Government and Politics in the Tokugawa Period: 1600–1868

As depicted in the prior chapter, in 1600 Tokugawa Ieyasu, through force of arms and diplomacy, managed to unify a Japan that had been torn by civil war for most of the previous century and intermittent internal strife for much of the 14th century as well. Tokugawa and his descendents who ruled Japan as shoguns established an authoritarian but not totalitarian regime. The distinction here is important. The Tokugawa family directly controlled one-quarter of all lands in Japan but needed to maintain the allegiance of leaders of other powerful families who controlled land, the samurai, and a larger public that included, in the first part of the period, agricultural villages. As time progressed, an expanding urban middle class of merchants and artisans also became important interest groups.

The Tokugawas were successful, and Japan enjoyed unprecedented peace throughout virtually the entire period. Occasional force or the threat of force worked to maintain the loyalty of the powerful daimyo and created a law-abiding citizenry. However, public administration, infrastructure development, and economic growth were substantially developed by a competent bureaucracy; communications and negotiations by political leaders and bureaucrats with key individuals and groups as well as central government incentives and disincentives were also essential. The samurai were an important part of this success. As societal elites, this class had a monopoly on the privilege of carrying arms and, through most of the period, constituted the majority of citizenry who possessed, in the context of the times, an advanced (Confucian) education. Samurai were expected to serve the state as warrior-bureaucrats. However, long-term peace greatly magnified their latter role. Inculcated with deep beliefs in the virtue of allegiance and duty to superiors, samurai served as regional and local bureaucrats responsible for managing important projects ranging from road maintenance and provision of public water supplies to tax collection. In achieving these objectives, samurai interacted and negotiated with village headmen who in turn communicated with subordinates and commoners. Cooperation and negotiation between authorities at different levels were important.

The central government imposed varying tax quotas at the local levels, and this provided an incentive for samurai bureaucrats to see that their local charges were economically productive since the samurai were responsible for tax collection. Tokugawa bureaucrats were involved in both maintaining public order and working for economic development. They achieved the latter objective by allowing private market forces substantial latitude. The result was both agricultural and commercial productivity. Still today, the Japanese bureaucracy, more so than its counterparts in the United States or the United Kingdom, focuses more extensively on public order, harmony, and economic development.

As described in the history chapter, although the Tokugawa government strictly controlled the populace’s interactions with foreigners as well as foreign ideas, Tokugawa shoguns closely monitored many international developments through select interactions with the Dutch and the establishment of a branch of scholarship devoted to ‘‘Dutch learning.’’ The shogunate also monitored international events through contacts with China, the Korean Peninsula, and the Ryukyu Islands (presentday Okinawa). Through most of the period, fear of losing national sovereignty was a motivating factor in the political leadership’s policies. Japanese leaders, partially because China was the focal point of Westerners’ attention and partially because of better negotiations on the part of the Japanese government, were able to avoid much of the misery that 19th-century China experienced at the hands of imperialistic powers. Despite the societal trauma caused by the American and European forced ‘‘opening’’ of Japan in the 1850s, the Tokugawa leaders were aware that Siam was having better luck dealing with Westerners through negotiations than China was through confrontation and were partially successful in delaying and modifying American and European demands.