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The Eastern Cousins of European Sovereign States? The Development of Linear Borders in Early Modern Japan

Author: Naosuke Mukoyama

Affiliation: the Institute for Future Initiatives, the University of Tokyo 

Organization/Publisher: European Journal of International Relations

Date/place: November 1, 2022/UK 

Type of Literature: Journal Article 

Number of Pages: 28 



Keywords: Territorial Sovereignty, Linear borders, Europe, Japan


Brief :


Many studies have been conducted, and continue to be conducted, on what defines a sovereign state and how it was initially developed. While sovereign states have various characteristics, this article will focus on their territorial boundaries. It is widely accepted that sovereign states originated in Europe and then spread to the rest of the world through colonization, implying that linear borders did not exist in non-European societies before they were established in Europe. However, non-European societies existed in different political entities, although they could not be classified as sovereign states. This Eurocentric understanding of international relations has faced criticism from multiple scholars, with some even arguing that the Peace of Westphalia (1648) did not have the influence it is commonly believed to have, and that Europe was not fully integrated into the sovereign national order until the 19th century. There has been limited research on the historical development of non-European polities, and most studies follow the “Europe first, non-Europe later” thesis, which the author believes should be tested rather than accepted as fact.


This article argues that territorial boundaries and sovereignty were present or developing in early modern Japan, similar to Europe, during the Edo period (1603-1868). To support this claim, the article examines boundary disputes, boundary markers, and maps from this time period. It challenges the commonly held belief that territorial sovereignty was only developed in Europe and suggests that Japan, despite undergoing Westernization in modern times, may have had a similar system in place that contributed to its development. The traditional view that the concept of sovereignty originated in Europe has been widely accepted, but newer research has shown that diverse forms of international orders have existed outside of Europe. These studies aim to revise the narrative of Western dominance by examining the preexisting systems in non-European societies before European colonization. 


Territorial rule is a key aspect of the evolution of a sovereign state, with a particular focus on linear borders. Goettlich contends that the global linearization of borders is influenced by various historical factors beyond just territoriality. Kadercan argues that the Ottoman Empire had territorial rule, but differed from Europe in that it took a softer, more flexible approach to defining its space, while Europe tended to solidify its borders and merge the connections between space, society, and politics within its territory. These studies demonstrate that territoriality existed in some non-European societies, but still argue that linear borders first developed in Europe. To understand how linear borders emerged in Europe, it is important to consider the Peace of Westphalia and the gradual transformation of borders into rigid lines that divided nation-states. This process continued into the 20th century. The author does not aim to claim that Japan was the first to develop linear borders or that its process of establishing territorial sovereignty influenced Europe’s development. Instead, the author suggests that Japan underwent similar changes and processes in the early modern period as it worked towards becoming a sovereign state. Japan had limited trade and communication with the outside world before opening up to Western powers, though this does not necessarily mean it was isolated. Its relative isolation may have made it easier to recognize any foreign influence present at the time. Many studies indicate that Europe was still in the process of developing a sovereign state system throughout much of Japan’s early modern period, so Europe had not yet finalized the process of creating territorial rule. As a result, the author concludes that Japan and Europe followed similar patterns that led to a parallel development of the modern state system.


While the central government in Edo, modern-day Tokyo, held authority over all of Japan during the Edo period, it only directly controlled a small portion of the country. The rest was governed by over 200 feudal lords who were vassals of the shogun, the ruler, but in reality, they held a high level of autonomy and political power within their domains, known in Japanese as Kokka, or “state.” Japan contained various states within the state during this time, and some may argue that this arrangement was more federal than centralized. Others may argue, however, that these domanial borders do not qualify as borders if they are considered internal borders. It is important to note that Japan did not fully qualify as a sovereign state during this period, so it is difficult to distinguish between its external and internal borders. Additionally, Japan during this time should not be viewed as a unitary state, but rather as an international system. This perspective may be challenged by the presence of a central power in Japan that did not exist in Europe. However, several studies show that the Peace of Westphalia did not end the Hapsburgs’ universalist ambition and their creation of a sovereignty of individual states within the empire. The Roman Empire and Japan were roughly contemporaneous and shared similarities. Even after the Peace of Westphalia, the emperor remained the central authority, and the autonomy of each individual state was limited by the empire. Therefore, the author argues that the development of states within the empire was not different from the development of states outside of it.


