China. To do this he invaded Korea (as it was in between China & Japan) but was beaten back by Ming Dynasty troops. Other tensions were more long standing – China saw itself as the superior country to all the surrounding ones, and trade was generally carried on via the tributary system. Japan had at times in the past been willing to play the part of a subject nation, but the Tokugawa Shogunate was not.

Relations with Europeans were also marked by tension. Prior to the onset of the Sakoku period various European nations traded with Japan, generally they brought European goods out to China to trade and they took the silk from China to Japan where they traded it for Japanese silver. With traders came missionaries – in particular Portuguese missionaries, and Jesuits. The Tokugawa Shogunate disapproved of Christianity for a couple of reasons. Firstly it encouraged people to owe allegiance to an authority that saw itself as superior to the secular authority of the Shogun (they didn’t say on the programme if they meant God or the Pope here). Secondly various of the warlords on the western side of Japan were interested in Christianity because it gave them access to trade in guns & other things that the central authority would rather they didn’t have.

So in the 1630s the third Tokugawa Shogun issued a series of edicts that began the Sakoku period. Outgoing ships were banned, people who’d moved away to other countries (as part of trade relations) were banned from coming home, Christianity was banned, the building of ocean going ships was banned and all trade from abroad had to enter through Nagasaki. Japan was able to enforce trading restrictions because the island was actually self-sufficient – the incoming trade was in luxuries. And this was looked down on, they were saying on the programme that the four classes of person in Japan at this time were samurai, farmers, artisans & merchants in that order of importance. Trade wasn’t approved of, and in particular trading for fripperies & frivolities was supposed to be beneath the dignity of a gentleman.

These edicts were enforced via threats of execution. They gave an example of an Italian missionary who tried to sneak into the country – he was caught, taken to the capital and interrogated, then buried alive. The experts also pointed out that Japan in this era was a very militarised society and people were accustomed to doing what they were told, and there was also a network of spies throughout the country to make sure disobedience was punished. And the Shogunate was seen as having brought peace & stability to the country after the chaos of the 16th Century.

Clements pointed out that this wasn’t some grand strategy. Even the name “Sakoku” is a later term. At the time these things were done as reactions to particular circumstances and then the conservatism of the Tokugawa Shogunate upheld the status quo rather than rethinking things. I guess this is “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” taken to 200-year-long extremes.

Finally external forces forced the ending of this policy of isolation. In 1854 the US Navy turned up with gunships and bullied & threatened the Japanese into letting them refuel (coal for their steam ships) and re-supply their ships to make US trade with China more easily achieved. The US Civil War distracted the Americans from finishing the job, but Britain and Russia did that – forcing Japan to sign treaties weighted in the European countries’ favour (this was normal policy when dealing with non-Western powers at that time). The Tokugawa Shogunate had been a bit rocky already when the US showed up, and collapsed soon after. After a brief civil war the Empire of Japan was formed, and within 40 years was interacting with Western powers as an equal.

This can be seen as a very quick turn-around for Japan from isolation to embracing the modern world. But throughout the programme they were pointing out that the isolation wasn’t as complete as it’s sometimes pictured. Trade with the outside world still happened through the whole period – both with China and with the Dutch. Even though the Dutch were Christians they weren’t catholic (so no Pope) and weren’t as interested in conversion alongside trade as the Spanish & Portuguese. So they were permitted to establish a trading town on a man-made island in the harbour of Nagasaki. Another factor in their favour with the Japanese was that they were willing to go through the motions of paying tribute to the Shogun. Part of the political stance of this period was the Shogun setting itself up as another centre of a tributary system like the Chinese one.

As well as merchants all Dutch trading posts had doctors living in them – and these were the conduits of information in and out of Japan. Several wrote memoirs when they went back to Europe describing Japanese culture & history to the Europeans. And Western knowledge flowed into Japan – first medicine itself, and later other sciences like astronomy. So by the time that Japan was forced open to foreign trade there was already some knowledge of the Western world, and a literate, educated populace who could use it to learn more now that they had to.

An interesting programme about a subject I knew nothing about beyond the bare fact of its existence.

Threads of Silk and Gold (Exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum)

While we were in Oxford after Christmas we went to the Ashmolean Museum – J looked at the Egyptian stuff and I took the opportunity to visit one of the exhibitions they had on, as well as having a look at the early Chinese gallery to look at the sorts of things mentioned in the book I am reading.

Threads of Silk and Gold

This is an exhibition of embroidery & other textile crafts from Meiji era Japan, which is 1868-1912. During this period there was a lot of European influence on the designs made by Japanese craftspeople, and also a big European market for Japanese textiles. The exhibition had several very fine objects, made with a variety of techniques – embroidery, weaving, appliqué, dying etc. I don’t really have much to say about the exhibition, as it was very much a “look at the pretty stuff” sort of thing. And no photography coz it would damage the items.

I would’ve bought a postcard, but there wasn’t one of my favourite object – this was a four-paneled screen with a golden peacock and peahen embroidered on it (link goes to the museum’s page for the screen). I like it both for the design (which is very striking) and for the quality of the work. From a distance it looks like gold on lacquer, and it’s only when you get up close you can see that it’s embroidered. And if you look closely you can see that each feather in the peacock’s tail has been stitched in full, no short cuts. So a feather in the back had all its frondy bits coming off the main spine, and then a feather in front stitched over it etc.

The exhibition as a whole made me want to take up stitching again, but I think I’ve too many projects going on at the moment, perhaps I’ll come back to that some time though 🙂 And I should learn something about Japanese history, I had never heard the term “the Meiji period” before.

