Empire in Asia

A New Global History

Japanese Expansion on the Asiatic Continent, Vol. 2

Book Cover

Book Title

Japanese Expansion on the Asiatic Continent Vol. 2: A Study in the History of Japan with Special Reference to Her International Relations with China, Korea and Russia. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1940


Kuno, Yoshi S.


In a book evenly divided between narration and annotated appendixes, Kuno focuses on Japan’s expansionist policies in the early years of the Tokugawa Era under Ieyasu’s rule. Ieyasu chose to pursue expansion through trade relations rather than territorial gain by military mains, and actively sought to establish trade privileges with Korea, China, and Russia. Some of Kuno’s narration turns to an inward-looking examination of domestic political policies in the age of seclusion; these chapters are less relevant to the study of empires and expansion. However, Kuno’s discussion of the initial Japanese endeavors to expand commercially into Asia and the American hemisphere, as well as of its eventual realization that self-imposed isolation was not sustainable, highlights important characteristics of the Tokugawa Era in relation to both Japanese and European expansionist efforts. Through Kuno’s narration it is clear that Japan had expansionist ambitions of its own at the same time that it could not extricate itself from similar goals belonging to foreign powers.

Scope (Topics Covered, Time Period)

Kuno opens the book with a brief overview of the founding of the Tokugawa Era. Following the banning of Christianity under the influence of British and Dutch advisors, Tokugawa Ieyasu led the country into more than two hundred years’ worth of seclusion, punctuated only by trade with the Dutch at Deshima, and it is this period of isolation to which Kuno turns in the middle of her narration. The book ends with the arrival of a Russian ship on the Japanese coast in 1739 and the eventual realization in the 1800s that seclusion was not sustainable given the ambitions of Russia, England and the United States. The second half of the book is a translated compilation of documents, mostly correspondences, between Japanese officials and various diplomatic players from Russia, China, Korea, and the American hemisphere.

Argument (Methodology, Significance)

Kuno points out that Ieyasu clearly sought to expand Japan’s territory through benign trade relations, not through aggressive means. His commitment to securing Japan’s identity as Asia’s ultimate commercial centre resulted in a pronounced tolerance of Christianity, as he recognized such tolerance as a precondition for establishing ties with the European powers as well as the American hemisphere. Kuno narrates the constant adjustments to the shogunate’s attitude toward local Christians and foreign missionaries. Japan also made significant concessions in order to cement friendly ties with Korea, as evidenced by the translated documents in the appendix. Ieyasu also corresponded with Liu Chiu and Formosa, attempting to use them as a commercial springboard into China, though without success. It is significant that Ieyasu chose trade as a tool for expansion because it meant a separation of certain political with economic objectives: even after the expulsion of Spanish and Portuguese missionaries, whom Ieyasu suspected wanted to reduce Japan to a vassal state, Japan by no means closed its doors to Christian traders, and in fact opened itself up to the world with more vigor.

It is also clear in Kuno’s narration that Japan could never fully detach itself from the power plays of other imperial powers. Even during the early years of the Tokugawa Era, Japan was caught in the middle of the rivalry between the Catholic Iberian states and the Protestant Dutch and English. William Adams convinced Ieyasu that the Spanish and Portuguese were attempting to turn Japan into their vassal state, and by 1610 Spain’s attempt to expand territory through religion was indeed gaining ground. Toward the end of the era, seclusion grew increasingly unfeasible because of European imperial interests in the Orient, specifically those of Britain, the United States, and Russia, the last of which had always been an existential threat to Japan. Kuno interestingly points out that, up till the time of such imperial pressures, Japan had never been compelled to clearly demarcate its own territories, and assumed that Ezo (Hokkaido) was a foreign province. Even with sharply imposed isolation, Japan could not remain passive amid the clash of imperial powers.

Annotated by Jennifer Yip