After the central authority in Japan began to weaken, the country entered a period of fragmentation that lasted until the start of the 17th century. During this time, warlords emerged and gained control over domains, frequently fighting with each other. Many of these warlords were able to build states through warfare, similar to what occurred in Europe, aligning with Charles Tilly’s theory that “war made the state, and the state made war.” The warlords implemented projects that contributed to state building, such as collecting taxes, conducting land surveys, and developing armies, and they created their own legal systems separate from the central authority, making them the highest authority within their domains. Some historians consider these territories controlled by warlords to be sovereign states, using words like “state” to describe them. Additionally, Portuguese missionaries who visited Japan at the time referred to the warlords with the title of “king,” indicating that they viewed the Japanese warlords in the same way they saw their own Portuguese king. 


It is possible that linear borders in Japan were initially formed through a war-making and state-making process during the Sengoku period, similar to early modern Europe. However, this period came to an end due to a unification attempt led by three leaders, who either defeated or made peace with other warlords and gradually expanded their rule over Japan. Only the third leader, the Tokugawa shogunate, was successful in establishing a regime that lasted for two and a half centuries. The process of linearizing borders during the Sengoku period stopped in some parts of Japan. This process was crucial, especially because the borders were often contested and not always clearly defined. In 1669, two different domains conducted a local investigation and agreed to set boundaries through the exchange of maps depicting the relevant borders. However, not all disputes were resolved peacefully. For example, sea border areas were important for economic activity and transportation, leading to border disputes over islands. In the early modern period, maritime transport significantly expanded, rendering the sea less of a natural border zone. The land surveys conducted during the Edo period also contributed to the outlining of borders, as it was necessary to determine the value of land for tax purposes. The need to clarify issues such as who can fish in a given sea or impose taxes, as well as increasing economic activity, led to the development of borders in early modern Japan. It was not uncommon for warlords to build boundary markers to clearly mark the borders of their territories. In addition, domains maintained their own jurisdiction and often prohibited intermarriages with people from other domains.


Map making, which was advanced by the introduction of printing technology in the early modern period, was a significant factor that facilitated border demarcation. It was a complex process that contributed to the rise of boundary disputes between domains and the solidification of linear borders. The creation of provincial maps also led to more disputes, making it necessary for both domains and provinces to clearly demarcate their borders. The case of early modern Japan supports the argument that map making impacted boundary making. Although maps were primarily used for provinces, domains remained the central unit of rule during the Edo period and were in the process of establishing territorial rule based on linear borders. It is worth noting that Japan did not enter the international society until the Meiji era. However, many Japanese historians argue that the shift towards territorial rule occurred in the early modern period, rather than just after the Meiji Revolution in 1868. This overlap between the European and Japanese development of territorial borders demonstrates that both processes were parallel.


Although Japan had limited interaction with Europeans during the early modern period, they did bring various goods and cultural practices to Japan, either directly or through the Chinese and Koreans, including mapping technologies that were later adopted in Japan. These interactions mainly occurred in the late 18th and 19th centuries, but the creation of linear borders started in the 17th century, during which foreigners were prohibited from entering Japan, with a few exceptions. Therefore, there is no evidence to suggest that Japan’s development of territorial sovereignty was a result of European influence. Europe itself was still developing its own territorial sovereignty in the 17th century. Therefore, even if there was a possibility of limited European influence, Japan’s developments could not have been solely due to European influence, as Europe had not yet completed the process of territorial sovereignty.


Examining the history of territorial sovereignty forms the foundation of our modern understanding of international orders. Additionally, studying it from a non-European perspective removes the Eurocentric bias that many studies have when it comes to the study of the territorial sovereignty of states.


By: Sara El Souhagy, CIGA Research Intern 



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