World History 2 25 - 2.3.1 Japan

In the 1400s, Japan was locked in what seemed to be unending internal strife. The Ashikaga shoguns (military overlords) who supposedly ruled the country were too weak to prevent their vassals from fighting one another or to deal with pirate bands that attacked the coasts of Japan, Korea, and China (Figure 2.18). Powerful samurai began to style themselves daimyos (“great lords”) and ruled their territories as if they were independent kingdoms; they imposed their own laws, collected tolls from those who entered, and recruited warriors loyal only to them, instead of to the shogun or the emperor. From this period of chaos emerged a succession of three powerful samurai who came to be known as “the three unifiers.” Beginning in the 1560s, Oda Nobunaga began to unite Japan under his rule. He was succeeded by Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu. These men ended the incessant violence, united Japan under a strong central government, and defined the relationship their nation had with the West.

This map shows the locations of China, Korea, and Japan. China is a large region in the southeastern part of Asia. Korea is a peninsula and borders China. Japan is an island east of Asia.
Figure 2.18 In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, China, Japan, and Korea all attempted to limit the effects of contact with outsiders and their ideas. (attribution: Copyright Rice University, OpenStax, under CC BY 4.0 license)

In 1543, Portuguese ships arrived in Japan. It was the logical end point of a route that had taken them around the coast of Africa, eastward through the Indian Ocean, and into the Pacific. They wished to trade. They also wished to win converts for the Roman Catholic Church, as they had done elsewhere in Asia. The Portuguese were soon followed by the Spanish in 1549, and on the heels of the Portuguese and Spanish came the Dutch and the English. These last two nations, however, were less interested in religion than in profit.

The Jesuit priests brought by the Spanish and Portuguese proved quite successful at winning souls. Those like Gaspar Vilela, who arrived in Japan in 1556, often learned the Japanese language so they could communicate directly with converts. By 1600, more than 100,000 Japanese had become Roman Catholics, and half the Jesuits serving in Japan were Japanese. Nagasaki, on the southern island of Kyushu, was the most Christianized community in Japan and had ten churches. Although most samurai were not interested in becoming Roman Catholics, they were nevertheless interested in something else the Europeans had to offer—guns. Many daimyos became Christian or offered the missionaries support in an effort to obtain weapons and gunpowder to assist them in their battles with rival samurai.

Guns had a great impact on Japanese warfare even though they were difficult to aim and slow to reload. One gun did not give its possessor an advantage in battle over opponents armed with swords, pikes, or lances. However, when soldiers massed together and groups of them fired in succession, as Europeans fought, they could easily defeat those armed with traditional Japanese weapons. Oda Nobunaga made use of this new style of fighting. In 1575, at the Battle of Nagashino, he and his vassal Tokugawa Ieyasu used companies of samurai armed with European guns to defeat the warriors of the Takeda clan. By 1582, the year he was assassinated by one of his vassals, Oda had unified the central portion of the main Japanese island of Honshu, including the area surrounding Kyoto, the seat of the emperor.

Upon Oda’s death, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a vassal of his, succeeded to his position after defeating the army of Oda’s assassin. By 1590, Hideyoshi had defeated all the daimyos in Japan and required that they declare their loyalty to him. He disarmed non-samurai and forbade peasants to leave the land or become soldiers, while also forbidding samurai to take up any occupation other than war.

Unlike Oda Nobunaga, who had been relatively unconcerned with the activities of Christians, Hideyoshi was more suspicious of them. A devout Buddhist, he disapproved of Christians’ eating of cattle and horses and was horrified by the destruction of Buddhist temples and objects of worship by some overly zealous converts, acts in which Gaspar Vilela had participated. In 1587, Hideyoshi ordered Christian missionaries to leave Japan. The edict was not enforced, but the Jesuits, alarmed, asked Christian daimyos to help them attack the shogun, which they refused to do. In 1590, the Jesuits in Japan resolved instead to refrain from intervening in Japanese affairs, but they secretly continued to provide funds for Christian daimyos.

