Tokugawa Shogunate: Strengths and Weaknesses Robert H. Webb History 483 Professor John H. Sagers 6 August 2010 The death of emperor Hideyoshi and subsequent ascension to the throne of Hideyori in 1598 set into motion events that would alter the political landscape in Japan for the next two hundred and fifty years. Tokugawa Ieyasu, in his quest to become absolute ruler of Japan defeated Hideyori loyalists in the battle of Sekigahara and was appointed Shogun by Hideyori in 1603. This military “coup d’etat” effectively gave Tokugawa complete control of Japan and reduced the emperor to little more than a figurehead in the governing of Japan.
As history would show, the feudal system of government that Tokugawa created ultimately led to Japan’s movement from an isolated country to the first industrialized Asian nation. Although effectively a military dictatorship, the Tokugawa shogunate had the positive effect of unifying Japan under one government. Prior to Tokugawa being appointed as shogun Japan was a fragmented nation with many clan leaders. By completing his power grab, Tokugawa effectively joined the three main islands of Japan. Japan entered a period of prolonged peace in which many changes could occur.
Tokugawa established a government centered in Edo (modern day Tokyo) called a bakufu in which daimyo (lords or barons in the European system) controlled regional lands and in turned served the shogun. The Tokugawa political system was very complex in its operation. It was similar in many aspects to the European feudal system but it was very bureaucratic. Although the emperor remained seated on the throne he had little to no political power and was primarily a remnant of the neo-Confucian ideological theory. This theory prescribed a very structured society in which all people in society fell into certain classes.
The four major classes within Japanese society were samurai, farmers, artisans, and merchants. Some members of Japanese society were not considered part of this hierarchy; most notably the Imperial family. Each class was required to perform specific functions within society. A major drawback of this system was the prohibition of elevating one’s social status. One’s position within society was set by familial relationships and not ability. Therefore, positions of authority may not be held by the most competent person. These restrictions ultimately created tensions within Japan that later precipitated change.
The frustrations of citizens desiring change ultimately led for a push to change this system and appoint people of ability to government positions (Hideshike 1997). Another initial positive impact of the bakufu was the incredible economic development that occurred. The shogun, as the political and military center of Japan, established a common system of economic control in which all wealth was dispersed in set values among classes. The daimyo that were loyal to Tokugawa were given increased arable land and therefore increased wealth. Japan was primarily an agricultural nation and wealth was measured in rice yield.
Those daimyo that fell out of favor could have lands taken away and subsequently faced reduced financial income. Ultimately, the ruling class began to suffer financial hardships as well. Under the Tokugawa system, daimyo were forced to participate in a system called “Sankin Kotai” or alternate attendance (Shoten 1997). Originally this was instituted as a system of political control in which the daimyo (and his family) were required to spend lengthy periods in Edo. During this time, if the daimyo returned to his domain, the family was required to remain in Edo.
This system weakened and impoverished the daimyo’s finance and caused him to become indebted to merchants. Due to the cumbersome nature of rice as means of exchange rice ultimate gave way to a money economy-silver and gold coin. Any financial difficulties realized by the daimyo ultimately fell to those he retained. Taxes in excess of fifty to seventy percent were used to increase income of the daimyo and were a burden suffered by the farmers (Sadanobu 1997). The primary beneficiaries of the emerging money economy were the merchants.
Daimyo and samurai traded their rice for money with the merchants who soon became very rich. Merchants, cashing in on daimyo debt attained positions of authority within the daimyo households. Many were living lavish lifestyles only dreamt of by samurai. This caused resentment in Japanese society because, although they were socially inferior, merchants enjoyed an elevated status economically (Kunihiko 1997). Perhaps the social class that suffered the most indignities was the samurai who, lacking the means to earn a living on their regular income, indulged in the lifestyle of Edo.
