One of the most famous characteristics of the Tokugawa period, named for Ieyasu, its founder, was the isolationist stance of the ruling government. This was, however, a development of the decades after Ieyasu's death, a policy that he neither planned for nor would have supported. Rather, his life and career overlap with Japan's most international period during the premodern age.

Ieyasu began to involve himself in certain international affairs immediately after Hideyoshi’s death. In the eleventh month of 1598, three months after the Toyotomi lord’s passing, Ieyasu wrote to the warlords Asano Nagamasa and Tôdô Takatora regarding the withdrawal from Korea, which he and the other generals hoped to expedite, an area of political policy that would not previously have been within his purview.(1) In 1599/7, Ieyasu replied to an official of the Sultanate of Pattani on behalf of the Toyotomi family, an obvious expansion of his field of interest and authority.(2) In 1600, well before the crisis that precipitated the Battle of Sekigahara, Ieyasu met with William Adams, the British navigator who arrived in Japan on the Dutch ship the Liefde. Adams reported the following in a letter to his wife regarding the meeting:

I was carried in one of the king’s gallies to the court at Ôsaka, where the king lay, about eightie leagues from the place where the shippe was. The twelfth of May 1600 I came to the great king’s citie, who cause me to be brought into the court, being a wonderfull costly house guilded with gold in abundance. Comming before the king, he viewed me well, and seemed to be wonderfull favourable. He made many signes unto me, some of which I understood, and some I did not. In the end, there came one that could speake Portugues. By him, the king demanded of me, of what land I was, and what moved us to come to his land, beeing so farrer off. I shewed unto him the name of our counterey, and that our land had long sought out the East Indies, and desired friendship with all kings and potentates in way of marchandize, having in our land diverse commodities, which these lands had not: and also to buy such marchandizes in this land, which our counterey had not.(3)

Adams’s focus here is so clearly on trade, whereas Ieyasu—who followed up by asking Adams if his country had wars, what he believed in, and by what route he came to Japan—is more interested in tactical information about foreign nations and lands. This shift from writing on behalf of the Toyotomi in 1599 to thinking like a sovereign in 1600 is significant.

Ieyasu’s correspondence and interaction with foreign powers not surprisingly increased after his victory at Sekigahara. In 1601 the Tokugawa lord exchanged letters with the ruler of “The Country of Annan,” or Vietnam, discussing trade ships and other issues and sending along a sword as a gift.(4) On 1602/5/23 Ieyasu wrote a letter to the Sô warlords,(5) rulers of the island of Tsushima, located between Kyushu and the Korean peninsula and a powerful diplomatic channel through which Ieyasu could communicate with Korea’s rulers, still recovering materially and psychologically from the deadly war launched by Hideyoshi in 1592. Ieyasu sought to restore relations with Korea and had reportedly previously authorized the Sô to pursue this course. There is some evidence that the Battle of Sekigahara convinced the Korean court that Japan would not soon be a threat again, which increased their rulers’ willingness to consider reestablishing negotiations.(6)

Improved relations with neighboring nations as well as more distant powers enabled trade of all kinds, including many materials that were key to governance—ranging from weapons and ingredients in gunpowder to exotic objects used in gift-giving—as well as some that were simply curiosities. On 1602/6/28, for example, a “Cochin” ship arrived at Nagasaki bearing an elephant, a tiger, and some peafowl among other gifts and merchandise.(7) Such interactions continued throughout Ieyasu’s brief time as shogun. As Michael Laver comments in his study of Japan’s early modern foreign relations policies, “It is clear that Tokugawa Ieyasu, upon assuming the title of shogun in 1603, had no intention of isolating Japan from the rest of the world, let alone from Europe.”(8)

By 1605 Ieyasu had thus worked to reopen relations with Korea, had actively corresponded with powers such as Pattani, the Spanish in the Philippines, Vietnam, and Cambodia, and had generally established himself as the authority who dealt with foreign relations for Japan.(9) After retiring from the position of shogun, he continued to take some responsibility for such diplomatic exchanges, supporting opportunities to trade with foreign powers and to gain information about East and Southeast Asia and beyond. He was particularly active in licensing warlords and merchants—some Japanese, but others from overseas—to conduct trade between Japan and various foreign countries. This system of “red seal” permit issuance, in which he or his scribes sent letters marked with the distinctive red seal print of the government to merchants seeking safe passage through the seas of East and Southeast Asia, is believed to have emerged around 1602, becoming particularly common during his tenure as shogun and continuing until the major changes in Japan’s international relations effected by his grandson Iemitsu in the 1630s. Ieyasu issued the largest number of red seal permits in 1604 (30), 1605 (28), 1606 (19), and 1607 (23).(10) On 1606/7/27, for example, Ieyasu issued a red seal permit to a Kyoto townsman for trade with Siam.(11) Such trade serves as useful evidence of Japan’s central role in the early modern economy of East Asia, and a reminder that Japan's famous Tokugawa-era isolationism was a post-Ieyasu development..

1. Ronald Toby, in State and Diplomacy in Early Modern Japan: Asia in the Development of the Tokugawa Bakufu (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1984), 23 n. 2, argues that these are examples of Ieyasu “acting alone in foreign affairs,” but this exaggerates the evidence. Other Toyotomi vassals similarly sought to bring about a hasty and relatively clean end to the Korea disaster.
2. Nakamura Kôya, Tokugawa Ieyasu monjo no kenkyû, 2: 420.
3. Will Adams, “Audience with Ieyasu,” in Michael Cooper, ed. They Came to Japan: An Anthology of European Reports on Japan, 1543-1640 (Ann Arbor: Center for Japanese Studies, the University of Michigan, 1995), 115. Nakamura, Tokugawa Ieyasu monjo no kenkyû, 2:466.
4. Nakamura Tadashi, ed., Eiinbon ikoku nikki: Konchiin Suden gaikô monjo shûsei (Tokyo: Tokyo Bijutsu, 1989), 104, fascile 69 of vol. 2 of “Ikoku nikki.”
5. Nakamura, Tokugawa Ieyasu monjo no kenkyû, 3:180.
6. Toby, State and Diplomacy, 25-28.
7. Butoku hennen shûsei, Keichô 7/6/28 specifically notes that it was a “living tiger.” 2:51.
8. Michael S. Laver, The Sakoku Edicts and the Politics of Tokugawa Hegemony (Amherst, NY: Cambria Press, 2011), 11.
9. See, for example, the following, all in Nakamura: letter to the sultanate of Pattani, Keicho 7/8/5, 3:220; letter to the Philippines on Keichô 7/8, 3:228; Keicho 7/10/2 letter to Vietnam, 3:247; a Keicho 8/1 exchange with the ruler of Cambodia, 3:302; a Keicho 8/7/29 letter from a Chinese merchant, 3:315; a Keicho 8/10/5 exchange with Vietnam, 3:353; and another exchange with Cambodia on Keicho 8/10, 3:358.
10. Nakamura Kôya, Tokugawa Ieyasu kô den, particularly the chart of shuinsen in chapter 16, “Gaikoku kankei,” 631.
11. Nakamura, Tokugawa Ieyasu monjo no kenkyû, 3:484.