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Who Was Tokugawa Iemitsu? - History, Facts & Quotes

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The Tokugawa family had an incredible impact on Japanese history. In this lesson, we'll look at the life and legacy of Tokugawa Iemitsu, and see how he reshaped Japan.

Tokugawa Iemitsu

In the 19th and 20th centuries, people developed a very distinct idea of what traditional Japan looked like. To them, traditional Japanese culture was based around honor, in a world where a warlord ruled through a puppet emperor and jealously guarded Japan's secrets from the world. Where did this image of Japan come from?

Basically, it came from Tokugawa Iemitsu (1604-1651), a shogun (Japanese military ruler) and the warlord-like ruler of Japan who controlled the emperor like a puppet. As the third leader of the Tokugawa Shogunate (the dynasty of shoguns from this family), he was responsible for implementing many of the policies that would define Japan for centuries to come.

Tokugawa Iemitsu
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Overview of Tokugawa Iemitsu's Reign

Tokugawa Iemitsu was the grandson of Tokugawa Ieyasu (the first shogun, and the man who united Japan under Tokugawa rule), and the son of Tokugawa Hidetada (the second shogun). Hidetada retired in 1623, naming his eldest son as his heir. Hidetada nearly named Iemitsu's younger brother as the new shogun but changed his mind at the last minute.

Iemitsu's reign as shogun began in 1623, although his father still exercised considerable influence until his death in 1632. For nearly thirty years, Iemitsu ruled over Japan and instituted broad political, economic, and cultural reforms.

Modern scholars believed that Iemitsu had homosexual preferences, but he also fathered several children with his wife and concubines. When he died in 1651, he was replaced by Tokugawa Ietsuna, a son he had with a concubine. Since Ietsuna was not the child of Iemitsu's wife, some said that the direct line of Ieyasu had ended, but Ietsuna worked hard to uphold his father's legacy.

Iemitsu and the Shogunate

During his control, Tokugawa Iemitsu introduced reforms that would define Japan for centuries. First, were those that increased the power of the shogun and secured the shogunate against other warlords.

In Hidetada's reign, the feudal warlords (or daimyos) were powerful, wealthy, and a genuine threat. The Tokugawa family had managed to quell most of the fighting, but by the time that Iemitsu rose to power, the daimyo were bankrupt, exhausted of fighting, and disorganized. Iemitsu worked to keep it that way. He passed a series of laws to make it harder for them to regain their former power, such as requiring them to keep a part-time residence in Edo, the Tokugawa capital. The expense of maintaining such as space (as well as residences for their samurai warriors) prevented the daimyo from regaining much of their wealth.

Tokugawa Iemitsu receives the lords in Edo
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Iemitsu also further restricted the power of the emperor himself. While the emperor was more of a spiritual leader, Iemitsu reduced his practical powers even further to nothing more than a mouthpiece for Tokugawa prerogatives.

Social Reforms

To help build a stronger nation and shogunate, Tokugawa Iemitsu passed a series of social reforms aimed at education and standards of behavior. By these new codes, government administration was reformed and lords of the Tokugawa house were given strict rules of conduct. Tokugawa even forced his younger brother to commit suicide for breaking these rules and treating his subjects poorly. Some historians think this may have also been a result of a grudge Iemitsu carried ever since his father nearly named the younger brother as shogun.

Tokugawa and Foreigners

The greatest legacy of Tokugawa Iemitsu's reign was in his third category of reform -- foreign policy. Hidetada had begun systematically persecuting Christians in Japan, seeing them as agents of foreign interests. Iemitsu took over this campaign with a passion, expelling and executing the remaining missionaries in Japan and forcing Japanese citizens to register with a Buddhist parish.

In 1637, peasants of the Shimabara Peninsula broke into revolt (probably due to excessive taxation). When Iemitsu discovered a large Christian element among them, he retaliated with his military, and the revolt turned into a full Christian rebellion. The Shimabara Uprising lasted months before the peasants surrendered, only to be massacred by the shogun's army.

The Shimabara Uprising greatly impacted Tokugawa Iemitsu
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