The inhabitants of the islands of Japan maintained a close relationship to the Asian mainland once contacts first were established with China in the fifth-century CE. At the time Japan was a poor country of fishermen and farmers, and the political authorities that existed above the level of the village are better described as chieftains than as kings. It is unclear how the Japanese first came into contact with China, but it is easy to imagine that Japanese fishermen were washed up on the shores of the Asian mainland after a storm. When they made it back to Japan, they had some amazing stories to tell. Hearing such tales, the local rulers dispatched better organized delegations and soon the Japanese went on regular study-visit to China. Eventually the Japanese imported an entire culture from China, including arts and technology, religion and a writing system, political and social thought and associated political and social institutions. The Japanese often transformed these imports, and many of the changes were radical enough, but Japanese society was nevertheless profoundly altered as a result of the interaction. Yet Japan was a tribute-bearing state, and an official member of the Sino-centric international system, only for a few hundred years. Once the Mongols tried, and failed, to invade the country at the end of the thirteenth-century, relations could not continue as before. The Japanese did not want anything to do with a China which was aggressive and expansionist [Read more: Kamikaze] Although commercial contacts continued, and thrived, with both China and Korea on an informal basis, no more official delegations were dispatched to the emperor’s court and Japan was politically speaking on its own.
Among the institutions borrowed from China was that of an emperor, yet the emperor of Japan was nowhere near as powerful as his Chinese counterpart. Instead real power in the country was in the hands of various local and regional leaders who had a strong and largely independent position in relation to each other. Japan was decentralized, with many different centers vying for political power. There was, for example, a fundamental tension between the leaders who controlled the Kanto region, where today’s Tokyo is situated, and the leaders who controlled the Kansai region, the area around today’s Osaka and Kyoto. Already during the Kamakura period, 1185–1333 CE, power was taken over by military leaders, the shogun, who had Kanto as their center. The Japanese emperor, residing in Nara and later in Kyoto, was a figurehead, a symbolic leader, and for most of the country’s history he was more or less ignored by the rest of the country. Emperor Go-Nara in the sixteenth-century even had to sell calligraphy in his own hand in order to pay for his household expenses. Yet the power of the shogun was actually quite limited too. This was particularly the case during the Sengoku period, 1467-1573 CE, which was Japan’s own version of China’s Warring States period. This was a time of lawlessness, heroism and political intrigue with vast armies of samurai pitted against each other. [Read more: The samurai in fact and fiction] In 1592, one of the military leaders, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, even tried to invade Ming dynasty China but he was stopped already in Korea.
The warring states period ended in the year 1600 after the Battle of Sekigahara when one of the military leaders, Tokugawa Ieyasu, decisively defeated the others. This inaugurated the Tokugawa period, 1600-1868 — also known as the “Edo period” — which brought peace to the country but also economic development and great social and cultural change. In the 1630s, the Tokugawa rulers banned foreign trade and limited contacts with the rest of the world. Foreign missionaries were expelled, Japanese people were banned from building ocean-going ships, and Japanese people abroad were not allowed to return home. Officially Japan was a sakoku, a “closed country,” and trade was limited to a few ships per year which entered at the only accessible port, Nagasaki in the far south. According to the official rhetoric, Japan was self-sufficient and its people should not waste their precious silver on luxury items from abroad, such as silk. Yet unofficial contacts of various kinds continued, not least silk trade with merchants in Korea and the Ryukyu islands. [Read more: The Ryukyus as the center of the world]
Although Japan now was pacified – historians often talk about a Pax Tokugawa – the country was not a unified whole. Instead various regional rulers, known as the daimyo, continued to affirm their independence, each one ruling a region, or han, of their own. The number of han varied over time but for most of the Tokugawa period there were at least 250 of them. The Tokugawa family controlled the largest of these regions and also the largest cities, but over something like three quarters of the han they had no direct influence. The daimyo raised their own taxes, had their own armies, police forces, legal and educational systems, and they pursued independent social and economic policies. In fact, the han even had their own currencies, and at the end of the Tokugawa period there were hundreds of separate forms of exchange in circulation in the country. While the shoguns in Edo reserved the right to put down peasant rebellions wherever they occurred their military power was restricted by the fact that they could not tax people outside of their own lands.
The question is how best to characterize Japan during this period. The most obvious answer is of course to see Japan as an ordinary, unified, state, yet this description is surely faulty. The Tokugawa government was not fully sovereign since it did not have full control over the country’s territory, it could not make laws for the country as a whole, and it had no foreign policy. Perhaps Japan is better described as a compound made up of mini-states, or perhaps we can even think of it as an international system – a mini-system – in its own right. If so, however, we need to be able to explain why it was that Japan remained so remarkably peaceful during the 250 years of Tokugawa rule. The answer to that question points us in the direction both of institutions and social norms.
More than anything, peace was enforced thanks to a small set of regulations regarding military matters that applied equally to all han, involving, for example, restrictions on military installations and rules that prevented marriage alliances that could threaten Tokugawa rule. The most spectacular feature, however, was the system of sankinkotai, “alternate attendance,” according to which the daimyos were required to spend every second year in Edo, where the shogun was able to keep a close watch over them. Moreover, during the year they spent at home, taking care of the business of their han, they were required to leave their wives and children in Edo, where they effectively would serve as the shogun’s hostages. If the daimyo in some way misbehaved, it was easy for the shogun to seek retribution. In addition, the fact that all future leaders grew up in the same place, and in the same social environment, meant that they came to share a cultural outlook. In Edo the various daimyos and their courts became social rivals, competing with each other for status. Thus although Tokugawa Japan was deeply divided in political terms, it was well integrated both culturally and socially. [Read more: Processions through Japan]
In the early nineteenth-century, the Tokugawa rulers were weakened by economic difficulties and by popular rebellions. In 1853, Commodore Perry, an American, arrived in Edo Bay insisting that the country open up to foreign trade, although the issue most prominent on his mind was to find coaling-station for American steamships on their way to China. In 1858, the Japanese were forced to allow access to five ports for foreign merchants and ten years later, in 1868, the Tokugawa regime was toppled by a group of daimyos from the south of the country who declared the establishment of a new regime, the Meiji. After close to a thousand years of neglect, the imperial institutions were dusted off and the emperor reinstated as the nominal ruler of the country. The international system which was Japan – the composite, mini-states-within-a-state, country – was replaced by a unified state according to the European model.