Robert Hellyer, Defining Engagement, Harvard University Press, 2009.
It is all too easy, and all too tempting sometimes to think of the Edo period as a single block, a single period that can be characterized in a single way. Of course there was change over the period, but the World History survey version of this, or very often even the East Asian survey or even Japanese history survey version of this, in my personal experience, has often seen simply one of (a) putting a system into place and then maintaining it, and (b) proto-industrial growth and “progress.” Of course, however, we all know that history is never so simple, and no society is ever so static. In Defining Engagement, Robert Hellyer provides a more complex and detailed description of the changes and developments in Japanese foreign policy over the course of the Edo period, emphasizing the decentralized and at times highly contested nature of policy-making, implementation and enforcement, and the dramatic shifts in attitudes and policies across the period.
Based on Hellyer’s account, we can see a number of watershed moments in the progression of foreign policy, namely the 1630s, 1764, and 1853, marking the bounds of periods decidedly different from one another in character.
Hellyer does not dwell for long on the initial decades of Tokugawa rule, or on the debates or considerations surrounding the decision to impose maritime restrictions in the 1630s, but it would be hard to argue that this is not a significant dividing line, between a period of active engagement with many different trading partners – Portuguese, Spanish, and English, among others coming to Japanese ports, and Japanese operating in Southeast Asian ports, to say the least – and one of much more careful, restricted engagement with the outside world, in which only the Dutch and Chinese trade at Nagasaki, and interactions with Ryukyu and Korea (and via them, China) are handled exclusively by the domainal authorities of Satsuma and Tsushima. From the settling of this mode of engagement in the early decades of the 17th century, through to the 1750s, as Hellyer describes in his first several chapters, Satsuma and Tsushima enjoyed considerable autonomy and agency in their management of trade, as did merchants in Nagasaki and elsewhere in the realm. Both Satsuma and Tsushima were able to leverage their indispensability in these commercial and political relationships to gain considerable privileges or concessions from the shogunate, arguing not only for the importance of the goods they were bringing in, but also for the value of the intelligence – information about political goings-on in the region – obtained via these domainal relationships with Ryukyu and Korea. Here, and throughout the book, Hellyer emphasizes that “Japanese” foreign relations in this period were not directed wholly by a central authority, with a set plan that all domains followed through on; rather, the realm’s interactions with the outside world were constituted by the competing, and sometimes complementary, desires, intentions, attitudes, and actions of several different parties, the shogunate, the lords of Satsuma and Tsushima, and their advisors, chief among them.
Japan and its peripheries, as seen in one of the woodblock-printed maps from Hayashi Shihei’s 1785 Sangoku tsûran zusetsu. Sakamaki-Hawley Collection, University of Hawaii Library. Photo my own.
Hellyer also characterizes this first half of the Edo period as a period of desperate attempts on the part of the shogunate to stem the flow of precious metals (especially silver) out of the country, in negotiation or competition with Satsuma’s and Tsushima’s demands for their own continued access to precious metals to export as vital tribute goods for Tsushima to present to Korea, and Ryukyu to China, in exchange for the exotic goods (incl. chiefly Korean ginseng and Chinese silks). Repeated debasements of the coinage executed by the shogunate in attempts to reduce the amount of silver flowing out of the country present considerable difficulties for both Tsushima and Satsuma, but both domains are able, for the time being, to petition or argue successfully for exceptions, or concessions, allowing them to continue their “traditional” patterns of trade relations. This would change in the latter half of the Edo period (from perhaps the 1760s or so onward), as stronger shogunate control over certain aspects of the economy, and increased domestic production of various goods, diminished the shogunate’s reliance on the two domains, and thus their leverage and agency.
Where Miyagi Eishō, among others, have argued for the importance of Arai Hakuseki in engineering, around 1709-1711, a dramatic shift in how the shogunate viewed the purpose or importance of the Korean and Ryukyuan embassies to Edo, casting it as a major turning point, Hellyer merely touches upon these issues, dwelling little on the missions and their role in contributing to Tokugawa legitimacy and authority (but that’s okay. We’ve got Toby for that. Hellyer does mention logistical changes put into place by Hakuseki (62-63), but draws his dividing line at 1764 (73). Though I remain unconvinced that anything occurred in precisely that year which should define it as a watershed moment, it is clear from Hellyer’s descriptions that the 1760s-1770s saw a very dramatic shift in shogunate approaches to foreign trade. Beginning at that time, the shogunate moved to implement a more systematic and more directly shogunate-controlled system of funneling revenues and import/export goods, dramatically reducing the agency of Satsuma and Tsushima, and the independence of Nagasaki and Osaka merchants in coordinating exchanges of certain prominent goods and in profiting from those exchanges. This period sees the expansion of the activity of the Nagasaki clearinghouse and the establishment of other clearinghouses and shogunate-authorized guilds (za), directing silver, copper, and marine products through shogunate-controlled, or –authorized, channels, essentially monopolizing the import, export, and domestic trade in those commodities for the benefit of shogunate revenues, rather than private merchant profits. It was around this time as well that the shogunate finally managed to shift the flows of goods away from trade patterns based on the export of silver, to ones where the export of marine goods, including kelp, sea cucumber, and abalone, was at the center; demand for marine products throughout the region – and especially in China – was high enough to allow the Japanese, through their various channels, to not only dramatically decrease the amount of silver they were exporting, but to actually begin importing silver, in exchange for marine goods.
