Tokugawa Japan: An Era of Peace

European influence, particularly new technology, served as a partial catalyst for political change in Japan. Only a few years after Europeans introduced guns to Japan, three powerful leaders—Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu—used advanced firepower to achieve brilliant military successes that resulted in the political unification of Japan.

In 1568, at the invitation of the emperor and Ashikaga Yoshiaki, an unsuccessful candidate for shogun, Oda Nobunaga and his forces occupied Kyoto and took control of much of central Japan. Nobunaga allowed Yoshiaki to hold the title of shogun until 1573 and then removed him from office, ending forever the Ashikaga family claim to the shogunate. Nobunaga was in control, although he installed a member of another family as puppet shogun. Nobunaga was extremely ruthless in attempting to unify Japan. He killed every man, woman, and child in one major Buddhist stronghold that opposed him.

After taking control of all of central Japan, Nobunaga was betrayed by one of his own generals, who surrounded the warlord and forced Nobunaga to commit suicide in 1582. With Japan again threatened by civil war, a second powerful leader emerged. Toyotomi Hideyoshi was a man of peasant origins who rose to become Nobunaga’s chief general. Hideyoshi first successfully defeated rival daimyo and, after subduing Kyushu and Honshu, in 1590 gained control of Japan. He reorganized the government, made it illegal for peasants to own weapons, and dispatched an army to attempt the conquest of Korea in a bloody war on the peninsula.

Because of his lower-class background, Hideyoshi did not claim the title of shogun but instead had himself declared regent to the emperor.

When Hideyoshi died in 1598, he left a young son as an heir and a group of five powerful daimyo as collective regents. The daimyo soon divided among themselves, and the most powerful of the five, Tokugawa Ieyasu, after winning the battle of Sekigahara near Kyoto in 1600, attained virtual mastery of Japan. Tokugawa, whose original power base was a huge fief that included Edo (modern Tokyo), by 1615 defeated his last opponents at Osaka Castle. A competent military man and a prudent and painstaking administrator and politician, Ieyasu assumed the title of hereditary shogun in 1603 by claiming descent from Minamoto Yoritomo. Not only did Tokugawa reunify Japan, but also his heirs occupied the shogunate for more than 250 years. Beginning in the early 17th century, the Japanese enjoyed more than 250 years of peace.

Ruling from Edo, the Tokugawa shoguns controlled a system that included a relatively authoritarian, but certainly not totalitarian, central government and three descending ranks of daimyo, feudal lords who controlled domains and lived throughout Japan. Elite hereditary daimyo also served on several councils that with the shogunate shared governance of Japan. Daimyo were required to reside in Edo in alternate years so that the shogun could control them. Meanwhile, the emperor remained in Kyoto. Although Japanese emperors still had no appreciable political power, they continued to be living symbols of the nation.

Tokugawa Japan was characterized by rather rigid divisions between social groups based on Neo-Confucian teachings. At the top were the samurai, who constituted about 5 to 6 percent of the total population. The Tokugawas continued Hideyoshi’s policy that only samurai could bear weapons. Samurai could also not marry into the lower classes. Samurai were freed from earning a living because of guaranteed government stipends. They were expected to be not only warriors but also models of virtue as well as government bureaucrats. Samurai were also expected to be familiar with the Confucian canon and such Japanese arts as calligraphy, the tea ceremony, and noh. However, higher- and lower-ranked samurai had tremendous gaps in their respective levels of wealth and status. Lower-level samurai were often on the brink of poverty or, in the latter Tokugawa years, poor.

Peasants, who constituted 85 percent of Tokugawa Japan’s population, were considered the second-most-important class because they produced the food. The artisans, because they made useful products, ranked just below the peasants. Since the merchants were considered nonproducing parasites, they had the lowest status. However, as time passed and the merchant class accumulated great wealth, it was impossible to restrain their influence. Even though in theory artisans were above merchants, the economy depended on the business class. By the latter part of the Tokugawa period, rich merchants could use their wealth to acquire samurai status.

In addition, there were groups of people such as scholars, priests, and physicians who did not fit into the four major classes and groups such as beggars and Burakumin who were shunned because they engaged in such ‘‘unclean’’ trades as garbage collection, butchery, and slaughterhouse work.

Through much of the Tokugawa era, Japan distanced itself from most of the rest of the world. Fear of European Christianity and possible economic and political domination were the reasons behind the official Tokugawa policy of seclusion, which took effect during the 1630s. For a time before then, Christianity and trade with Europeans flourished. By the 1500s, several daimyo encouraged their subjects to adopt Christianity because they either believed in the new religion or desired more trade with Europeans. In 1580 there were an estimated 150,000 Japanese Christian converts, and some accounts indicate that by 1600 there were twice this number.

