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READ: Tokugawa Shogunate

The Tokugawa Shogunate brought order and unity to Japan by carefully managing social hierarchies and foreign contact. It was a rare case of peaceful rule by military leaders.

Tokugawa Shogunate

By Eman M. Elshaikh
The Tokugawa Shogunate brought order and unity to Japan by carefully managing social hierarchies and foreign contact. It was a rare case of peaceful rule by military leaders.

A unified Japan

Japan may just appear as a series of islands off the east coast of the Eurasian landmass, but these islands are really big and have been thickly populated for many centuries. If you took a snapshot of Japan in 1750, you would see a prosperous country unified under a stable, centralized government. This government, called the Tokugawa Shogunate (1600-1868),1 was led by a military ruler, called a shogun, with the help of a class of military lords, called daimyō. True, Japan was led by military elite, yet it was still a time of relative peace and stability.
A Portrait of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first Tokugawa Shogun, who unified Japan and established Edo (present-day Tokyo) as the main capital. By Kanō Tan’yū, public domain.
The shoguns maintained stability in many ways, including regulating trade, agriculture, foreign relations, and even religion. The political structure was stronger than in centuries before because the Tokugawa shoguns tended to pass power down dynastically from father to son. They also moved away from the past—quite literally—by relocating from the old center of imperial power in Kyoto to establish a new capital. They called it Edo, but you’re probably more familiar with its other name: Tokyo. Before the shoguns made it their political seat, it was just a small coastal fishing village.
A view of the Tokugawa capital of Edo during the seventeenth century. Public domain.
In this new capital, the shoguns created carefully planned systems to keep a tight grip on power. The shoguns required the daimyō to pledge loyalty to the shogunate (the shogun’s administration) and maintain residences at the capital — which they had to live in every other year. This was a big move—again, literally—because the provincial military lords already had large residences back home in the provinces. This arrangement served a few purposes. It kept the daimyō close, and the daimyō had to leave their families in the imperial residences when they were out in the provinces. That kind of made their families hostages of the shogunate, but super comfortable ones. Traveling back and forth and keeping up two residences cost the daimyō a lot and kept them busy, making it harder for them to challenge imperial power. The shogunate itself was established by a powerful group of daimyō, so they knew exactly how to prevent the daimyō from rebelling.
Even back in the provinces, the daimyōs’ power was shaken up. The shoguns reorganized their fiefdoms (domains) so they couldn’t necessarily rely on old ties and established patterns of power. And within those newly arranged fiefdoms, they had to implement administrative systems. They had to direct resources, including taxes, from their provinces to the capital. Daimyō also served as administrative officials, in both the capital and the provinces. They were supported by samurai (military officers). In this new power structure, the emperor — though technically the top official, and the one who appointed the shogun — had pretty limited power.
The shoguns also cemented their power by taking charge of the country’s production and distribution. And it worked, because under the Tokugawa, agriculture and commerce thrived. In the rural areas, they put improved farming techniques into place. They also used land surveys to track and improve farming production, ensuring a stable food supply. City life also flourished, helped by the building of a robust highway network connecting the provinces with the capital. That helped the daimyō travel back and forth and move resources between the provinces and the capital. During this time, the Japanese population soared.
A map of the most important land and sea routes during the Tokugawa Shogunate. By Elien Bollen, CC BY-SA 4.0.

Society under the Tokugawa Shogunate

The Tokugawa Shogunate was notable for restoring order and unity to Japan, and it did this partly through upholding strict social hierarchies. This was in some ways influenced by the Confucian idea that society was made up of four social classes. From the top-down, they were: warrior, farmer, artisan, and merchant. The shogun, daimyō, and samurai were the warrior class. Each class had its own function, and each was thought to contribute to social order. Different classes tended to live in different parts of the cities and villages, and the warrior class did not mix much with the other classes. Also, geographic and social mobility was pretty limited; peasants even had to ask permission to move or travel. The Japanese Confucian philosopher Ogyō Sorai (1666-1724) described this system like this:
“The peasant cultivates the fields and so nourishes the people; the artisan makes utensils and has the people use them; the merchant exchanges what one has for what one has not and so helps the people; the samurai rules so that disorders will not arise. Though each performs only his own job, he is helping the other.”
The contributions of the warriors and farmers were seen as the most important. Farmers were valued more than artisans because food was essential. Merchants were seen as parasites because they produced nothing, and money dealings were immoral according to Confucian thought.
Here we see daimyō arriving in great numbers for a festival at Edo. Public domain.
Although rigid in principle, the social hierarchy didn’t always work in practice. Restrictions on movement were not enforced consistently. Some samurai were very poor, whereas some merchants were able to build huge fortunes and gain political power. Also, peasant revolts, though they were usually brutally suppressed, kept the power of the elite in check to some extent. Some recent scholarship has shown that peasants may even have forced daimyō to lower taxes.
There were also many people who didn’t fit into any group. Imperial figures like the emperor were above the warrior class in theory, but not in reality. Artists and intellectuals didn’t fit into any class, and there were people on the margins of society who were seen as even lower than merchants. For example, butchers or executioners, who were seen as dealing with impure things, were treated like outcasts.
Women’s lives and the family structure were also influenced by Confucian ideals. They emphasized filial piety, or respect for elders and ancestors. Women were expected to be submissive to their male family members. As women had more children and got older, they gained more power in their households.
But women’s lives were really different across social classes. Peasant women, for example, often worked alongside their male family members in the fields, and gender distinctions were looser for them. Among the lower classes, women could more easily divorce and have relationships outside of marriage than upper-class women, for whom marriage was often part of important political alliances. Men of all classes were generally freer than women to have relationships outside of marriage.

Was Japan a "closed country?"

Many historians describe Japan during this period as isolationist, meaning closed to the outside world. While that’s kind of true, we shouldn’t overstate it. Japanese leadership was certainly concerned with outside influence, namely Christian missionaries from Spain and Portugal. In the sixteenth century, many Japanese had converted to Christianity, which Japanese rulers thought upset the social order. As a result, several shoguns prohibited Christianity and strictly punished it. They required everyone to register with Buddhist temples, which were monitored and regulated by the government.
The shoguns also restricted foreign trade, because they wanted to curb foreign influence and exploitation. They felt that foreign trade might disrupt the flow of resources they had established. Most European trade was not permitted. The Protestant Dutch, who did not want to send missionaries like the Catholic Spanish and Portuguese, were allowed to trade from a specific port in Nagasaki Harbor under strict Japanese supervision.
Nagasaki, with two Dutch flags flying over tiny Deshima island where the Dutch East India Company had its factory. Public domain.
A Joseon diplomatic procession through the streets of Edo in 1748 is entitled Chōsen-jin Uki-e by Hanegawa Tōei, c. 1748. By Hanegawa Tōei, public domain.
But just because Japan restricted trade with Europe doesn’t mean it was closed. They traded plenty with their Korean and Chinese neighbors, with whom they had regular diplomatic relations. For example, the Tokugawa shoguns regularly sent ambassadors to meet with Korea’s Joseon dynasty rulers, and Korea reciprocated on some occasions. The Japanese were also a lot more open to cultural exchange with their Asian neighbors than with Europeans.

The beginnings of change

That said, the Japanese did interact with European cultural ideas, too. Even though European books were restricted for some time, many Japanese intellectuals used Dutch sources to help expand their bodies of knowledge, particularly in the fields of science and technology.
The Japanese economy gradually transformed in response to global forces. Despite cultural ideas that money was immoral, it did become much more central to Japanese life. This affected the incomes of government officials, who had been paid in fixed amounts of rice. Trade, industry, and banking grew, and the merchant class gained power. Government reforms also had major effects including revaluing the currency, regulating money exchanges, changing the tax system, and forming merchant guilds.
Overall, while the Japanese did guard their society and economy against outside influences, they certainly participated in trade and cultural exchange. Though the shoguns sought to manage these exchanges, restrictions loosened over time. Meanwhile, they generally managed a society whose standard of living was extremely high for the time, whether compared to nearby states or to European societies. For over two centuries, they maintained this standard of living and avoided major warfare—a surprising feat for a country ruled by military lords.
Author bio
The author of this article is Eman M. Elshaikh. She is a writer, researcher, and teacher who has taught K-12 and undergraduates in the United States and in the Middle East and written for many different audiences. She teaches writing at the University of Chicago, where she also completed her master’s in social sciences and is currently pursuing her PhD. She was previously a World History Fellow at Khan Academy, where she worked closely with the College Board to develop curriculum for AP World History.

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