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Overview of Tokugawa Japan (1603-1868 AD)


Timeline of Tokugawa Japan


1500-    Neither the Shogun nor the Emperor exercised any effective central authority.

             Japan was effectively divided into about two hundred fiefdoms of various sizes.


1543-    The Portuguese first reached Japan. European trade and missionary activity in

 Japan began.


1573- Ashikaga shogunate formally ended.


1573-1598  -   Toyotomi Hideyoshi defeated the other daimyo and reunified Japan under

 the Emperor.


1587-     The persecution of Christians began in Japan.


1603-     The Tokugawa Shogunate  was established.


1638-     The shogun proscribed Christianity, prohibited the entry of foreigners into

              Japan, and forbad Japanese to travel abroad.


1800-     By 1800 Japan possessed the most advanced agricultural system in Asia.


1853-     Commodore Perry forced the Japanese to open their ports to the United States.


1868-     The Tokugawa Shogunate collapsed and was replaced by direct rule by the




Basic characteristics:


Political organization:  Emperor

                                     Shogun (military dictator) who ruled in the Emperor’s name.

                                     “Feudal” style government

                                     Key political positions held by relatives and allies.


Military:                     The use of massed infantry proved effective against the traditional cavalry.

                                    Gun-powder weapons by 1553.

                                    Castles proliferated.


Social organization:  rigid, little social mobility

                                  Traditional Confucian hierarchy: Aristocracy (incl. daimyo and samurai)  

                                                                                        Farmers (small landholders, tenants)



                                  Samurai subsumed into business and government functions over time.

                                  Castles served not only as defensive sites, but as administrative and economic



Value systems:         Neo-Confucianism


                                 Shintoism (native religion of Japan)




Tokugawa Japan


I. 1477-1573

A. Politics

1. Both the shogun and the emperor were unable to exercise extensive authority.

2. A new landed aristocratic class, the daimyo, dominated Japan.

a.  There were around 200 quasi-independent fiefdoms in Japan circa 1500.

3. As incessant warfare between daimyos progressed, small or unsuccessful daimyos

 were eliminated.  Later in the sixteenth century, the surviving daimyo were fewer in

 number but larger than earlier ones.

B. Society

1. Old class systems breaking down.

a. The lower classes gained more power as the former military class subject to the

 daimyos was integrated into administrative apparatus . 

2. Commercial towns grew in importance, especially as trade with China and Portuguese increased.

3. The Portuguese first reached Japan in 1543.

            a. Merchants and missionaries were soon working in Japan.

            b. The Dutch and English were in Japan by the end of the century.


II. Period of  Unification (1573-1603)

            A. Oda Nobunaga (1534-82)

                        1. Nobunaga began the process of restoring central authority.

                                    a. From his daimyo in central Japan, he conquered Kyoto and defeated powerful

 Buddhist monasteries.

            1. The military power of Buddhist sects were dramatically reduced.

                                    b. He created an extensive system of vassals to extend his influence.

                        2. He broke down internal obstacles to trade in the areas he dominated, introduced tax

                        reforms, and reorganized administration of his lands.

B. Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-1598) 

1. A daimyo himself and one of Nobunaga’s generals, Hideyoshi emerged as the

dominant force in Japanese politics.

2.  He reunified Japan under the emperor.

a. Unable to defeat the Tokugawa daimyo, Hideyoshi brought Todugawa Ieyasu

 into his camp through marriage and the granting of other favors.  

                                     b. By 1590 all surviving daimyo had sworn oaths of loyalty to Hideyoshi.

                        3. To further the pacification of Japan, Hideyoshi forced all peasants to surrender their

                        weapons. This created a permanent gap between the peasants and the warrior class.

4. Hideyoshi began to pass laws freezing social changes and reestablishing the warrior class.

            a. He took the weapons from the peasantry, prohibited fighting men from becoming peasants or townsmen, prohibited peasants and merchants from leaving their occupations or places of residence.

b. In 1597 he began the  persecution of Christians.

