Fending Off the West: Japan's Reunification and the First Challenge

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Japan 1450-1750


Fending Off the West: Japan's Reunification and the First Challenge. During the 16th century, after a few centuries of decentralized feudal order, an innovative and fierce leader, Nobunaga, one of the first daimyos to make extensive use of firearms, rose to the forefront among the contesting lords. He deposed the last Ashikaga shogun in 1573, but was killed in 1582 before finishing his conquests. Nobunaga's general Toyotomo Hideyoshi continued the struggle and became master of Japan by 1590. Hideyoshi then launched two unsuccessful invasions of Korea. He died in 1598. Tokugawa Ieyasu won out in the ensuing contest for succession. In 1603 the emperor appointed him shogun. The Tokugawas continued in power for two and one-half centuries. Ieyasu, who ruled from Edo (Tokyo) directly controlled central Honshu and placed the remaining daimyos under his authority. Outlying daimyos over time also were brought under Tokugawa rule. The long period of civil wars had ended and political unity restored.


Dealing with the European Challenge. European traders and missionaries had visited Japan in increasing numbers since 1543. The traders exchanged Asian and European goods, the latter including firearms, clocks, and printing presses, for Japanese silver, copper, and artisan products. The firearms, which the Japanese soon manufactured themselves, revolutionized local warfare. Roman Catholic missionaries arrived during Nobunaga's campaigns. He protected them as a counterforce to his Buddhist opponents. The Jesuits by the 1580s claimed hundreds of thousands of converts. Hideyoshi was less tolerant of Christianity. The Buddhists had been crushed and he feared that converts would give primary loyalty to their religion. Hideyoshi also feared that Europeans might try to conquer Japan.


Japan's Self-Imposed Isolation. Official measures to restrict foreign influence were ordered from the late 1580s. Christian missionaries were ordered to leave; persecution of Christians were underway during the mid-1590s. Christianity was officially banned in 1614. Continued persecution provoked unsuccessful rebellions and drove the few remaining Christians underground. Ieyasu and his successors broadened the campaign to isolate Japan from outside influences. From 1616 merchants were confined to a few cities; from 1630 Japanese ships could not sail overseas. By the 1640s only Dutch and Chinese ships visited Japan to trade at Deshima island (located in the port city of Nagaski). Western books were banned. The retreat into isolation was almost total by the mid-17th century. The Tokugawa continued expanding their authority. During the 18th century the revival of neo-Confucian philosophy that had flourished under the early Tokugawas gave way to a school of "National Learning" based upon indigenous culture. Some of the elite, in strong contrast to the Chinese scholar-gentry, continued to follow with avid interest Western developments through the Dutch at Deshima.


Conclusion: Asia and the First Phase of Europe's Global Expansion. Western exploration and commercial expansion only touched most of Asia peripherally. In east Asia Chinese and Japanese strength blocked European domination of their lands. In south and southeast Asia, where European impact was stronger, most Asians retained control of their destinies. Asian change came from indigenous factors which maintained old cultural and social influences. Even in commerce and seafaring, where their influence was greatest, Europeans found it better to became part of existing networks.

Global Connections

AP World History: Europe and the World: 1450-1750


In 1700, after two centuries of European involvement in south and southeast Asia, most of the peoples of the area had been little affected by efforts to build trading empires and win Christian converts. European sailors had added several new routes to the Asian trading network. The most important of these were the link around the Cape of Good Hope between Europe and the India Ocean and the connection between the Philippine Islands and Mexico in the Americas. The Europeans’ need for safe harbors and storage areas led to the establishment and rapid growth of trading centers such as Goa, Calicut, and Batavia. It also resulted in the gradual decline of existing indigenous commercial centers, especially the Muslim cities of the Swahili coast of Africa and the fortress town of Malacca. The Europeans introduced the principle of sea warfare into what had been a peaceful commercial world. But the Asian trading system as a whole survived the initial shock of this innovation, and the Europeans eventually concluded that they were better off adapting to the existing commercial arrangements rather than dismantling them.


Because exchanges had been taking place between Europe and Asia for millennia, few new inventions or diseases were spread in the early centuries of expansion. This low level of major exchanges was particularly striking compared with the catastrophic interaction between Europe and the Americas. But, as in Africa, European discoveries in the long-isolated Western Hemisphere did result in the introduction of important new food plants into India, China, and other areas from the 1600s onward. The import of silver was also an addition to wealth and adornment in China. Otherwise, Europeans died mainly of diseases that they contracted in Asia, such as new strain of malaria and dysentery. They spread diseases only to the more isolated parts of Asia, such as the Philippines, where the coming of the Spanish was accompanied by a devastating smallpox epidemic. The impact of European ideas, inventions, and modes of social organization was also very limited during the first centuries of expansion. Key European devices, such as clocks, were seen as toys by Asian rulers to whom they were given as gifts.


During the early modern period in global history, the West’s surge in exploration and commercial expansion touched most of Asia only peripherally. This was particularly true of East Asia, where the political cohesion and military strength of the vast Chinese empire and the Japanese warrior-dominated states blocked all hope of European advance. Promising missionary inroads in the 16th century were stifled by hostile Tokugawa shoguns in the early 17th century. They were also carefully contained by the Ming emperors and the nomadic Qing dynasty in the mid-1600s. Strong Chinese and Japanese rulers limited trading contacts with the aggressive Europeans and confined merchants to a few ports that were remote from their capitals. In its early decades, the Ming dynasty also pursued a policy of overseas expansion that had no precedent in Chinese history. But when China again turned inward in the last centuries of the dynasty, a potentially formidable obstacle to the rise of European dominance in maritime Asia was removed. China’s strong position in global trade continued, in marked contrast to Japan’s greater isolation. But even China failed to keep pace with changes in European technology and merchant activity with results that would show more clearly in the next stage of global interconnections.


Adapted from Peter Stearns, World Civilizations.

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