How did Tokugawa Japan regulate the flow of foreign communities and imported goods before the standardization of commercial treaties in 1850s? How did foreigners (here, most often Europeans) understand these regulations and contexts? This paper focuses on the seventeenth century, when the Tokugawa shogunate established itself as Japan’s ruling authority. In the early seventeenth century, the shogunate issued documents affixed with the shogun’s personal seal that asserted its own authority and articulated privileges for the Spanish, Dutch, English, Portuguese, and Chinese. A documentary record of these privileges was necessary at a time when both the presence of foreigners and Tokugawa hegemony remained unsettled and uncertain.
A few decades later, the shogunate stopped issuing written declarations of privileges to foreign communities in favor of oral transmission of prohibitions and orders. Changes in the form and function of these capitulations paralleled domestic developments. As Tokugawa authority settled and the presence of foreigners became the norm, they came to be treated as pseudo-subjects for a regime that functionally recognized only enemies and allies rather than domestic subjects and foreign aliens. Thus, the evolving documentary record reflects the assimilation of foreigners into the Tokugawa ruling framework.
Finally, this paper also discusses differing understandings of the documents’ purpose that arose among the Japanese and their European counterparts. Where prior research often concludes that these differences derived from divergent worldviews, I argue that Westerners on the ground in Asia appealed to and adhered to written documents precisely because of their infirm position in Japan.