Neither approach was completely successful in avoiding Hideyoshi’s ire. In 1596 the San Felipe, a Spanish ship sailing from the Philippines to Mexico, was caught in typhoons in the Pacific and wrecked on a sandbar in the harbor of Urado, on the Japanese island of Shikoku. The local daimyo confiscated the vessel’s cargo, which Japanese law allowed, and when the ship’s captain protested, the daimyo suggested he approach Mashita Nagamori, one of the shogun’s officials, for assistance. Accordingly, the Spanish captain sent two men to the capital of Kyoto to meet with Nagamori.

There they produced a map of Spain’s empire in the Americas and explained how converting the Indigenous population to Christianity had helped Spain to gain control of this vast territory. Nagamori reported this information to Hideyoshi, perhaps with the intent of providing an excuse for retaining hold of the ship’s cargo. Fearing that the Spanish intended to conquer Japan and planned to seek assistance from Japanese Christians, Hideyoshi ordered the arrest of the missionaries who had remained in Japan in violation of his 1587 decree. The Jesuits, however, had deliberately made their proselytizing efforts less public since 1587, and they were largely being ignored. Thus, of the twenty-six Christians arrested, most were Japanese, and twenty-three were of the Franciscan order. In February 1597, all were crucified in Nagasaki. They became known as the Twenty-Six Martyrs of Japan.

In Their Own Words

The Expulsion of the Missionaries

In 1587, Toyotomi Hideyoshi ordered Christian missionaries to leave Japan. He had not always been opposed to Christianity. Some of his loyal daimyos were Christians, and Christians had offered prayers for his success when he invaded Korea. Like his predecessor Oda Nobunaga, Hideyoshi was willing to tolerate Christianity if it did not disrupt traditional Japanese practices or interfere with his plans to consolidate his power over other samurai. By 1587, however, he had become convinced that it posed too many threats. Following are the edicts he issued in 1587. As you read, note the various reasons he gives for expelling the missionaries.

1. Japan is the country of the gods, but has been receiving false teachings from Christian countries. This cannot be tolerated any further.

2. The [missionaries] approach people in provinces and districts to make them their followers, and let them destroy shrines and temples. This is an unheard of outrage. When a vassal receives a province, a district, a village, or another form of a fief, he must consider it as a property entrusted to him on a temporary basis. He must follow the laws of this country, and abide by their intent. However, some vassals illegally [commend part of their fiefs to the church]. This is a culpable offense.

3. The padres [Catholic priests], by their special knowledge [in the sciences and medicine], feel that they can at will entice people to become their believers. In doing so they commit the illegal act of destroying the teachings of Buddha prevailing in Japan. These padres cannot be permitted to remain in Japan. They must prepare to leave the country within twenty days of the issuance of this notice.

4. The black [Portuguese and Spanish] ships come to Japan to engage in trade. Thus the matter is a separate one. They can continue to engage in trade.

5. Hereafter, anyone who does not hinder the teachings of the Buddha, whether he be a merchant or not, may come and go freely from Christian countries to Japan.

—Toyotomi Hideyoshi, “Edict: Expulsion of Missionaries”

  • How tolerant was Toyotomi Hideyoshi of European Christians? What specific actions angered him? Why?
  • Does Hideyoshi object to the Christian faith itself? Explain your answer.

In 1592, Hideyoshi invaded Korea, a vassal state of the Ming dynasty, but Chinese troops stopped the Japanese advance. In 1597, he attacked again and was again defeated, this time by Chinese and Korean troops and Korea’s navy. In 1598 he died, leaving his five-year-old son Hideyori to inherit his position. However, the five-member council that was to rule until Hideyori came of age was soon divided, and the two sides made war upon each other. In 1600, Tokugawa Ieyasu, a vassal of Hideyoshi, defeated his opponents at the Battle of Sekigahara (Figure 2.19), and he became shogun in 1603.

This painting shows a large battle by samurai armies. Many samurai carry flags. Hills are visible in the background.
Figure 2.19 This illustration on a nineteenth-century Japanese screen shows the 1600 Battle of Sekigahara. Approximately 160,000 samurai clashed over a period of six hours. (credit: “Sekigahara Kassen Byōbu-z” by The City of Gifu Museum of History/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Link to Learning

Visit My Modern Met to see an animation of the Battle of Sekigahara through the work of videographer Yusuke Shigeta, who reconstructed the battle by animating a painted folded screen.

