Why did Japan and China want to close themselves off from European trade?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In Japan, although various daimyo (regional lords) accepted some of the new technologies and certainly the trade from Dutch, English, and Portuguese traders, the Catholic missions to Japan quickly converted hundreds of thousands of Japanese to Christianity.  Some of the Christian converts were rebels against Tokugawa Ieyasu, the new shogun...

Unlock
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

In Japan, although various daimyo (regional lords) accepted some of the new technologies and certainly the trade from Dutch, English, and Portuguese traders, the Catholic missions to Japan quickly converted hundreds of thousands of Japanese to Christianity.  Some of the Christian converts were rebels against Tokugawa Ieyasu, the new shogun who had finally united Japan after 100 years of civil war.  An English trader who had become an advisor to the shogun warned that the Catholic missionaries would seek to instate papal rule across all Japan, which indeed they tried to do by stating that the highest authority in Japan was not the shogun or the emperor, but God and God's representative on earth, the pope.  Ieyasu and his successors martyred over three hundred thousand Christian converts, then limited trade relations with gaijin (foreigners) to a single port city in the south-east.  The guns and cannons which European traders had introduced had played a huge role in deciding the civil war's outcome for Ieyasu, and being able to control those weapons certainly played a part in the shogun's decision to close off trade with the rest of the outside world.  For more information, you may want to read Samurai William by Giles Milton, which gives a very in-depth account of European trade in south-east Asia and Japan in the 16th and 17th century.


For China, Europeans were allowed to conduct trade in enclaves, or walled-off portions of trade cities.  The imperial ministers had much the same reasons as their counterparts in Japan for restricting foreign trade: religion and technology would disrupt the society and ultimately the government.  The Chinese were not entirely isolationist in their trade policy, though; European trade brought new goods and inflows of silver to China, which enriched Chinese culture and society without disturbing it, since cultural (imperial) censorship often dictated which goods could or could not be traded into China.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

China and Japan are, of course, two different countries and some of their reasons for wanting to shut themselves off from European trade were different.  Let us look at the reasons that were the same and the reasons that were different.

The one reason that is somewhat similar is that both countries believed that they were better than the Europeans.  China, of course, had been a major civilization for a very long time when the Europeans arrived.  Up until very recently, China had been the most advanced country in the world and the Chinese did not really understand that Europe had surpassed them in technology.  China felt that it was the “Middle Kingdom,” superior to all merely human countries.  Japan, too, felt that it was superior.  Japanese were not impressed by the manners and the hygiene of the Europeans who made it to Japan.  Japan felt that it was the country of the gods and was therefore superior to Europe as well.

China, but not Japan, felt that it had everything that it needed.  China controlled a vast amount of territory with many resources.  It did not feel that there was any reason to need to trade with the Europeans.  Japan, but not China, was very concerned that Christianity could disrupt its society.  Japanese who had become Christian were upsetting the very hierarchical nature of Japanese society.  The Japanese did not want their culture and society changed by Christianity and other European ideas.  This was a major reason for Japan’s decision to practically close itself to European trade. 

These are some of the main reasons why these two countries attempted to cut themselves off from trade with Europe.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on