Why Be Open to New Ideas?
AS A curtain of haze gradually lifted, the American commodore Matthew C. Perry viewed Mount Fuji from the deck of his flagship, the Susquehanna. He had been longing to see Japan and had finally reached it on July 8, 1853, after more than seven months of navigation. The commodore had studied every available report on the country. Why? Because he hoped to open this “self-isolated kingdom” to the world.
Self-isolated, indeed! More than 200 years earlier, Japan had cut off trade and cultural ties with all countries except China, Korea, and Holland. The nation then sat back in undisturbed complacency. In that state, it resembled many individuals who resist new ideas and refuse to listen to opinions differing from their own. In some ways, this can be comforting, for new ideas can be unsettling, even frightening. But is such a position wise? Well, consider the results of Japan’s policy of exclusion.
What Led to Japan’s Seclusion?
Japan did not seclude herself without reason. In 1549, Jesuit missionary Francis Xavier arrived in Japan to spread his religion. Within a short period, the Roman Catholic faith became prominent in the land. The rulers of that time had experienced religious rebellion by a Buddhist sect and saw the same potential among Catholics. Hence, Catholicism was banned, although the ban was not strictly enforced.
Claiming that Japan was “the divine nation,” the rulers had no intention of permitting a “Christian” religion to threaten their system. Why, then, did they not more rigidly enforce the ban on Catholicism? Because Catholic missionaries came on Portuguese trading ships, and the government craved the profits that those vessels meant for them. Nevertheless, fear that Catholics would influence the Japanese gradually outweighed the rulers’ desire for trade. Thus, they issued edicts tightening control on foreign trade, emigration, and “Christians.”
When persecuted and hard-pressed “Christians” revolted against a local feudal lord, it was the last straw. Viewing the uprising as a direct result of Catholic propaganda, the central Shogunate government expelled the Portuguese and forbade the Japanese to go abroad. With the issuing of this edict in 1639, the seclusion of Japan became a reality.
The only Westerners allowed to continue trading with Japan were the Dutch, who were squeezed onto Dejima, then a small island in Nagasaki harbor. For 200 years, Western culture leaked into Japan only through now reclaimed Dejima. Each year, the island’s trading-post director submitted the “Dutch Report,” which let the government know what was going on in the outside world. But the Shogunate regime made sure that nobody else saw these reports. So the Japanese lived in isolation until Commodore Perry banged on their door in 1853.
The End of Seclusion
As Perry’s great black ships steamed into Edo Bay, they belched out smoke, dumbfounding local fishermen who thought these were moving volcanoes. The citizens of Edo (now Tokyo) panicked, and many fled the city with their furniture. This exodus was so great that the government had to issue an official notice to calm the people.
Not only the steamships commanded by Commodore Perry but also the gifts he brought stunned the isolated people. They were astounded by a demonstration of messages being telegraphed from one building to another. The Narrative of the Expedition of an American Squadron to the China Seas and Japan, compiled under Perry’s supervision, tells about Japanese officials who could not resist jumping on a Lilliputian locomotive that “could hardly carry a child of six years of age.” Even “a dignified mandarin” clung to its roof “with his loose robes flying in the wind.”
The door to Japan was finally wrenched completely open by Perry’s second visit the following year. Succumbing to pressure, the government opened up the country. Diehard exclusionists who wanted to preserve Japan’s isolation resorted to terrorism, assassinated the chief minister of the government, and attacked foreigners. Some exclusionist lords opened fire on foreign fleets. Their assaults, however, eventually subsided, and the emperor took over the government from the Tokugawa Shogunate.
By the time Perry opened the door to Japan, Western nations had already gone through the Industrial Revolution. Because of Japan’s seclusion, she had been left far behind. Industrialized countries had harnessed the power of steam. By the 1830’s, steam engines and steam-powered machines were in general use. Japan’s seclusion policy had caused her to lag greatly in industrialization. This was keenly felt by the first Japanese delegation to Europe. At an exhibition held in London in 1862, Japanese exhibits were of paper and wood such as “would be displayed at an antique shop,” according to one embarrassed delegate.
Japanese delegates in Europe and the United States felt a desperate need to industrialize their country and eagerly introduced modern inventions and ideas. Sixty-four years after Perry’s first visit, the last surviving member of his crew visited Japan and said: “The progress of Japan within just over sixty years astounded me.”
Hence, Japan’s seclusion policy greatly limited her potential for growth. Opening her doors to new ideas proved beneficial to the nation in many ways. Today, however, some in Japan point to a “seclusion of mind” among individuals and present this as a problem to be solved. Indeed, conquering the tendency to resist new ideas is a challenge not only for the modern Japanese but for all humans. How about you and the matter of “seclusion of mind”? Would you benefit from opening your mind to new ideas, as Japan did back in the 1850’s?