Korea's & Japan's Resistance To External Trade (1550-1867)

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  • 0:00 Pre-European Korea & Japan
  • 1:22 Korean Response to Europeans
  • 3:20 Japanese Response to Europeans
  • 6:16 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught history, and has an MA in Islamic law/finance. He has since founded his own financial advice firm, Newton Analytical.

Korea and Japan took quite different approaches to the threat of the Europeans. The Koreans relied on the Chinese to take the brunt of the encroachment, whereas the Japanese attempted to learn as much as possible, once the issue of trade was finally forced.

Pre-European Korea and Japan

During the time before the Western exploration of East Asia, Korea and Japan were all too aware that they were sleeping next to a dragon, the Chinese dragon, to be exact. China's impact on the culture of its neighbors, and very often, China's subjugation of its neighbors, were all too known to both the Koreans and the Japanese. The two societies took different approaches to maintaining their cultural and political independence.

For the Koreans, the answer was to turn Chinese Confucian practices to their advantage by adopting a 'big brother, little brother' relationship with China. As a result, China would get the honor and respect of being the senior partner, but Korea pragmatically kept its independence. Japan showed open admiration for Chinese cultural advances, but refused to allow any foreigners to land in the islands. Instead, Japan sent many envoys to China to learn all they could. In time, these envoys would return to Japan, and only share that which was deemed beneficial to Japanese development.

Korean Response to Europeans

Out of respect to its cultural big brother, Korea was hesitant to permit foreigners to land. After all, by not respecting the cultural influence of China, it might invite Chinese invasion. For decades, the Koreans only maintained foreign relations with the Chinese and through their mission in China interacted with European foreigners. Such interaction was with the explicit permission and direction of the Chinese, but that didn't matter to the Koreans.

In fact, as the years continued, the relative power of the Europeans over the Chinese was apparent to the savvy Koreans. Frankly, it was better to keep the foreigners solely focused on China. However, cultural influences still managed to seep in. Christianity especially became popular in Korea, which directly threatened Korean cultural dependence on Chinese religions and philosophies.

As a result, European and Korean Christians alike were victims of heavy and systematic persecution by the government starting in 1866. That said, earlier massacres of Korean Christians who were judged as having shunned their Korean heritage had also occurred. That year would prove important for the Koreans for another reason. An armed American ship, the General Sherman arrived in Pyongyang demanding trade rights. The Koreans promptly loaded the ship with explosives and blew it up. Understandably, this led to a deterioration of the Korean-American relationship, and a more forceful mission followed. Soon, Korea was open to western trade.

Japanese Response to Europeans

Japan had begun to send trade missions to the first European colonies that had emerged in East Asia, namely those in Spanish Manila. Soon, limited rights were granted for the Europeans in Japan, as the local rulers saw the opportunity for significant trade ties. With those ties, however, came missionaries. The Portuguese and Spanish landed with missionaries, and those missionaries could not even agree on what type of Catholicism to share. This endless fighting exhausted the patience of the Japanese leaders, who were also frightened by the fact that Japanese Christians were now more focused on Christianity than their traditional loyalties to local leaders.

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