Colonization is seen by many as the birth of the modern world. Britain, Portugal, Spain, and France were only a few of the colonial powers to expand their reach and authority across oceans. Multiple continents over multiple centuries became hubs for colonial empires, and it almost seemed that at one point, the entire world would either be a colony or a colonizer. So, this often leaves us wondering why certain countries were avoided during this time of vast expansion.
Saudi Arabia, Iran, Thailand, and Ethiopia were part of the small list of nations that managed to come out of the colonial era have never fallen under the authority of a foreign nation as the Americas, parts of Africa, and parts of Asia all had. Another one of these sovereign states who managed to slip through the cracks was Japan.
The first thought that may come to mind when asked why Japan was never colonized, may be the fact that they were actually a colonial empire themselves at one time. And, this would actually be a good point. After acquiring control over the islands of Nanpō, Ryukyu, and Kurile in the 1870s through 80s, the Japanese Empire began to shift its gaze further abroad.
Taiwan was the first of these new territories to come under the Japanese crown, in this case, due to a treaty that had been signed at the end of the First Sino-Japanese War. Next, Japan joined the Western colonial powers in trying to expand throughout East Asia, which eventually led them to annexing Korea and proving themselves to be a colonizer, not a colony.
The Japanese continued on this path throughout the 20th century as well – seizing Sakhalin, some of Germany’s colonial territories such as the Caroline Islands, and Manchuria. The Japanese Colonial Empire would eventually meet its end in 1945, following the wrap up of World War Two, but during its existence, it had made the prospect of anyone colonizing Japan itself, utterly ridiculous.
This means that for roughly 5 decades, the reason why Japan wasn’t colonized was simply, because Japan was a colonizer… While this explanation seems the most obvious and it’s a sound argument, it still accounts for less than a full century, and the colonial era had started hundreds of years prior to Japan even becoming a colonial power itself.
So, what kept intruders at bay in the meantime? Well, Japan wasn’t actually completely free of European interference. The Portuguese were the first Europeans to land in Japan when a group of Portuguese traders anchored their ship on the shores of Nipponese in 1543. A new relationship between Japan and Portugal suddenly began to grow, mostly centered on economics, but religion quickly became a talking point as well.
Commerce was a huge factor in the Portuguese influence over Japan. Most of their trading goods were coming from China, which had long been off limits to Japan after a ban of contact was put in place by the Chinse emperor. This meant that the Portuguese had something that the Japanese really wanted but would be unable to get on their own.
It was a perfect system, and worked well for a few decades. The Japanese could purchase goods like silk and porcelain from China, without having to go directly through Chinese merchants, and the Portuguese were able to expand their influence into Asia even further. Firearms were another popular purchase of the Japanese, especially during the Sengoku Period of civil war. Unfortunately, not all of Portugal’s endeavors in Japan were beneficial to the locals.
Shortly after arriving, the Portuguese began to establish a successful slave trade, in which they would buy Japanese citizens, especially women, and sell them off to Europeans abroad. This new business grew rapidly, but it quickly became a concern of the contemporary Portuguese monarch. King Sebastian believed that the developing market would stain Portugal’s evangelical Catholic reputation particularly as they were trying to bring Christianity into Japan.
Unwilling to risk any complications it may cause any longer, Sebastian ordered a ban on the slave trade in 1571, although this didn’t really do much at all. The trade continued and Toyotomi Hideyoshi, known as the “Great Unifier” of Japan, was becoming increasingly angered by the entire situation.He was tired of seeing his own men and women being sold off by the hundreds, and decided to write a letter to the Portuguese Jesuit Vice Provincial Gaspar Coehlo, and informed him.
that this business must end and that all slaves should be returned, free, to Japan. Some historians view this rage to be a bit hypocritical, given that Hideyoshi was participating in a mass slave trade himself, only of Korean prisoners of war instead of his own Japanese people. Nonetheless, Hideyoshi’s anger continued to grow and he began to blame the Portuguese Jesuits in particular. This, of course, was exactly what King Sebastian had hoped to avoid, but he had done too little too late.
At his wit’s end, Hideyoshi outlawed Christian evangelization from Japan. The slave trade wasn’t officially banned until 1595, and the relationship between Japan and Portugal had been severely negatively affected by the entire situation. The Japanese now saw the Portuguese, and particularly the Jesuits, as a major threat to Japan’s sovereignty.
By the 17th century, all ties with the potential colonial threat were severed and the Portuguese didn’t push the boundaries anymore. Although Japan did have some benefits to offer the Portuguese and other European powers potentially, it wasn’t enough to make fighting back worth it. Realistically, forceful colonization of Japan would be near impossible.
Not only had the Japanese purchased vast numbers of firearms from the Portuguese, but they’d also learned how to make their own. And, considering the demands brought about by the civil war period, the Japanese were ready and fully capable for battle. Additionally, Japan was a large country with a large population, especially compared to Portugal.
Even for some of the bigger European powers, it would have been more of a challenge than it was worth, especially because of how far away Japan was from Europe. Trying to ship large amounts of troops – even just enough to match the local population from anywhere in Europe over to the Japanese archipelago would not have been easy if even possible, and there wasn’t enough incentive.
In terms of trade, natural resources, or any other strong motivation, Japan was simply lacking. There was nothing it had that the Europeans couldn’t find or weren’t already able to get elsewhere from their pre-existing colonies. And that, in itself, was another factor. Portugal, Spain, and the other colonial powers were all preoccupied with their current colonies.
To pull attention and possibly resources from those, any new territory would have had to have been very attractive – and more so than Japan was. Lastly, things in Europe were far from peaceful, in multiple ways. For one, the array of colonial monarchies throughout the continent were not all necessarily allies. Competition between them was not only unsurprising but common, and European wars were by no means rare. This would have kept Portugal and the others not only distracted but also at risk of conflict with another rival European nation if any of them had decided to make a genuine effort in the direction of colonizing Japan.
Furthermore, all of the Europeans still had to worry about foreign threats, such as the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans were a much closer and more real menace to all of Europe than Japan would be, and they were actively trying to expand and consolidate power in ways that directly conflicted with European colonialism. This kept Portugal and their rivals very significantly busy away from Japan, and greatly raised the bar for what Japan needed to offer in order to make colonizing it worth the effort.
So, the reason why Japan was never colonized was actually a combination of luck and the strength of the Japanese themselves. Luck, of course, can account for the beneficial geographic position of the archipelago being a far way away from major colonial powers. It can also be given as the reason for Japan’s lack of resources that could have potentially drawn in more European conquerors.
Moreover, the numerical and military strength of the Japanese, even centuries prior to becoming a colonial power themselves, was enough to make the Europeans be at an undeniable disadvantage in the case of an invasion. And when Japan did turn itself into a colonial Empire, this was the final nail in the long-closed coffin of potential colonization of Japan.
The tables had turned and the Japanese were now the ones in power, not those being overpowered. The Portuguese may have had a risky opportunity to conquer Japan when they first arrived on the archipelago back in the 16th century, but it still likely would’ve ended in favor of the Japanese. Even if Portugal had not blown up its own chances by establishing the slave trade, or if King Sebastian had acted sooner in banning the market, this still would have come nowhere near guaranteeing a successful colonization attempt.
More likely than not, if these circumstances hadn’t gone wrong, something else would’ve. This means that Japan wasn’t colonized because, more likely than not, it couldn’t have been done without insane risk and sacrifice from whichever colonial power tried to get it done. Instead, Japan became the colonizer themselves, and the Japanese archipelago remained untouched by colonialism aside from the short stint of the Portuguese.
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