Exclusion Laws in Japan

Exclusion Laws in Japan
Exclusion Laws in Japan

In 1534, the first Portuguese ship arrived in southern Japan bringing a cargo that included firearms. For the next hundred years, Japanese-Western trade flourished and Christian missionaries converted many Japanese to Catholicism.

However in 1636 strict isolation laws were enforced, foreigners were expelled, Japanese Christians were compelled to renounce their religion on pain of death, and Japanese were forbidden to leave the country. These strict exclusion laws would last until 1854.

The Japanese had known about gunpowder since the 13th century. However in the midst of extensive civil wars in the 16th century, Japanese feudal lords were immediately impressed by the accurate firing aquebuses and cannons the Portuguese traders introduced and immediately began to buy and then make them in Japan. These new weapons changed the nature of the warfare and led to the building of heavily fortified castles.

Catholic missionaries followed merchants. Francis Xavier, associate of Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus, arrived in Japan in 1549. Franciscan and Dominican missionaries soon followed. Many feudal lords, anxious to increase trade with European merchants, and seeing the deference Portuguese and Spanish merchants showed to priests, welcomed missionaries to their domains; some converted and even ordered their subjects to convert also.

Oda Nobunaga, the most powerful military leader of Japan, became a patron of the Jesuits. The number of converts increased dramatically, to 150,000 and two hundred churches by 1582 and perhaps to as many as 500,000 by 1615.

The very success of the Catholic missionaries created a backlash against Christians. Some opponents were Buddhists. Significantly political leaders began to fear the political loyalty of their Christian subjects. Thus Oda’s successor Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536–98) banned Christianity in 1587 but did not strictly enforce his edict until 10 years later.

It was Hideyoshi’s successor Tokugawa Ieyasu (1542–1616) who seriously persecuted Christians, beginning in 1612 when, as shogun, he ordered all Japanese converts to renounce Christianity on pain of death and then to be registered in a Buddhist temple.

He also executed some missionaries and expelled all others. His policies were ruthlessly carried out, with military force where there were large Christian communities. Tens of thousands were killed and only isolated clandestine communities remained.

The Tokugawa Bakufu, or Shogunate, expanded the ban on missionaries to include all Spanish, Portuguese, and English traders also. Only the Dutch among Europeans were allowed to send two ships annually to Nagasaki under strict supervision. Chinese ships were also allowed under license.

In 1636, another law was promulgated that prohibited all Japanese from leaving Japan and members of the sizable Japanese communities in Southeast Asia from returning. Shipbuilding was limited to small coastal vessels to prevent Japanese from secretly trading with foreigners.

Fear and insecurity motivated the newly established Tokugawa Shogunate (1603–1868) to ban Christianity and foreign contacts. Seclusion became Japan’s national policy.