Dejima: The Island That Was Once Japan’s Only Connection To The Outside World

 For more than two centuries, from the 16th to the 19th century, Japan pursued a strict policy that prohibited foreigners, especially Europeans, from entering the country. This ban also extended to Japanese citizens, preventing them from leaving the country. This strict approach implemented during the Edo period was intended to prevent the spread of Christianity and protect Japanese society from perceived colonial and religious threats posed by European countries. Officials feared that such influence could destabilize the power of the shogunate and disrupt peace in the archipelago.

A crackdown on European missionaries began in 1587 under Japan's military dictator Hideyoshi Toyotomi. Despite the ban on Christian missionaries, about 300,000 Christians remained in Japan, representing various social strata from influential feudal lords to oppressed peasants. These Westerners, infiltrating various aspects of Japanese society, were seen as a threat to the political and religious stability of the country.

After Toyotomi's death in 1598, subsequent shoguns continued the purification. After learning of Spanish and Portuguese colonization in the New World, Empress Meisho became concerned, fearing a similar fate for Japan. Between 1633 and 1639, Shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu implemented a series of "closed country" orders, known as sakoku. These orders not only prohibited foreign citizens from entering Japan, but also imposed the death penalty on any Japanese attempting to leave the country.

To maintain trade with Europeans, Shogun Iemitsu took a strategic step by beginning construction of an artificial island in 1634. The island, known as Dejima, was created by digging a canal through a small peninsula and connecting it to the mainland with a narrow bridge. Measuring a modest 246 by 656 feet, this fan-shaped island became the exclusive landing point for Europeans in Japan for the next two centuries.

Amidst the intense competition for trade, the British faced difficulties and withdrew from the competition as they were unable to match the resources of their rivals. The Portuguese were later banned from trading as a result of their suspected involvement in the Christian rebellion known as the Shimabara Rebellion against the shogunate in 1637. However, the Dutch secured their favor by providing significant assistance to the shogunate in suppressing the rebellion. Their support, which included supplies of gunpowder and cannons, earned them special trading rights with Japan.

Dejima Island was guarded at all times by Japanese officers and watchmen, whose sole duty was to keep a close eye on the Dutch. Christianity was strictly prohibited on the island. Every arriving ship was thoroughly inspected, and Dutch visitors had to surrender their Bibles to Japanese authorities. Work was mandatory on Sundays, and religious activities, including worship and funeral services, were forbidden. Japanese citizens were generally barred from entering Dejima, except for interpreters, cooks, carpenters, clerks, and prostitutes. The isolation and control over Dejima reflects the shogunate's determination to regulate foreign interactions and prevent any potential threat to its authority and stability.

In the early years, there were seven ships per year, although the shogunate gradually reduced the number. From 1715 to 1847, only one or two ships were permitted per year. Despite strict regulations, Dutch traders managed to establish a prosperous outpost on Dejima. In its early years, the island probably resembled a remote barracks more than a developing frontier community. Dutch sailors and traders sometimes stopped at Dejima for extended periods, sometimes up to a year. Activities on the island were limited, with options such as visiting flower and vegetable gardens or caring for the animals in the enclosure. Evenings were spent socializing and drinking in the well-furnished dining mess. However, it was strictly prohibited for anyone to leave Dejima without the express permission of the Japanese authorities.

The Sakoku era finally ended with the signing of the Treaty of Kanagawa with the United States in 1854, followed by similar treaties with other Western countries until 1858. It marked the national isolation of Japan and the closing of the Dutch East India Company. The trading post at Dejima was destroyed. The island, which served as Japan's only connection with the Western world during the period of isolation, was expanded through land reclamation. Ultimately, it was integrated back into the peninsula and absorbed into Nagasaki.

Dejima's original structures were damaged during the atomic bombing of Nagasaki. Although few buildings survived, they have been restored as part of a life-size museum, following plans dating back to the 1880s. Tourists entering Dejima still cross the same stone bridge, although the views overlooking the sea have now disappeared. The museum preserves the island's historical significance, providing insight into a unique chapter in Japan's history when it was cut off from the world.

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