In this challenge, students explore feudal society of the Edo period by composing and presenting a petition on isolationism to the shogun from the point of view of an assigned role; e.g., farmer, merchant, samurai, English trader. Students also assess the three most important reasons for retaining and the three most important reasons for abandoning the isolationist policy.
A. Based upon the perspective of an assigned role, compose and present a petition to the shogun outlining why Japan should or should not continue its policy of isolationism.
Provide background on Edo worldviews
Students need a general understanding of the feudal system and of the isolationist worldview of the Edo period. Teachers may wish to provide background information about Edo society and discuss key elements in the Edo worldview. Students may also explore relevant websites (see References).
Assign roles in Edo hierarchical society
Explain to students that they will work in teams to prepare a petition to the shogun outlining the position of an identified group in Japanese society on the policy of isolationism.
Assign teams of students to one of the following roles:
Christian missionary or convert
artisan or craftsman
English or Dutch trader
Conduct research on assigned role
Direct students to investigate the conditions and experiences of their assigned roles in order to determine how people in those roles might have viewed the following aspects of Edo society:
- the feudal system
- the hierarchical social classes
- Japan’s growing economy
- the new urban way of life
- Japan’s isolationism.
Caution students about assessing a historical time period from a modern-day, Western worldview. Remind them that people in the past acted and behaved as they did in the context of the times. For example, it is highly unlikely that people would have petitioned the shogun. Peasants may have been punished if they did petition the shogun, so the tone of any petition from this group would be especially deferential. Encourage students to base their conclusions on available evidence about the historical values and beliefs of their assigned roles.
Rate support for isolationism
Direct each team to rate the degree of support that people in their assigned roles might have for each aspect listed above. Support may range from strongly supportive to strongly opposed. Ask students to provide two supporting reasons for each rating.
You may wish to adapt one of the charts in Rating Options (Support Material) to structure and assess this activity.
Write a petition to the shogun from an assigned role
Ask students to write a petition to the shogun based upon the perspectives of their assigned roles. The petition should recommend retention or abandonment of the isolationist policies in the late Edo period. Ask students to base the petition on their research and the assessed level of support for isolationism.
The petition should address these four topics:
- the feudal system
- their place in Edo society
- the growing economy and new urban culture
- the isolationist policies of the time.
With the class, develop criteria for authentic historical writing:
- historically accurate
- provides specific details
- shows insights into the perspective of the assigned group.
See Creating Authentic Diaries (Modelling the Tools) for detailed suggestions on how to teach and assess the tools for authentic historical writing.
Invite students to attend an audience with the shogun to present their petitions. Encourage students to listen carefully to the various perspectives and consider the positive and negative aspects of looking inward (remaining isolated) and looking outward (exploring other cultures and regions).
B. Determine the three most important reasons for retaining and the three most important reasons for abandoning Japan's policy of isolationism.
Determine the main reasons for and against isolationism
With the class, discuss criteria for determining degree of impact:
- depth of impact—significantly affects people’s lives
- breadth of impact—affects many people in society
- duration of impact—has long-lasting consequences.
After all groups have presented their petitions, invite students to determine, as a class or individually, the three most important reasons why Japan should abandon the policy of isolationism and the three most important reasons it should remain isolated. Stress that students are to make their assessments from the point of view of someone at the time who cares about the well-being of the country but has not yet decided if isolationism is a wise policy.
You may wish to adapt one of the charts and strategies in Rating Options (Support Material) to structure and assess this activity.
Extension: Debate the merits of isolationism
Engage students in a debate on a topic such as:
- During the Edo period, Japan benefited from isolating itself from the rest of the world.
You may want to structure the discussion as students assume a position along a continuum of Strongly agree to Strongly disagree.
See U-shaped Discussion (Support Material) for specific instructions on using this approach.
Alternatively, ask students to locate themselves in one of the four corners in the classroom to represent their degree of agreement or disagreement with the proposition (Strongly agree, Agree somewhat, Disagree somewhat, Strongly disagree). Direct students to discuss the topic with others in their corner before debating the issue as a class.