                        5. Hideyoshi passed laws favoring overseas trade and suppressing piracy.

                        6. With Hideyoshi’s death a war for succession began. Tokugawa Ieyasu emerged

 victorious in 1600.  Ieyasu was made shogun in 1603.


III. The Tokugawa Shogunate

A. Establishment of the Tokugawa shogunate and the securing of central authority.

            1. Between 1600 and 1603 all daimyo were made vassals of Ieyasu.

            2. . To control the daimyo further Ieyasu implemented a number of unique policies.

                        a. He created a three-tiered classification system according to which

                                    daimyos were to treated.  

                        b.  The most loyal vassals were placed in key locations.

                        c. Daimyo need the shogun’s permission to marriage.

                        d. They were limited to only one castle, and the number of soldiers they

                                    could command was likewise limited.

                        e. In order to make sure that vassals would have a hard time turning their

 fiefs into independent bases of power, the daimyo were usually given

fiefs at some distance from the hereditary homes of their families.  The

early shoguns transferred daimyo’s from one fief to another 281 times, and

confiscated outright another 213 fiefs.

                        f. The shogun also confiscated fiefs when a vassal died without leaving a

                                    natural heir.

                        g. Daimyo required to spend much of the year at Edo, at court.

                        h. While resident in their domains, hostages were left in Edo to assure

                                    their loyalty.

                        i. Heavy economic demands placed on daimyo such as financial support

                                    for public works, and through the demand that they maintain multiple


j. Government inspectors toured the country keeping tabs on the daimyo.

                        B. The closing of Japan

                                    1. The Tokugawa shoguns persecuted Christians, drove out all Christian

                                    missionaries, and limited European trade with Japan to trade with the Dutch from

                                    a small island in the port of  Nagasaki.  Japan was effectively closed to

                                    Europeans in 1638.

                                    2. Not only were no Europeans, and few foreigners of any kind, allowed in Japan,

 but the Japanese were prohibited from leaving Japan.

C. Real economic growth.

1. By 1800 Japan had the most advanced agriculture in Asia.

                                                a. The amount of cultivated land doubled.

                                                b. Improved technologies, improved seed crops, better fertilizers.

                                                c. Regional specialization in cash crops.

2. The Tokugawa created an efficient internal market network, so that trade


3. Japan moved to a “pre-industrial” economy on its own, including national

 markets, and it own stock market.

D. Society

1. The population grew from about 18 million circa 1600 to about 30 million in

 the eighteenth century.

                                                a. Thereafter the population fluctuated with no real growth through the end

                                                of the shogunate.

                                                b. The capital of Edo had a population of

2. Strict social structure restored- warrior, peasant, artisan, merchant. Neo-


3. Social mobility in theory was reduced through the legislation of Hideyoshi and

the early Tokugawa shoguns.

                                                a. However, some peasants were able to acquire land and become wealthy.

                                                b. Merchants and commercial towns also prospered.  Merchant class grew.

                                                c. Thus social lines were often blurred in reality.

4. The samurai were hit hard by the conversion to a cash economy.

                                                a. With the end of civil war, the samurai retainers came to fill daimyo

                                                administrative positions rather than military ones. Others turned to study

                                                as a way of life.


E. Culture- Intellectual orthodoxy emphasized.

1. The Tokugawa shoguns supported a revival of Neo-Confucian study.

2. At the same time, in line with their Japanese nationalism, the shoguns fostered

a huge Shinto revival.

a. The Tokugawa shoguns also emphasized the old Bushido code of the

 samurai. Under the Tokugawa, this code which emphasized loyalty,

obedience and frugality was merged with neo-Confucian mores and

adapted to the new function of the samurai as bureaucrats.

3. Nonetheless, the Japanese did maintain a small school devoted to the

assimilation of “Dutch studies,” that is European learning obtained through the


4. Art (prints, painting), theater, literature, and “entertainment” all prospered in

 Tokugawa Japan.


F. Decline and destruction of the Tokugawa system:

1. The gradual weakening of the shogun’s control and the focus on Japanese

tradition led to a “rediscovery”  of the emperor.

2. Simmering social, economic, and political tensions kept under the surface only

 as long as central authority remained strong.

