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Japan's Missed Opportunity in the Pacific

It is well known that Japan cut itself off from significant contacts with the outside world by about 1640 and the seclusion was not broken until Commodore Perry brought his ships to Japan in 1853. What is less known is that prior to the seclusion the Shogun Ieyasu tried to promote trade with the outside world and that it was only his death that brought that venture to a halt.

When the Portuguese first visited Japan in 1542 their appearance must have created a cultural dilemma. The situation was similar to a cartoon that the British humor magazine Punch ran many years ago. The cartoon shows a flying saucer which has landed in Time Square in New York City. The President of the United States is there to greet the occupants of the space vehicle. The door opens and out steps an American Indian chief in full regalia of a war bonnet and all. A Secret Service man behind the President whispers to his colleague, "This is going to be very embarassing!"

The aborigines of Japan are the Ainu, often called the "Hairy Ainu" because of their full beards. The Shogun was officially the "Defender Against the Barbarians" meaning the Ainu.

The Portuguese, to the Japanese, bore a striking resemblance to the Ainu. The people the Japanese were trying to annihilate as subhumans had seeminngly suddenly appeared with an advanced technology of ships and guns. It must have been a shock to the Japanese of that era.

The Shogun allowed the Portuguese to trade in Japan and the Portuguese introduced firearms into the sword-oriented Japanese culture. In 1549 the Spanish Basque, Saint Francis Xavier, the great Jesuit missionary, came to Japan on a Portuguese ship to prosleytize. In a short period of time he had three thousand converts. His efforts were perhaps aided by a growing resentment among the common people for the power and wealth which had be acquired by the Buddhist temples.

The Spanish started the conquest of the Philippine Islands in 1565. After they established a fortification at Manila they started tran-Pacific voyages between Manila and Acapulco, Mexico. This route would benefit from having the option of stopping for provisions in Japan. The Dutch after their initial visit in 1600 engaged in trade with Japan from 1609 onward. The British also started trading with Japan in `1613.

The Japan of that era was expansionist. The Tokugawan Shogun Hideyoshi launched an invasion of Korea with an army of almost 200 thousand. He sent envoys to the Philippines 1582 to demand submission to his authority, but the mission failed.

Several ships traveled between Japan and the Philippines each year but the Spanish guarded the trade with Mexico very carefully. In 1596 a Manila galleon was lured into port in Japan and the local lord confiscated the cargo on the basis that it was stranded.

During this period Hideyoshi, fearing subversion on the part of the Christian missionaries and their converts. A Portuguese told Hideyoshi that the way the Spanish gained control of new territory was to send in missionaries to convert as many of the local people to Christianity as possible. Then when a Christian community existed the Spanish would foment trouble and launch an invasion claiming it was to protect Christians. Hideyoshi believed this and decided to prevent it from occurring. He started persecuting Christians. The missionaries were deported and the Japanese converts faced with renunciation of their faith or execution. Hideyoshi died in 1598 and the persution of Christians ceased temporarily.

Hideyoshi's successor, Ieyasu, tried to get the Spanish ships voyaging between Manila and Acapulco to stop in Japan for trade. In 1602 Ieyasu sent a message to the Spanish authorities in Manila:

Nothing would satisfy my desires so much as to see merchant vessels establishing frequent communication between my country and New Spain (Mexico).

In 1609 a ship from Manila traveling to Acapulco and carrying an outgoing governor of the Philippines wrecked in Japan. Ieyasu treated the governor hospitably and in 1610 sent him along his way accompanied by more than twenty Japanese merchants. The governor was convinced to support Ieyasu desire for trade with Mexico. The Spanish authorities were not inclined to welcome the Japanese merchants. They put these merchants on the first ship returning to Manila and told them not to come back.

In 1612 higher authorities in the Spanish Empire did authorize trade between Mexico and Japan but their edicts were never put into operation. By this time Ieyasu became convinced that the Christian community was a subversive threat to his power and reversed his policy of toleration toward the Christian missions. He tried to deport the missionaries but found that they returned surreptitiously. This escalated the paranoia concerning the missionaries. After Ieyasu died there was little interest in maintaining contact with the outside world.

In 1636 the Shogun ordered Japanese Christians to give up their faith and forbade Japanese from visiting Christian countries. The edict also forbade the building of any ocean-going vessels under penalty of death. Japanese Christians in Shimabara revolted in 1637-38 and the Shogun massacred all those involved. The Dutch were allowed to continue their trading expeditions. The Portuguese initially were also to be allowed to continue their trade but the Shogun believed they were involved in the Shimabara revolt so the trading privileges of the Portuguese were withdrawn. In 1640 Portuguese ships from Macão came to Japan to petition for a renewal of their trading privileges. The Shogun had most of these emissaries executed and sent a few back with the following message:

Inform the inhabitants of Macão that the Japanese wish to receive from them neither gold, nor silver, nor any kind of presents or merchandise,--in a word, absolutely nothing that comes from them. You are witnesses that I have caused even the clothing of those who were executed yesterday to be burned. Let them do the same with respect to us, if they find occasion to do so; we consent to it without difficulty. Let them think of us no more, just as if we were no longer in the world. While the sun warms the earth let no Christian be so bold as to come to Japan, and let them all know that if King Philip of Spain himself, or the very God of the Christians, or even the great Buddha, shall contravene this prohibition, he will pay for it with his head.

With this stark pronouncement the door between Japan and the outside world effectively closed for three centuries. If Japan had not isolated itself it would have dominated the world of the Pacific. No other power could have fielded the merchants and the armed forces that Japan could have amassed in the region. Spain's forces in the region were a few thousand. They would have been no match for the few hundreds of thousand that Japan could have marshalled against them.

Charles Chapman, A History of California, 1930.

George Kennan, "How Japan lost her chance in the Pacific," The Outlook, (June 27, 1914), pp. 489-493.

Naojiro Murakami, "Japan's early attempts to establish commercial relations with Mexico," in The Pacific Ocean in History, (New York, 1917), pp. 467-480.

James Murdoch with the collaboration of Isoh Yamagata, A History of Japan During the Century of Early Foreign Intercourse (1542-1651), (Kobe, Japan 1903).

Zelia Nuttall, "The earliest historical relations between Mexico and Japan," in Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology, University of California (Berkeley, CA 1904), vol. IV, no. 1, pp. 1-47.

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