Unification of Japan & the Tokugawa Rule (1551-1868)

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  • 0:01 Japan Before the Tokugawa
  • 1:37 Warlords
  • 3:47 Tokugawa's Shogunate
  • 6:03 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
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.

From a society that the Chinese called 'barbaric' to American gunboats in Tokyo Bay, Japan experienced a great deal of change in three centuries. Center to much of that change was the Tokugawa Shogunate.

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.


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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