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Japan's Tokugawa Shogunate

Kayla Armstead, Kevin Newton
  • Author
    Kayla Armstead

    Kayla has taught history for over 2 years. They have a Masters in Curriculum and Instruction and Bachelors in Social Science Education from Florida State University. They also have a 6-12 Social Studies Certification.

  • Instructor
    Kevin Newton

    Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught history, and has an MA in Islamic law/finance. He has since founded his own financial advice firm, Newton Analytical.

Learn all about the Tokugawa shogunate in Japan. Explore the history behind that time period in Japan, the culture at that time, and the unification of Japan. Updated: 02/24/2022

Tokugawa Shogunate

The Tokugawa shogunate was a period in Japanese history from around 1600 to 1868. This was considered a military government, as warlords held some of the most power in society. Many artistic and cultural ideas became popular during this period. Culture flourished under the shogunate because the period stayed relatively peaceful. The period is also sometimes called the "Edo shogunate,: as the capital of Japan at the time was located in Edo.

Japan Before the Tokugawa

Imagine, for a minute, that you are the ruler of a small piece of land. Your family has ruled the land for generations, and while you technically report to a great emperor, the fact is that you are really more fearful of the dictator. Now imagine that suddenly the dictator comes along and asks that you give up all of your land to that emperor and says it's for the good of the country. In exchange, you might get permission to be a judge or a governor, but not much else. What would you do? If you were a daimyo, or a local leader in Tokugawa Japan, your answer would probably be very different than what you might expect.

For centuries, Japan had a largely united culture, but was politically very segmented. While the emperor did rule from Kyoto, his influence only carried for a few miles, allowing local rulers more than a few days' journey from the capital to rule largely as they wished. Instead, it was the local daimyos who held the real power.

Needless to say, this did not gain the Japanese a great deal of respect from their neighbors. In a letter complaining about piracy, the Emperor of China goes as far as to call them barbarians, almost at times insinuating that the Japanese should just count their blessings that the Chinese have allowed them to continue on for as long as they have.

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Tokugawa Shogunate History

The military government of the Tokugawa shogunate was originally founded by Tokugawa Ieyasu, which is where the government originally gets its name. The culture of Japan had been unified for centuries; however, it was politically divided. Tokugawa Ieyasu, along with several other influential men, worked to unify Japan under one ruler. In order to maintain his rule, Ieyasu built off of the existing feudal system. Ieyashu moved the traditional capital from Kyoto to Edo. There, he became shogun, or the military ruler.


Founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate

Founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate


There he maintained his power by maintaining a class of military warlords. These warlords, called daimyo, were local leaders who pledged loyalty to the shogun in exchange for power. These men had to maintain residences in Edo, where they were required to reside every other year. This was incredibly expensive, but it kept the daimyo close to the shogun so that he could supervise them and ensure their loyalty. This also meant that the daimyo had to have two homes and travel regularly back to the capital. This too was very expensive and was purposely done to make sure the daimyo were less likely to challenge the shogun's power. These daimyos divided up governing Japan, lessening the responsibilities of the shogun. They were in charge of extracting resources and taking taxes back to Edo. The daimyo were helped in this effort by the samurai, a class of military officers.

Unification of Japan

Before the establishment of the Tokugawa shogunate, Japan's decentralized power made it difficult for the emperor to rule as Europeans began exploration and colonization. Japan was at a disadvantage. Some Europeans like the Portuguese and the Spanish even began to set up missionary camps in Japan. This was disrupting the political structure. Japan would ultimately be unified through the efforts of several daimyos.

Oda Nobunaga was the local ruler of the Owari province. He began conquering nearby territories. By adopting western technology introduced by the Portuguese, he was able to build a capable and effective fighting force. He conquered a large part of central Japan, including the capital Kyoto, for a period.

After Nobunaga's death, he was succeeded by Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Toyotomi became shogun and ruled over Nobunaga's conquered territories. The shogun was to be the emperor's military chief of staff. The emperor remained on the throne while the shogun was in power. However, the shogun was the real ruler of Japan, making the role of the emperor became virtually powerless. It was more of a ceremonial position. Toyomoti continued conquering territories. He solidified the class system, increasing the strength of the daimyo, and even confiscating weapons from peasants so they could not become warlords themselves. He attempted to conquer Korea, but failed. He soon died and was replaced by his aide Tokugawa Ieyashu.

Tokugawa Ieyashu decided to make the position of shogun hereditary, making every ruler during the Tokugawa period a member of the Tokugawa family. He founded the Tokugawa shogunate in 1603, quickly limiting the power of the daimyos and moving the capital to Edo. The descendants of Toyotomi had built a powerful clan. Tokugawa defeated them, solidifying his reign and taking over all of Japan. He took away the powers of local rulers to strengthen his own influence. Under Tokugawa, Japan was finally unified.

Warlords

The situation only got worse with the arrival of Europeans. Suddenly, Japan started to get an education in just how far behind it was. Japan had a sizeable fleet of merchant ships that sailed throughout the region and came back with tales of how the Europeans were actually a force to be reckoned with.