To consolidate power, Tokugawa Ieyasu rewarded loyal daimyos with gifts of land. He allocated 15 percent of Japan’s richest rice-producing land to himself and his heirs. The next-best land, about half of that available, was given to his “inside daimyos,” samurai who were related to him or who had declared their loyalty before the Battle of Sekigahara. The remaining land, less fertile or farthest away from the new capital of Edo (modern-day Tokyo), was given to the “outside daimyos,” samurai clans that had proclaimed loyalty only after his victory or that had fought against him. Ieyasu prohibited daimyos from forming alliances, including marriages, without his approval. He also required them to spend every other year in Edo, where it would be more difficult for them to formulate rebellion.

The peace and unity that Tokugawa Ieyasu’s rule brought to Japan ushered in a period of prosperity and cultural blossoming. The daimyos took control of the lands that had belonged to their samurai, and the samurai moved to the cities in which their lords’ castles were located. The daimyos established schools where the sons of their vassals studied Chinese characters, learned the Confucian classics, and were instructed in military skills. Temple schools taught the children of artisans and merchants. Tokugawa Japan boasted a high level of literacy, which supported a thriving publishing industry. In Edo alone, there were hundreds of shops in which people could buy or rent novels and other types of books. People visited restaurants and theaters in their leisure time, and those who could afford to do so traveled to Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, often at festival time.

Like Hideyoshi, Ieyasu also feared that Christians posed a threat to Japan, a belief Dutch and English merchants seeking trade advantages encouraged. Ieyasu was aware of hostile Portuguese and Spanish actions in India and the Philippines and did not intend to surrender control of Japan. He also feared that by adopting the foreign faith, he would give disloyal daimyos opportunities to conspire against him. He was encouraged in this belief when a Christian samurai forged a document to help another Christian samurai claim land he desired and a scandal erupted. The forger, caught, also claimed that a plan existed to kill an official of the shogun’s government.

In 1614, Ieyasu outlawed the practice of Christianity and ordered missionaries to leave the country. Japanese Christians were warned that if they did not renounce their faith, they would be killed. It was clear to Ieyasu that the best way to keep Christian influence—and other dangerous forces—out of the country was to ban the entry of foreigners and forbid Japanese to leave. Preventing Japanese from leaving the country would also keep daimyos from conspiring against him in foreign lands.

In 1624, the Spanish were banned from entering Japan. In 1639, Ieyasu prohibited the entry of the Portuguese. The Dutch, who had refrained from missionary activity, were still allowed to enter Japan to trade. However, to limit any harmful influence on their part, Dutch merchants were confined to a settlement on Dejima Island in the harbor of Nagasaki, in a walled compound they were not allowed to leave. Only licensed trade officials and translators (a position that became hereditary) could have contact with them. The English might have been extended the same rights, but finding trade with Japan not as profitable as they had hoped, they no longer sent ships. Chinese merchants were also still allowed to enter the country, but their trade was confined to Nagasaki, and they were forced to live in a special Chinese enclave. In 1635, Japanese were forbidden to leave the country except on special missions, like transacting trade with Korea, China, and Russia.

Despite efforts of the shogun’s government to prevent Japanese contact with Europeans, “Dutch learning,” knowledge gained from the Dutch on Dejima, played an important part in Japanese life in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In 1640, European books were banned with the exception of medical treatises and books on sailing. In subsequent years, the bans intended to isolate Japanese from Western knowledge relaxed. Ailing Japanese who could not find relief from Japanese doctors visited physicians on Dejima. Trade in Western goods was allowed to some extent in Nagasaki, and government officials were allowed to purchase maps, clocks, medical instruments, telescopes, and novelties like European seeds and birds. In the early eighteenth century, prohibitions on books were relaxed, and works on medicine, science, and geography were translated. Thus, “Dutch learning” provided a foundation for Japanese scientific and technological development and kept people informed of what was happening in Europe, even though most could not leave the country.

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The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax