Rarely has the fiat of a prince-a particular edict issued on a particular day-succeeded in deflecting the whole current of a nation's enterprise for over two centuries. This happened in Japan when the country was closed in A.D. 1624, foreigners being expelled, and foreign learning, foreign trade; and foreign travel alike prohibited. Till then the Japanese merchants and adventurers had been a power in Eastern seas. Nor was the commercial instinct theirs alone. The leaders of the nation had been nearly as keen. It is a mistake to suppose that aversion to intercourse with foreigners was an ingrained racial characteristic, or even an official tradition. On the contrary, when the Portuguese first came to Japan in the sixteenth century, both the local Daimyōs in Kyūshū and the central rulers,-notably Hideyoshi the Great,-hastened to welcome the new-comers and their trade. It was only when suspicions arose of nefarious designs upon Japanese national independence that a policy of exclusion was adopted, at first reluctantly and fitfully, then with systematic completeness. By the edict of 1624, all Japanese were forbidden to go abroad, and even the building of junks above a certain size was interdicted. From that instant, the movements of the native seafarers were curbed and their spirit was broken. A dribble of trade with the Dutch at Nagasaki, on the furthest confines of the empire, was all that remained. Internal trade itself, just springing into vigorous life after centuries of civil conflict, was hampered by the very perfection (along certain lines) and thoroughness of the feudal system. Not only did the central government at Yedo behave towards commerce as a stepmother; each Daimyō drew a cordon round his Daimiate. Sumptuary laws, rules, restrictions innumerable, monopolies, close guilds, an embargo on new inventions, the predominance of aristocratic militarism and of the artistic spirit,-all these things together formed an overwhelming obstacle to trade on a large scale. The Japanese merchant, relegated to a rank below that of the peasant, became a poor, timid creature with unbusinesslike methods, paltry aims, and a low moral standard.
Of course such an outline of a state of society, drawn with three or four rapid strokes, must not be accepted as a finished picture. Details would modify the impression. The Japan of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries did possess some few important business houses, notably that of Mitsui, with whom the government formed a sort of left-handed alliance, borrowing money from it and employing it in sundry ways, much as our mediæval kings were wont to make use of the Jews and the goldsmiths. The memoirs of those times preserve also the names of a few individual speculators,-for instance, Kinokuni-ya Bunzaemon, who made a fortune in oranges and squandered it in riotous living. Some of our Western business expedients, or at least adumbrations of them, were known, such as clearing-houses, bills of lading, and bills of exchange. The two commercial centres were Ōsaka and Yedo. Here was conducted the sale of the government rice; for the peasants paid their taxes in kind, not in money, then a scarce commodity. Around these official rice transactions all other business revolved. It varied little from year to year, scarcely any scope being afforded for private enterprise.
When the country was thrown open some forty years ago, the few large commercial houses of old standing were looked to for the purpose of establishing relations with the strangers newly arrived. They declined to venture on what appeared a hazardous experiment. Such a new departure was also beyond the mental grasp of the lesser merchants, who worked together in guilds, along lines settled for them beforehand by time-honoured precedents. Thus it fell out that Yokohama and the other foreign settlements became resorts for unscrupulous and irresponsible men,-a calamity, truly, not only then but long afterwards. The Europeans at the ports naturally judged of the whole nation by the only specimens with whom they came in contact. The Japanese officials on the other hand, and to some extent the public at large, looked askance at the foreign mercantile community, because of its connection with a class indisputably contemptible. The average Japanese trader still has much to learn, especially in such matters as the punctual fulfilment of a contract and the meeting of an obligation; but he has become a keen man of business. Moreover, a new generation of merchants and bankers is coming to the fore,-men of good standing and liberal education. Though still comparatively few in number, these have taken up their calling in the spirit of earnestness and thoroughness which is characteristic of the modern Japanese in other walks of life. The oversea trade, built up and maintained by foreigners in the old "treat port" days, tends gradually to pass into these new hands. It has made rapid strides, particularly since 1889, during which period of fifteen years the Japanese Government has taken an intelligently active interest in everything pertaining to the commercial and industrial welfare of the country.
The following figures may help to show Japan's rapid advance since the empire was thrown open to foreign trade in the second half of the nineteenth century :-
|Total of Imports and Exports in 1868||Yen 26,246,544.|
|Do. in 1904||606,637,960.|
The principal imports into Japan from abroad are:-boilers, engines and machinery of all kinds, iron ore, pig iron, manufactured iron and steel, lead, zinc, tin, kerosene oil, wheat, rice, beans, barley, flour, tinned provisions, alcohol, chemicals, dyes, paints, glass, paper, sugar both raw and refined, raw and manufactured cotton, raw and manufactured wool, flax, hemp, jute, China grass, tobacco, Cardiff coal, malt, manures of various descriptions, wood pulp, timber, and explosives.
The chief exports are :-tea, rice, dried fish, seaweed, gelatine, chillies, ginseng, ginger, pea-nuts, vegetables, sake, soy, beer, mineral waters, cotton manufactures, raw and manufactured silk, camphor, peppermint, coal, sulphur, copper, manganese, zinc, bronze, fish oil, vegetable wax, paper, cigarettes, matches, Portland cement, railway sleepers, timber, bamboos, brushes, straw braid, straw matting, wood chips, porcelain, curios, and works of art.
Books recommended - The British Consular Trade Reports.-Annual Return of Foreign Trade, issued by the Imperial Japanese Department of Finance.-Curious details of the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, and English trade with Japan prior to the closing of the country in 1624 are given, passim, in Murdoch History of Japan during the Century of Early Foreign Intercourse (1542-1651).