The Europeans, namely the Portuguese and the Spanish, had also set up bases in Japan itself. From those bases came a number of Jesuit Missionaries, who began converting people to Christianity. Normally, Japan had only allowed foreign influence when it was viewed as beneficial. Christianity had not passed that test, and was causing discord throughout the land.

Meanwhile, a daimyo named Oda Nobunaga began conquering some of the surrounding territories of his domain. Ultimately, he conquered much of central Japan and, upon his death, his top soldier, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, became the ruler of the newly-conquered lands and was soon the Shogun. In theory, the Shogun was the Emperor's chief of staff, but in reality, it was the de facto ruler of Japan.

After failing to conquer Korea, Toyotomi died, to be replaced by one of his top aides named Tokugawa Ieyasu who, after seeing the last two rounds of succession, made his son his heir. Tokugawa's influence would be so important that the years from 1603 until 1867 are called the Tokugawa Shogunate.

Tokugawa worked quickly to limit the power of other daimyos by forcing them to keep a second residence in the capital of Edo. This expense took much of the power away from the local rulers and allowed Tokugawa to consolidate his power. Additionally, by 1587, Tokugawa ordered missionaries out of the country.

Tokugawa's Shogunate

It wasn't just missionaries that Tokugawa banned from Japan. He was tired of the endless arguing from the merchants, especially those who argued about Christianity, and wanted stability. After Tokugawa died, other Westerners were expelled, including the merchants. In fact, for decades, the only Western ship permitted in Japan was a Dutch ship, once a year, to Deshima, an island in the Nagasaki harbor.

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Video Transcript

Japan Before the Tokugawa

Imagine, for a minute, that you are the ruler of a small piece of land. Your family has ruled the land for generations, and while you technically report to a great emperor, the fact is that you are really more fearful of the dictator. Now imagine that suddenly the dictator comes along and asks that you give up all of your land to that emperor and says it's for the good of the country. In exchange, you might get permission to be a judge or a governor, but not much else. What would you do? If you were a daimyo, or a local leader in Tokugawa Japan, your answer would probably be very different than what you might expect.

For centuries, Japan had a largely united culture, but was politically very segmented. While the emperor did rule from Kyoto, his influence only carried for a few miles, allowing local rulers more than a few days' journey from the capital to rule largely as they wished. Instead, it was the local daimyos who held the real power.

Needless to say, this did not gain the Japanese a great deal of respect from their neighbors. In a letter complaining about piracy, the Emperor of China goes as far as to call them barbarians, almost at times insinuating that the Japanese should just count their blessings that the Chinese have allowed them to continue on for as long as they have.

Warlords

The situation only got worse with the arrival of Europeans. Suddenly, Japan started to get an education in just how far behind it was. Japan had a sizeable fleet of merchant ships that sailed throughout the region and came back with tales of how the Europeans were actually a force to be reckoned with.

The Europeans, namely the Portuguese and the Spanish, had also set up bases in Japan itself. From those bases came a number of Jesuit Missionaries, who began converting people to Christianity. Normally, Japan had only allowed foreign influence when it was viewed as beneficial. Christianity had not passed that test, and was causing discord throughout the land.

Meanwhile, a daimyo named Oda Nobunaga began conquering some of the surrounding territories of his domain. Ultimately, he conquered much of central Japan and, upon his death, his top soldier, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, became the ruler of the newly-conquered lands and was soon the Shogun. In theory, the Shogun was the Emperor's chief of staff, but in reality, it was the de facto ruler of Japan.

After failing to conquer Korea, Toyotomi died, to be replaced by one of his top aides named Tokugawa Ieyasu who, after seeing the last two rounds of succession, made his son his heir. Tokugawa's influence would be so important that the years from 1603 until 1867 are called the Tokugawa Shogunate.

Tokugawa worked quickly to limit the power of other daimyos by forcing them to keep a second residence in the capital of Edo. This expense took much of the power away from the local rulers and allowed Tokugawa to consolidate his power. Additionally, by 1587, Tokugawa ordered missionaries out of the country.

Tokugawa's Shogunate

It wasn't just missionaries that Tokugawa banned from Japan. He was tired of the endless arguing from the merchants, especially those who argued about Christianity, and wanted stability. After Tokugawa died, other Westerners were expelled, including the merchants. In fact, for decades, the only Western ship permitted in Japan was a Dutch ship, once a year, to Deshima, an island in the Nagasaki harbor.

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Frequently Asked Questions

How did Tokugawa Japan fall?

The daimyo had weakened Japan's power. Agriculture was not very productive. After trade was opened by the United States, two rival clans overthrew the Tokugawa shogunate.

What is the Tokugawa empire known for?

They are known for the feudal system and a period of stability. During this time, culture and art flourished, allowing Dutch learning as well as theater to grow.

Was the Tokugawa period good for Japan?

It was mostly good. It took away the power of the lower classes, but brought a period of peace. It also led to the development of several new artistic forms.

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