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Tokugawa Shoguns of Japan

1603 - 1868

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The Tokugawa shogunate was very centralized, and tried to control many aspects of life in Japan.

The shogun listens to an urban planning presentation, 1852.

By Utagawa Yoshikazu, Library of Congress Prints and Photos Collection

For more than 100 years before the Tokugawa Shogunate took power in Japan in 1603, the country wallowed in lawlessness and chaos during the Sengoku or "Warring States" period (1467-1573). Beginning in 1568, however, Japan's "Three Reunifiers" - Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu - worked to bring the warring daimyo back under central control. In 1603, Tokugawa Ieyasu completed this task and established the Tokugawa Shogunate, which would rule in the emperor's name until 1868.

The Early Tokugawa Shogunate:

Tokugawa Ieyasu defeated the daimyo who were loyal to the late Toyotomi Hideyoshi and his young son Hideyori at the Battle of Sekigahara in October of 1600. Fifteen years later, he would besiege the young Toyotomi heir at Osaka Castle; Hideyori's defenses failed and the young man committed seppuku, confirming the Tokugawa hold on power once and for all.

In 1603, the emperor bestowed upon Tokugawa Ieyasu the title of shogun. Tokugawa Ieyasu established his capital at Edo, a small fishing village on the marshes of the Kanto plain, which would later become known as Tokyo.

Ieyasu formally reigned as shogun for just two years; in order to insure his family's claim on the title and ensure continuity of policy, he had his son Hidetada named shogun in 1605. However, Ieyasu continued to run the government from behind the scenes until his death in 1616. This political and administrative savvy would characterize the first Tokugawa shoguns.

The Tokugawa Peace:

Life in Tokugawa Japan was peaceful but heavily controlled by the shogunal government. After a century of chaotic warfare, the Tokugawa Peace was a much-needed respite. For the samurai warriors, however, the change from Sengoku meant that they were forced to work as bureaucrats in the Tokugawa administration.  The Sword Hunt ensured that nobody but the samurai had weapons.

The samurai were not the only sector in Japan that faced changing life-styles or livelihoods under the Tokugawas. All sectors of society were confined to their traditional roles much more strictly than in the past, beginning in the time of Toyotomi Hideyoshi. The Tokugawas continued this harsher imposition of the four-tier class structure, imposing and enforcing rules about small details like which classes could use luxurious silks for their clothing or tortoiseshell for hair-pins.

Japanese Christians, who had been converted by Portuguese traders and missionaries in previous years, were first banned from practicing their religion in 1614 by Tokugawa Hidetada. To enforce this law, the shogunate required all citizens to register with their local Buddhist temple; any who refused were considered disloyal to the bakufu. The Shimabara Rebellion, made up mostly of Christian peasants, flared in 1637-38, but was stamped out by the shogunate. Afterward, Japanese Christians were exiled, executed or driven underground, and Christianity faded from the country.

Despite some heavy-handed tactics, the Tokugawa shoguns presided over a long period of peace and relative prosperity in Japan. In fact, life seemed so peaceful and unchanging that it sparked the creation of the ukiyo, or "Floating World," among urban samurai, wealthy merchants, and geisha.

The Floating World crashed back down to Earth suddenly in 1853, when the American Commodore Matthew Perry and his black ships appeared in Edo Bay. Tokugawa Ieyoshi, the 60-year-old shogun, died soon after Perry's fleet arrived.

His son, Tokugawa Iesada, would agree under duress to sign the Convention of Kanagawa the following year, after Perry returned with a larger fleet. Under the terms of the convention, American ships had access to three Japanese ports where they could take on provisions, and ship-wrecked American sailors were to be treated well.

This sudden imposition of outside power did not immediately bring down the Tokugawa shogunate, even though other western countries quickly followed the American lead. However, it did signal the beginning of the end for the Tokugawas.

Fall of the Tokugawas:

The sudden influx of foreign people, ideas and money severely disrupted Japan's lifestyle and economy in the 1850s and 1860s. As a result, the Emperor Komei came out from behind the "jeweled curtain" to issue an "Order to Expel Barbarians" in 1863; it was too late for Japan to retreat once more into isolation, however. In fact, the order did nothing to prevent foreign warships from shelling Japanese ports and ships with impunity in reaction to threats, real or imagined.

Anti-western daimyo, particularly in the southern provinces of Choshu and Satsuma, blamed the Tokugawa shogunate for its inability to defend Japan against the foreign barbarians. Ironically, both the Choshu rebels and the Tokugawa troops began programs of rapid modernization, which meant adopting many western military technologies. The southern daimyo were more successful in their modernization than the shogunate was, however.

In 1866, Shogun Tokugawa Iemochi suddenly died, and Tokugawa Yoshinobu reluctantly took power. He would be the fifteenth and last Tokugawa shogun. In 1867, the emperor also died, and his son Mitsuhito became the Meiji Emperor.

Faced with growing Choshu and Satsuma threats, Yoshinobu relinquished some of his powers. On November 9, 1867, Yoshinobu resigned from the office of shogun, which was abolished. The southern daimyo launched the Boshin War (1867-69) nonetheless, to ensure that power would henceforth rest with the emperor rather than with a military leader. The following January, the pro-imperial daimyo announced the Meiji Restoration, under which the young Meiji Emperor would once again rule in his own name.

After 250 years of peace and relative isolation under the Tokugawa shoguns, Japan launched itself into the modern world. With the sorry fate of once-omnipotent China as an example, the island nation threw itself in to developing its economy and military might. It soon grew powerful enough to beat the western imperial powers at their own game in conflicts such as the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05, and to spread its own empire across much of Asia by 1945.

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