What were the pros and cons of isolationism for Japan in the Edo Period?

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The Edo Period in Japan lasted almost three centuries, from 1603 to 1868. During this period the isolationist practice of Japan led to a flourishing of internal Japanese culture. The Edo Period was marked by a growth and focus on art, culture, and peaceful social relations. Internally, trade increased as...

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The Edo Period in Japan lasted almost three centuries, from 1603 to 1868. During this period the isolationist practice of Japan led to a flourishing of internal Japanese culture. The Edo Period was marked by a growth and focus on art, culture, and peaceful social relations. Internally, trade increased as agrarian areas and artisanal areas of towns cities were connected through innovations and improved networks of transportation. The Edo Period was certainly one of a renewed sense of Japanese indigenous cultural identities. However, the Edo Period was also one of strict class segregation. The Tokugawa family ruled during the Edo Period, and established a strict class society of four distinct classes. The Shoguns, or ruling elite, were the highest class in Japan. The next class of people were made up of military lords and samurai. They served the interests of the Shogun. Below the military were the rural, agrarian class of farmers. Finally, below the farmers were the craftsmen and non-farming, unskilled laborers. This strict class-based society coupled with isolationism certainly led to a stagnation of social mobility and the ability to explore new interests for those within the lower classes of society.

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The relative isolation of Japan during the Edo period led to a significant flowering of indigenous culture. Foreign influence remained—the Japanese were fascinated by what they saw as exotic Western culture and science—but it was severely restricted in how it operated. The Japanese people weren't isolated from the outside world completely, but during the Edo period, engagement with foreigners, especially Westerners, was carried out strictly on the basis of national interest. For instance, the Dutch East India Company was allowed to continue trading in Japan, but only from a single port: Nagasaki. This arrangement gave Japan the best of both worlds: it could benefit from trading with the West without being subject to its domination and control. Domestic industry thrived and the country became more prosperous as a consequence.

Although in retrospect, the Edo period can be seen as one of peace, prosperity, and stability, the relative isolation of Japan during this time made it vulnerable to aggressive overtures from the more scientifically and technologically advanced Western powers. Isolation had the additional consequence of strengthening and maintaining a rigid social hierarchy that held back the development of Japan as a commercial and military power. It was somewhat inevitable that at some point a Western power would take advantage of Japan's relative weakness, and so it proved in 1853, when four American battleships arrived in Edo Bay. The United States demanded to trade with Japan, forcing the country to open up to the world. Faced with this stark ultimatum, the Japanese had no choice but to relent, and so began the slow decline of the Edo period.

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Japan was closed for over 200 years during the "Sakoku" period of Japanese history.  During this time, it was illegal for any Japanese to leave the islands or for any foreigner to enter.  The major benefit of this policy was increased stability.  The policy prevented Christian missionaries from making converts and thus dividing Japan.  It also denied some daimyo the ability to trade and thus become rich and strong enough to challenge the shogunate.

The main negative about this time was that it made Japan become somewhat backwards.  By the time that Perry "opened" Japan at the end of this era, Japan lacked the technology and the general military and political systems needed to defend itself against the West.  By isolating itself, Japan got stability, but paid for that stability by failing to modernize militarily, politically, and economically.

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