Commodore Perry’s fleet, as depicted in a scroll recently acquired by the British Museum. Image from the Museum’s online collections.
Finally, we come to the 1850s, when Western merchants enter onto the scene in a more major way, though Hellyer does describe earlier encounters. At first, Western merchants seek to insert themselves into the regional trade networks already in place, and for a brief time samurai officials consider using Western ships as intermediaries in the China trade, exchanging marine products for silver, among other goods. However, the focus quickly shifts to more direct engagement with the Western powers, within increasingly Western modes of exchange, and over the course of the 1850s-60s, the traditional systems, especially at Nagasaki, fall apart surprisingly quickly.
Hellyer’s account skims over the diplomatic or political aspects of relations between the various shogunal/domainal samurai authorities on the one hand, and the royal courts of Korea and Ryukyu on the other hand, and treats the Korean and Ryukyuan missions to Edo, the Satsuma presence in Ryukyu, and the Tsushima missions or interactions in Korea, very minimally. However, his narrative illuminates important factors contributing to shifts and changes throughout this period, including changeovers in shogunal advisors or leadership (focusing especially on the differing attitudes and approaches of Arai Hakuseki, Tanuma Okitsugu, and Matsudaira Sadanobu, along with a few others), and shifts in the supply and demand of certain goods. As Japanese silver mines run dry, domestic production of ginseng grows, diminishing somewhat the indispensability of silver exports to Korea; as Japanese copper exports are reduced, the Chinese expand their mining efforts in Yunnan and Vietnam. Matsudaira Sadanobu tries in the 1780-1790s to dramatically reduce foreign interactions, but concedes that the domestic demand for medicinal herbs, roots, and the like was too high to shut things down more fully. And then, just as marine products begin to dominate the export market, the people of the archipelago come, circa 1800, to have a taste for those products, for their own personal local consumption, like never before. This narrative reveals, or highlights, the powerful importance of goods like medicinal herbs and roots, and marine products such as kelp, sea cucumber, and abalone which generally go largely overlooked in favor of “sexier” or “flashier” goods such as gold, silver, silks, and porcelains, a product of our biases as scholars, given our own proclivities and/or cultural background. One thing missing from this narrative, however, even as Hellyer focuses on the attitudes and approaches of different shogunal advisors, is any detailed coverage of changes in attitudes or approaches among the daimyō of Satsuma and Tsushima. Those names already prominent in our historical awareness already due to their involvement in Bakumatsu affairs, such as Shimazu Nariakira and Shimazu Hisamitsu, are chiefly those discussed in any detail, leaving us in the dark as to who the daimyō of the late 17th, 18th, and early 19th centuries were, let alone their personalities or policies.
We do, however, learn about a number of significant figures and incidents within Satsuma and Tsushima history, however, which I imagine are scarcely (if at all) covered elsewhere in English. Thus, in addition to the great value and interest of this book for its coverage of economic and foreign relations matters, I also very much enjoyed seeing these domains’ histories “rescued from history” to a certain extent. We learn, for example, about the great efforts at domainal financial reform of Satsuma retainer Zusho Shôzaemon, and the foreign relations efforts of Satsuma retainer Godai Hidetaka, as well as about Tsushima’s foreign relations nightmares dealing with the Russians, and the incredible factionalism and numerous coups within Tsushima leadership in the 1860s. It frustrates me that these events are not more widely discussed, and incorporated into the narrative, and that figures such as Zusho and Godai, along with Sasu Iori and Ôshima Tomonojô, not to mention daimyô such as Sô Yoshiyori and Sô Yoshiakira, continue to languish in such obscurity outside of Hellyer’s account. I hope that my own work can bring to light the stories of more significant figures, not as pawns within broader developments, but as real historical individuals – though, to be honest, I’m not sure my current project actually will. I shall have to hold onto that for the future.
All in all, Hellyer provides a valuable contribution to discussions of Tokugawa foreign policy, both fighting back against survey level misconceptions about static systems of “isolationist” foreign policy dictated from the center, and doing much to inform the more specialist reader as to the complex shifts in domestic production and demand of certain goods, monetary policy, and shifting attitudes or approaches of shogunal elites versus the desires or needs of domainal lords, among other factors which all combined to produce a dynamic, multi-centered, and oft-times contentious economic and political scene in Tokugawa era management of foreign affairs.