Other Stuff

I had a look around the earlyish Chinese stuff that they have in the museum – the galleries are split into two, Neolithic to 800AD and 800AD to the present. As I’d been reading about Chinese pre-history & the pre-unification dynasties I looked mostly at that stuff but I did also look at the Tang Dynasty pottery because I like that. And took pictures 🙂 They’re up on flickr, as always.

Inscribed OracleBronze Ritual Food VesselCamel

Chicken Headed Ewers

Ritual & Revelry (British Museum Exhibition)

The British Museum currently has an exhibition on the art of drinking in Asia called “Ritual and Revelry” which runs through till 6 January. We visited it on 23 November as we were in London for a concert that evening.

The Exhibition

The bulk of the objects in the exhibition were in a single room in the museum – with just a couple in the room immediately before it. They were laid out in three groups according to their use. On one side were pots, jugs and pictures of these things that were used in ritual & religious contexts. On the the other side were the same types of things but they were used in social contexts. And in the centre were four cases, 3 of which were to do with tea drinking and the last was about bhang drinking. Or you could see it as divided between vessels primarily used for water, vessels used primarily for alcohol and those for tea (listing them in the same order). Each section had objects from right across the sweep of Asia, so you could see the similarities between the areas, and the interconnectedness of the different cultures.

LotaFrog Shaped KendiYay Khwet GyiKundikaKapala (Skull Cup)Jue

The ritual side of the exhibition was mostly concerned with water containing vessels, such as the Indian lota which were originally made from gourds. The various different pots could be used in a variety of ways, and it seemed most started out as everyday water containing pots made out of gourds. Later they were made out of metal (such as bronze) and also gained religious symbolism. They could be used for drinking water or for pouring water as an offering, or over oneself as a ritual cleansing procedure. There were also some more startling objects – including a cup made with part of a human skull, which is used in some Buddhist rituals. Sometimes filled with human blood! I think, tho the label wasn’t clear, that that would be as an offering not as a drink.

Tea SetBrazierTea cupsTea BrickJian Ware Tea Bowl and Cup Stand

I didn’t know that when tea was first drunk it was made from dried & powdered tea leaves, which were whisked into hot water rather than steeped in a tea pot. Tibetan butter tea is still made like this (using yak butter as well as water and tea, frankly it sounds vile to me but it’s probably very nutritious). The tea is imported into Tibet in bricks, just as all tea used to be sold. Steeping tea didn’t really take off until the 15th Century, and then a change in apparatus was needed – the more familiar to us teapots and strainers, rather than whisks.

The middle section also included a case with some paintings of people drinking bhang which is a drink I’d never heard of before. It’s made from the flowers & leaves of the female cannabis plant, and is hallucinogenic. It can be drunk, or smoked in a hookah.

Brush Washer in the Shape of Li BaiArrow VaseElegant Gathering at the Orchard PaviliionSake Bottle in the Shape of A Young Man Holding a Bottle of SakePicnic Set

The third section, on the social side of drinking was about alcohol. I was astonished to find out that “toddy” is an actual drink – it’s Indian, and mildly alcoholic and made from palm sap. The jugs used by the toddy tappers to collect the palm sap look very like the lotas displayed over in the ritual section – and are still made out of gourds.

A large part of this side of the exhibition concentrated on the Chinese – particularly the Tang era poets called the Eight Immortals of the Wine Cup, who were renowned for producing their greatest work whilst drunk. There were also vases that were used in Chinese tradition drinking games – you aimed arrows at the openings in the pot, and if you failed to hit then you had to have a drink of something alcoholic. Obviously this would be a bit of a vicious circle 😉 The Japanese objects here were all to do with sake – I particularly liked the slightly recursive sake bottle in the shape of a young man holding a sake bottle. Sadly you didn’t pour the sake out of the bottle opening, instead you took the chap’s head off to pour.

I’ve got more photos up on flickr, in this set.

Other Things

Retail: As it’s not a major exhibition there wasn’t a dedicated shop immediately after you left, so I’m not even sure if there was particular stuff relating to it. They do normally have tea sets and sake sets in the shop, so perhaps that was it. I should look and see if there’s a book next time I’m at the museum.

Stuff I should know more about: More of the history of the countries that make up Asia – I’m starting to rectify my lack of knowledge of Chinese history soon (I have a book to read, anyway), but I still have not much of a feel for Indian history let alone the rest of the continent.

Other exhibits: We also went and looked at the new information they have up about the 3500BC (naturally) mummified man in the Pre-dynastic Egypt gallery. They CT scanned him, and have (possibly temporarily?) got a touch screen display set up where you can look at the pictures this generated. It has a 3D image of the body, and you can move it around, look at various levels (ie skeletal, or with muscles etc). And look at cross sections. It’s pretty neat to play with (tho we did have to wait a while before we could look properly), and well labelled. They discovered from the CT scan that he was probably killed by a knife thrust through the back of the left shoulder – so quite probably a murder victim. And once you’ve seen it on the scan all labelled up it’s nice to be able to look at the actual mummy and see it there as well.

Other places: That evening we went to a performance by Niyaz, of which more another time.

He Roars with the Sound of the Law

This is the image I am currently using as my desktop background, it’s made from 3 pictures I took in the Japanese Galleries at the British Museum on Monday. In the middle is Monju Bosatsu (Boddhisatva Manjusri), whose lion roars with the sound of Buddhist law. To the left is the deity Fudõ Myõ-õ whose fierce appearance shows his intolerance of wickedness. To the right is Aizen Myõ-õ who has the power to crush desire.

Boddhisatva and Deities

I’ve put more pictures from the Japanese galleries up on flickr, here.