Foreign Influences

The Edo Period saw Japan's attitude to Europeans change from one of openness and welcome, to one of distrust and seclusion. During the early years of the period, Japan welcomed European visitors, delighting in the trade and prosperity that they brought. The Japanese appetite for all things European included trade goods such as eyeglasses, clocks, firearms, and artillery, but it also brought with it social changes such as the adoption of Christianity by many of the ruling Daimyo and their subjects.

Japan's changing attitude to Europeans

However this acceptance of European influence changed. Many began to see the foreigners in a negative light, and were suspicious of their motives. This came to a head during the 1630s when the then Shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu issued the Sakoku Edicts, severely restricting all contact with Europeans and foreigners in general.

The only Europeans who were allowed any access to Japan were the Dutch. The Dutch had been visiting Japan for a hundred years, trading their much sought after European wares. The Sakoku edicts restricted Dutch visits to just one ship per year, though this was later relaxed. Their movements were carefully watched and their trade heavily regulated. However even this severely limited contact allowed the Japanese some access to European ideas and products through what came to be called Rangaku or 'Dutch Learning'.

Rangaku (Dutch Learning)

Through the Dutch and their trade the Japanese began to build up a knowledge of Western ideas and world events in general. This was called Rangaku, which when translated literally means Dutch Learning. Initially Rangaku was severely limited due to the harsh repression of European literature (resulting from attempts to stop the spread of Christianity). However by 1720 the then Shogun Tokugawa Yoshimune (1684-1751) relaxed the rules and foreign books started to circulate freely around Japan.

With this liberalization of Western ideas, Japan began to build a sound base of scientific, geographical and political knowledge. It also brought examples of western art into the country. This was to have a significant impact on the printmakers and artists of the Ukiyo-e.

Description of a microscope in the 1787 book Sayings of the Dutch

Description of a microscope

in the 1787 book 'Sayings of the Dutch'

Morishima Churyo (author) 1756-1810

Asukayama, mid of Edo period by Shiba Kokan

Asukayama, mid of Edo period

Shiba Kokan

Seven-miles beach with Enoshima and Fuji by Shiba Kokan c1790

Seven-miles beach with Enoshima and Fuji

Shiba Kokan c1790

Nagasaki Bay and Dejima island c1890

Nagasaki Bay and Dejima island c1890

from Siebold's Nippon

The Ukiyo-e and Western Art

With the influx of Western trade and ideas during the early to mid 18th Century, the artists of the Ukiyo-e were exposed to the work of their European counterparts. Artists such as Hokusai took this opportunity to study new techniques such as perspective and shadow, neither of which had featured in ukiyo-e until then. Utagawa Hiroshige was one artist who adopted western techniques. He used perspective and a sense of receding space to create depth in his work. Another contemporary of Hokusai's, Shiba Kokan, was also famous for his western style images. While Kokan produced wood-block ukiyo-e images, he also experimented with oil paints on silk, producing images such as Seven-miles beach with Enoshima and Fuji.

The Opening of Japan (1853)

On 31st of March 1853 Commodore Matthew Perry of the United States Navy sailed into Edo Bay with the intention of opening Japan to foreign trade. Through the threat of force of arms, Perry concluded the treaty with Japan called the Convention of Kanagawa which opened extra Japanese ports to foreign trade and paved the way for the establishment of a permanent American consul.

These events signalled the end of the Shogunate's policy of sakoku and paved the way for a cultural exchange between Japan and the West. It was also the beginning of the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate.


While Western art had a clear and obvious impact on the work of Japanese artists, this influence was a two-way process. Japanese art and culture were to have a strong and lasting affect upon the West also. This influence came to be known as Japonism or Japonisme.

Painting showing Commodore Perry's 2nd visit to Japan in 1854

Commodore Perry's 2nd visit to Japan in 1854

(artist unknown)

Portrait of Commodore Matthew C. Perry c1855–56

Commodore Matthew C. Perry c1855–56