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Japan’s History: Economic and Political Advancement Essay

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Updated: May 3rd, 2021


The economic and political advancement in the world has always been an influential factor for a change in separate countries. Asia, as the territory marked with an individual approach to politics and economy, struggled to survive the European pressure during the 19th and 20th centuries. Some of the countries managed to convert the ability to withstand the external influence stronger than others. However, Japan set an excellent example for the rest of the Asian world showing how the external incentives might be used as an opportunity. According to Levitt and Dubner, “incentives are the cornerstone of modern life” (11).

When rationally applied, they allow solving any problem leading to positive change. Following the theory of traditional Eastern philosophy, the political ideology built from Confucianism enabled Japan’s leaders to manage the European influence preserving the uniqueness of the country’s economy and culture. Although the late Tokugawa and Meiji greatly influenced Japan’s progress, the history of the country shows that the rule of Tokugawa bakufu utilized the administration system that determined the successful change of the country during modern times.

The Basis for Modern Development

The feudal military rule of Tokugawa bakufu (or Edo period) began in 1603 and lasted till 1867. It “was to be praised as the ‘great peace’” that lasted about two centuries and a half during which the country managed to establish its foundation for further development (Jansen 2). Though, it was not the first period in the history of Japan that was marked with peace. The first Japanese governments who initially adopted the Chinese central administration had also guaranteed several centuries of life without wars. However, the stability and success that Japan has achieved in modernity were built on the basis provided by Tokugawa.

The whole rich culture and a diverse system of political, economic, religious, and military interventions initiated by the ruling power of bakufu were based on the priority of peace. “The peace and order of the nation are due to the dignity and virtue of the great shogunal family” was the motto of the leadership (Jansen 45). It is consistent with the framework of the traditional Eastern philosophy utilized in Japan in the form of Confucianism.

The shoguns emphasized the difference in their approach in administration from other countries’ ruling systems. To organize the spheres of influence in the country, Tokugawa prioritized some essential areas of the state life that needed more restructuring and control. The ones that became significant for the modern development of Japan include foreign affairs, trade policy, the control over religion, the control over daimyo, and the advancement of education and thought. These measures made it possible for the country to stand out while preserving the peace.

Foreign Affairs and Trade Policy

Japan in the times of early Tokugawa leadership was a closed country with minimal international connections. In that period, it was known as “a country hermetically sealed off from the rest of the world” (Jansen 64). As the preceding leaders, Tokugawa governors intended to continue trade relations with other countries. However, the number of ports through which the imported products could reach the borders of Japan was limited to only a few.

Nagasaki was one of them, remaining almost the only place where foreigners were allowed on the territory of the state (Jansen 63). Thus, the ruling power took all the manifestations of foreign affairs and trade under control. International trade was established only with China and the Netherlands. The array of products and the ways of their trade were also strictly controlled to eliminate any danger to the autonomy of Japan on the international map. Such a policy of control over the intrusion of an alien country to the uncommon system developed in Japan became the cornerstone of the state’s rapid success in the future. The uniqueness of the strong administration system guaranteed the power of tradition over the influential Western trends.

Control over Religion

Being closed from foreign countries, Japan protected the isolation of its religion. Religious beliefs were utilized as the sphere of ideological influence on the population, which allowed establishing unified control over the nation. Confucianism was such a religious basis that was capable of unifying the citizens and educating obedience and morality as a guideline. This philosophical theory became the cornerstone for the political ideology that enabled controlling all the spheres of the country’s life effectively.

According to Confucianism, the system of relations in the society was determined by relationships between “ruler and ruled, master and servant, landlord and tenant, and of course lord and vassal” (Jansen 82). That is why it was essential to preserve the isolation of Confucianism and legislate against “foreign subversion like Catholic Christianity” (Jansen 60). The rational implementation of the religious foundations empowered Japan for its strong opposition against foreign influences of the West and to build its powerful state.

Control over Daimyo

One of the most important tasks for bakufu in the 17th century was the organization of the appropriate relations with daimyo domains. This class had power over the lands and economy in Japan long before the introduction of bakufu as a leading power (Jansen 54). Its influence was irresistible and had to be addressed rationally. However, Tokugawa shoguns managed to establish partial control over the daimyo (samurai) class, which used to take an influential part in the administration of the country. The growth of Tokugawa power led to the diminished independence of daimyo. Bakufu reconstructed and reorganized the work of some largest domains.

Also, it provided a legal obligation for the daimyo class to pay taxes. Also, to guarantee peace and order in the country, it was necessary to keep the connections between the domains restrained. Some territorial measures were taken to prevent the most significant domains from unification (Jansen 55-56). Such an approach established the minimized possibility of the organized insurrection, which was potentially harmful to the power of Tokugawa.

However, the complete rule of bakufu over the domains was impossible. Thus, such a policy only proves the masterful administration conducted by early Tokugawa. There were no genuinely “absolute states” even in Europe due to the relative division of powers in countries (Jansen 61). The outstanding direction of governmental actions taken by the leaders in 17th century Japan lied in the understanding of the proper degree of influence.

Tokugawa did not tend to expand its centralized power blindly aiming at absolute rule but established exactly the needed level of authorization to strengthen the central power and not to risk any threat to the peace (Jansen 61). The utilized policy of partial control directed at the stabilization of the interrelations with daimyo helped to preserve peace in the country, which was essential for the following economic and political development of the state.

The Advancement of Education and Thought

Another decisive measure taken by the Tokugawa government on its way to the development of Japan was the course of the advancement of education and thought. It is evident that there is no growth possible without the fundamental basis of knowledge and intelligence because school is the core element of any development (Levitt and Dubner 143). The interventions in this field show that such a principle was known to the Tokugawa leaders too.

Before the bakufu rule, only the aristocracy had access to educational institutions and tutors. However, the shoguns put effort to widen the scope of the population for whom education would be accessible. They believed that by employing the strategy of encouraging learning “as the central element of the arts of peace,” they would succeed in the overall advancement of the state (Jansen 188). Thus, the schools became accessible for a larger number of people, which enabled the authorities to prioritize intelligence over heritage improving the level of authority members’ education.


Concluding the discussion of the background of Japan’s success, it is essential to state that the basis for the economic and political advancement was set long before the ruling of late Tokugawa and Meiji. The early Tokugawa bakufu government managed to establish strict control over foreign trade and foreign affairs to restrict any alien influence from the side of other countries.

With the same purpose, the restriction of Christianity was employed to preserve the singleness of Confucianism, which (as the leading philosophical idea) strengthened the political ideology of the leadership. This religion became a cornerstone in the administration of the country in a peaceful and obedient manner, giving an opportunity for education and thought advancement. The influential class of daimyo was also taken under partial control to eliminate any threat to the order in Japan. All the measures taken by the early Tokugawa served as a basis for all the following leadership that enabled the rapid growth of modern Japan.

Works Cited

Jansen, Marius B. The Making of Modern Japan. Harvard University Press, 2002.

Levitt, Steven D., and Stephen J. Dubner. Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything. HarperCollins, 2006.

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IvyPanda. (2021) 'Japan’s History: Economic and Political Advancement'. 3 May.

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