A Japanese international system?
Once the first contacts were established with China in the fifth century CE., the inhabitants of the islands of Japan maintained a close relationship to the Asian mainland. It is unclear how the Japanese first came into contact with China, but it is easy to imagine that Japanese fishermen were washed up somewhere on the shores of the Asian mainland after a storm. When they eventually made it back to Japan, they had amazing stories to tell about all the wonders they had seen. Hearing such tales, the local rulers dispatched better-organized delegations and soon the Japanese embarked on regular study-visits. 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 changed these imports to fit their own needs, 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 China-run 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 an aggressive and expansionist China. Although informal commercial contacts continued and thrived, no more official delegations were dispatched to the Chinese court. The imported Chinese culture continued to evolve but in a distinctly Japanese fashion.
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, the 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. During the Kamakura period, 1185-1333, power was taken over by military leaders, the shoguns, who had Kanto as their center. The emperor, residing in Kansai, was a figurehead, a symbolic leader, and for most of the country’s history, he was more or less ignored. An emperor in the sixteenth century even had to sell his own calligraphy in order to pay his household expenses. Yet the power of the shogun was quite limited as well. This was particularly the case during the Sengoku period, 1467-1573, which was Japan’s own version of China’s Warring States period. The Sengoku period was a time of lawlessness, heroism and political intrigue with vast armies of samurai pitted against each other.
The Sengoku 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. Japan was a sakoku, a “closed country,” and foreign 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. Yet unofficial contacts of various kinds continued, not the least silk trade with merchants in Korea and the Ryukyu islands.
Although Japan was now pacified — historians often talk about a Pax Tokugawa, the “Tokugawa peace” — 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, each han even had its own currency, and at the end of the Tokugawa period, there were hundreds of separate forms of exchange in circulation. 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 to see Japan as an ordinary state, yet this description is surely incomplete. The Tokugawa government was not fully sovereign since it did not have full control over the country’s territory and it had no foreign policy. Perhaps Japan is better described as an international system — a mini-system — in its own right. If we see Japan as an international system, we need to explain why it was so peaceful. One reason was a small set of regulations that applied equally to the country as a whole, involving, for example, restrictions on military installations. Yet the most spectacular feature of the Tokugawa system was the institution of sankin-kōtai, “alternate attendance,” according to which the daimyo was required to spend every second year in Edo, where the shogun was able to keep a close watch on them. Moreover, during the year they spent at home, taking care of the business of their respective hans, they were required to leave their wives and children in Edo, where they effectively would serve as the shogun’s hostages. If a daimyo in some way misbehaved, it was easy for the shogun to seek retribution on his family.