However, such leaders as Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu felt that Christians, particularly Catholics, could not be completely trusted as loyal Japanese because their true allegiance would be to the pope. Also, the Japanese leadership was aware that the Spanish had conquered the Philippines under the guise of Christianity. The Buddhist religious establishment supported anti-Christian sentiments because it viewed the new religion as competition. From 1597 until the late 1630s, the government persecuted and executed thousands of Christians. By 1640, except for some underground Kyushu Christians, the government had managed to abolish the religion in Japan. Also, the Tokugawa seclusion policies largely limited contact with foreigners in the archipelago to a few Chinese, Korean, and Dutch traders and officials.

Tokugawa Ieyasu had negotiated a peace treaty in 1605 with the Korean throne, thus reestablishing relations. The Japanese government would directly trade with only one European power, the Netherlands, because they viewed the Dutch as much more interested in commercial activity than spreading Christianity. However, Dutch merchants were limited to residing on a small island in Nagasaki Bay and were closely supervised when required to travel to Edo for an audience with the shogun. No Japanese were allowed to travel abroad, and any Japanese persons living overseas were forbidden to return.

Although the government substantially reduced foreign contacts, contrary to what many believe, Japan was not closed off from the outside world, particularly throughout the 17th century when Japan’s silver exports intended primarily for China constituted 30 percent of world silver circulation and Japanese copper exports to the Dutch were a major factor in the Netherlands’ economic rise. By the beginning of the 18th century, Japan’s domestic economic growth and a drying up of the silver supply caused foreign trade to decline relative to the early Tokugawa period. However, Japan, in addition to trading with the Chinese and Koreans, also did business with the Dutch, therefore maintaining a window to the West throughout the Tokugawa years.

Within Japan the arts, economic development, and learning in areas other than science were in some ways equal or superior to that of the United States or Western Europe during the same period. The city became the focal point for many advances, concurrent with Edo’s growth to more than 1 million people by the 1700s. In addition to the great urban areas of Osaka and Kyoto, approximately 250 smaller cities,
with populations ranging from 3,000 to 20,000, gained residents during the Tokugawa years.

Tokugawa art forms are still treasured throughout Japan and the world. Woodblock prints, or ukiyo-e, which featured beautiful women, actors, and scenes of travelers and natural geographic beauty, became popular. The Japanese had been interested in poetry for centuries, and its culmination came with the 17-syllable haiku, which in a few words often suggests entire worlds.

It was in the Tokugawa era that two forms of popular Japanese theater, kabuki and bunraku, flourished. The Chinese characters for kabuki (ka-bu-ki) mean ‘‘song,’’ ‘‘dance,’’ and ‘‘skill,’’ and the actors in these dramas certainly exhibited these attributes. Kabuki plays today feature action, romance, and elaborate sets. A reoccurring kabuki theme that made Tokugawa officials particularly nervous was the conflict between feudal duty and human concerns and feelings. Often to avoid censorship, playwrights would portray actual contemporary events as occurring in the distant past. Because early Tokugawa kabuki plays were often accompanied by disruption in the audience, authorities first banned women from acting in kabuki and then a few years later banned young men as well. Today men play both gender roles in kabuki.

While kabuki was popular in Edo, bunraku theater, also still alive today, was the rage in Tokugawa-era Osaka. In bunraku, three male puppeteers control large wooden puppets that act while chanters tell the story, accompanied by stringed instruments called samisen. Although originally kabuki and bunraku were theater for commoners, they are considered today, along with noh and kyogen, to be classic Japanese theater.

The peaceful Tokugawa years allowed the Japanese economy to expand. Because the country was unified, domestic trade flourished and some merchants acquired enormous fortunes in wholesaling, retailing, and banking. The use of money, always an indicator of societal economic sophistication, was widespread.

Cultural and economic developments were in part due to the spread of formal learning throughout Japan. The daimyo maintained schools for the offspring of samurai, and common children attended schools operated by Buddhist temples, merchants, wealthy farmers, and local teachers. Estimates are that by the mid-19th century, 40 percent of all Japanese men and 10 to 15 percent of all Japanese women could read and write, making Japan one of the world’s most literate societies at the time.

Despite advances, Japan’s lack of frequent contact with the rest of the world led to some stagnation, particularly in science and technology. Also, other nations took a dim view of Japan’s seclusion policies, and eventually the restrictions contributed to the Tokugawa government’s collapse. Although the shogunate endured for 15 more years, the real death knell for Tokugawa Japan sounded when Commodore Matthew Perry and the U.S. Navy steamed into what is now Tokyo Bay in July 1853.