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Japan and the West

In 1543, after being blown off course, Portuguese traders on board a Chinese merchant junk on the way to the Chinese port of Ningbo arrived on the Japanese island of Tanegashima. The Portuguese onboard, António Mota and Francisco Zeimoto, are considered the first recorded Europeans to have arrived in Japan. A third Portuguese sailor, António Peixoto, is sometimes considered to have been on the voyage but there is no documentary evidence showing he landed in Japan. This first European contact was followed in 1549 by the arrival of Spanish missionaries, intent on spreading their faith.

The European arrivals in Japan in the 1540s had a profound impact on the Japanese political landscape. At the time of the first European contact, Japan was in the midst of civil war. Europeans brought with them not only new ideas and new trade opportunities, but powerful new weaponry in the form of matchlock guns. Until this time, Japanese military strategy adhered to hand-to-hand combat with covering fire from archers, some on foot and others mounted on horses. Many daimyos saw the advantage of the new technology and began acquiring guns and setting their swordsmiths and metalworkers to producing locally made weapons. In some cases, missionaries would only trade weapons with daimyos who would convert to Christianity.

Within a few decades, gunpowder weapons were plentiful in Japan and military strategy had adapted, to devastating effect. In a campaign against the rival Takeda clan in 1575, Oda Nobunaga decimated the Takeda cavalry lines when he turned his troops, equipped with firearms, against them. Adopting this new technology was a significant factor in paving the way for Oda Nobunaga to emerge as the most powerful daimyo in Japan.

Westerners and other foreigners were tolerated to varying degrees in the years following their arrival but by the early years of the Tokugawa Shogunate, Japanese foreign policy began to turn inwards. Officials increasingly viewed foreign traders and missionaries as potential spies or traitors and saw the potential for Japanese trade power to diminish with competition from China. To combat these fears, Tokugawa Ieyasu’s grandson, Iemitsu, issued a series of Exclusion Acts in the 1630s, which would come to be known as sakoku (鎖国 – Closed Country).

In theory, sakoku shuttered Japan from the outside world. In reality, outside information and goods still arrived in Japan, but it was much easier to control and, should it prove disagreeable to the government, mitigate and shut down.

While aggressive, the Closed Country policy was a major factor in the long-lived stability and relative peace of the Edo period.


  1. What are the potential dangers of closing a country to the outside world?
  2. Imagine you are scholar who has been given a book full of new technology and inventions by a Dutch trader that could be very useful, but you know the Shogun isn’t happy about new ideas. Choose an invention or technology and write a persuasive letter to the Shogun outlining why he should consider letting you introduce the new technology.