Many had to resort to engaging in handicraft for income vice training at the martial arts thus leading to inherent corruption (Nobumitsu 1997). Ultimately, the Tokugawa shogunate wanted to maintain political and social stability in Japan. By seizing power, Ieyasu was able to quell domestic unrest but another threat was still presented for total control. Foreign influence proved to be a serious threat to stability within Japan. The initial threat to Japan was presented by Christian missionaries. After an initial introduction to Christianity, the shogunate conducted a purging and outlawed the religion.
This led to a prolonged isolation of Japanese society from Western influence. The shogunate wished to prevent daimyo from conspiring with foreigners thus circumventing any attempt to wrest power from the Tokugawas. Therefore the shogunate took no risks and closed the country in what was known as Sakoku. While the rest of the civilized world was undergoing a renaissance Japan remained isolated. Ultimately, the technological and military gap between the West and Japan widened leaving Japan in untenable positions when facing foreign threats.
This policy ultimately caused friction between Japan and Western nations who demanded Japan open up for trade and diplomatic ties. In 1853, American Commodore Perry, arrived in Tokyo bay and forcibly brought Japan into the modern world. For the Tokugawa regime, already weakened from enemies from within the Japanese society such as disgruntled daimyo, samurai, farmers, and powerful merchants, this presented a dilemma. Realizing that Japan could not militarily protect herself from foreign powers, the government was forced to make concession in order to stave off American hostility (Lu 1997).
In an ironic twist, the isolationist policy originally implemented to protect Japan from foreign influence ultimately led to the demise of the Tokugawa shogunate. In the end, the inflexibility politically, socially, economically, and diplomatically led to dissention within Japan. Invariably, conditions led to changes, although unintended, that enabled Japan to become the first industrialized Asian nation because of the quasi-capitalistic economy established during the Tokugawa era. The diplomatic shortcomings of the regime led directly to its demise because it as unable to deal with inadequacies with the Japanese nation in dealing with foreign powers. Furthermore, two hundred and fifty years of social limitations pushed the citizens of Japan towards change in which incompetent leaders would be replaced by those more qualified to lead the nation. Although the Tokugawa shogunate failed in many aspects, it succeeded in bringing about a lasting peace for the country although it was accomplished through a system of strict governance. Perhaps the biggest failure of the Tokugawa shogunate was the exclusion of the Imperial family in the governance of Japan.
Those that led the peaceful transition to the Meiji restoration ensured that Emperor was a cornerstone in the building of the new government. This unified the nation in ways that the Tokugawas could not envision loyalty to country and cause. Bibliography Hideshike, Iwasaki. “Sakamoto Ryoma Kankei Monjo. ” In Japan: A Documentary History, by David J. Lu, 301-302. New York: M. E. Sharpe, 1997. Kunihiko, Fujimoto. “Nihonshi. ” In Japan: A Documentary History, by David J. Lu, 280. New York: M. E. Sharpe, 1997. Select Documents in Japanese Foreign Policy 1853-1868. ” In Japan: A Documentary History, by David J. Lu, 282. New York: M. E. Sharpe, 1997. Nobumitsu, Kuwabura. “Ryugo Zappitsu. ” In Japan: A Documentary History, by David J. Lu, 276. New York: M. E. Sharpe, 1997. Sadanobu, Matsudaira. “Kokuhonron. ” In Japan: A Documentary History, by David J. Lu, 279. New York: M. E. Sharpe, 1997. Shoten, Iwanami. “Nihon Shiso Taikei. ” In Japan: A Documentary History, by David J. Lu, 277. New York: M. E. Sharpe, 1997. Works Cited: 1. David J.
Lu, Japan: A Documentary History (New York: M. E. Sharpe Press, 1997), 301-302. 2. David J. Lu, Japan: A Documentary History (New York: M. E. Sharpe Press, 1997), 277. 3. David J. Lu, Japan: A Documentary History (New York: M. E. Sharpe Press, 1997), 279. 4. David J. Lu, Japan: A Documentary History (New York: M. E. Sharpe Press, 1997), 281. 5. David J. Lu, Japan: A Documentary History (New York: M. E. Sharpe Press, 1997), 276-277. 6. David J. Lu, Japan: A Documentary History (New York: M. E. Sharpe Press, 1997), 281-292.