3. Very slowly Western influence grew into Western intrusion. The forced

opening of Japanese ports by the United States precipitated the collapse of the

 Shogunate in 1868.






The word “Shintoism” is from the Chinese shen tao = way of the spirit. The name came about as a result of an attempt by Buddhist missionaries to label and understand the Japanese value system.

The goal of Shintoism is to promote life in harmony with the kami.

The kami are not just deities. According to Shinto tradition either 800,000 or 8 million exist. Kami may be family ancestors, national or local heroes, persons with exceptional spiritual powers, celestial bodies, topographical features such as mountains and rivers, natural forces, inspiring natural objects such as trees and rocks, animals, Buddhas and bodhisattvas. The Kami symbolize the sacred quality of all human existence, nature and the cosmos as a whole. All of reality is suffused with kami.

According to myth, Japan was created by two kami, the original male and female.  This early myth features the notions of pollution and cleansing that features so strongly in the later rites of purification in Shintoism.. From the left eye of the male kami (Izanagi) came the most revered deity in Japan, the sun goddess, Amaterasu. Concerned with the disorder on the islands, Amaterasu sent her son to rule.  His great-grandson, Jimmu Tenno was the first human emperor of Japan and the ancestor of all subsequent emperors. (c. 660 A.D.)  Japan is the land of the kami: the islands themselves were created by the kami, the emperor is a descendant of the sun goddess herself, and the Japanese people themselves are descended from kami. 

Buddhism came early to Japan- c. sixth century A.D. Blending of Buddhism and Shintoism. Kami were the original substance, Buddhas were the manifest traces according to Shinto philosophers. Buddhists argued the opposite.  Various methods of trying to resolve the relationships between the kami and Buddhist deities emerges. In the Kamakura period though, Shintoism was in danger of being almost totally supplanted by Buddhism.

Bushido means something like the “military warrior way.”  This code dates from the Kamakura period, and was systematized in the Tokugawa period. It reflected the influence of Confucianism in its emphasis on filial piety, loyalty and the five basic relationships, Zen Buddhism in its self-discipline and spontaneity of action, and Shinto in its appreciation of nature and pride in one’s ruler.

Shinto revived under the Tokugawa.  This revival was an integral part of limiting foreign influences in Japan.  Thus the restoration of Shintoism to the center of spiritual life marked a kind of return to the ways of the ancients. It became a state religion in 1868- a kind of state ideology.


Problem: Impurity


Impurity results from disharmony with the kami. Disharmony with the kami produces disharmonious life for humans in both their personal and social lives. Individualism is one of the chief manifestations of disharmony with the kami, and therefore one of the great causes of disharmony in society.


Cause: Lack of Reverence


People will naturally follow the path of harmony with the kami, unless they lose their reverence. When nature is viewed as lifeless material to be used simply according to peoples wishes rather than as alive, beautiful, and inspiring, people lose reverence for the kami. Then ancestors and heroes are forgotten, and people pursue their personal happiness at the expense of the family and society, reverence for the kami is also lost. If they lose pride in Japan and their identity as Japanese, they lose reverence for kami. A lack of reverence results in a state of pollution from which people must be transformed through rituals of purification and forgiveness.


Reality: the Land of the Kami


Humanity, nature, and the spiritual all interact in one balanced whole of which the linchpin is Japan. The kami manifest themselves in particular places creating sacred space. Within homes there are Kami shelves which sanctify and purify the home. There are village, regional and national shrines. Thus those who seek purification and live in harmony with the kami will live in sacred space.


End: Purity


The ultimate goal of Shintoism is cosmic harmony, although its focus is social harmony in this world.  In Japan, Shintoism deals mostly with life before death while Buddhism allows people to deal with the impermanence of human existence and with the reality of death.


Means: Shinto Temples and Rituals


The principal path to purity is through participation in temple rituals held at shrines. People visit Shinto shrines at times of family importance- birth, marriage, passage into puberty.  Rites such as these conducted by priests.  People will also visit shrines seeking the intervention of the kami at times of need.