Japan in Maritime Asia: Security, Commerce, and Sovereignty

Philip Thai, Northeastern University

Catherine L. Phipps, Empires on the Waterfront: Japan’s Ports and Power, 1858–1899. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2015. 308 pp. $39.95 (cloth).

Noell Wilson, Defensive Positions: The Politics of Maritime Security in Tokugawa Japan. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 2015. 258 pp. $39.95 (cloth).

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Historiography on Japan’s place within the world of maritime Asia has undergone dramatic reinterpretation in recent decades. Scholars of the early modern era have thoroughly demolished the shibboleth of sakoku (“closed country”), the supposed isolation of Tokugawa Japan before the sudden arrival of Western gunboats in the 1850s. The active pursuit of diplomatic and commercial ties by shogun and daimyo alike embedded Japan firmly within global circuits of exchange (e.g., Hellyer 2010; Toby 1984). Scholars of the modern era, for their part, have been inspired by the “imperial turn” to put overseas empires at the heart of national narratives. Bookending the Tokugawa and Meiji periods, the two studies under review here push the frontiers of this research agenda further. Noell Wilson’s political history focuses on the buildup of domainal defense on the coast and the devolution of shogunal monopoly on violence. At the heart of this dialectical relationship was the “Nagasaki system”—the security arrangements that originated in the eponymous port and were eventually implemented throughout Japan. Catherine Phipps’s economic history examines the commercial expansion of Meiji Japan by tracing maritime networks of exchange, transportation, and information at multiple spatial scales. Forged in the crucible of Western imperialism, such ties simultaneously compromised the sovereignty of the nation while laying the foundations for empire. Both works offer compelling cases for the centrality of maritime relations in understanding core issues in Japanese history...