Summary of the Tokugawa Period

(Tōshūsai Sharaku; Kabuki actor Ōtani Oniji III; 1794; Met Museum of Art)

Justin Aukema
June 2, 2016

When people today think of “traditional” Japan, they are often thinking of the Edo/Tokugawa Era from 1603 to 1868. It was during this more than two-hundred-fifty-year period of peace (Pax Tokugawa) that many Japanese “customs” were solidified and gained popularity in Japanese society and further examples of art and literature were created. Art forms such as kabuki and writers like the poet Matsuo Basho, for example, which are now household words/names both in Japan and abroad got their start in this time.

How did this situation come about? After the almost one-hundred-year period of warfare between the regional lords (daimyo) known as the Sengogku Era (Warring States Period) the situation finally began to stabilize in the mid-1500s when three powerful leaders solidified control of the land. The first of the was Oda Nobunaga, a ruthless warlord who crushed his enemies including the last of the Ashikaga shoguns as well as the militant monks of the Tendai Buddhist temples around Mt. Hiei. When Oda died, the son of a foot soldier, Toyotomi Hideyoshi and a general for Oda, took control of his armies. Toyotomi famously sent troops to Korea in 1592 and 1597 in an attempt to become “ruler of the East Asian world” (Huffman, 56). When Toyotomi failed to produce an heir, Tokugawa Ieyasu seized the opportunity to take power. After fighting which culminated in the Battle of Sekigahara (1600), Tokugawa and his forces emerged victorious and he established his new government in the relocated capital of Edo (Tokyo).

Rather than try to wipe out his enemies, Tokugawa preferred to pacify them, and he solidified his power through alliances and other means. Although he left the daimyo relatively intact, he did reward those who had allied with him prior to the Battle of Sekigahara, the fudai daimyo, with the best land and positions along trade routes. This was in contrast to those who allied with him only after he secured his power, the tozama daimyo, who were positioned further from the capital in Edo. Notable examples from among this group were the domains of Satsuma and Chōshū. In this way, nearly 250 domains emerged in what became known as the baku-han system of governance (i.e. the central, bakufu government in Edo and the provincial domains, han).

The Tokugawa shoguns devised an ingenious method of control known as sankin-kōtai, in which regional daimyo were forced to spend part of the year in the capital. This required them to maintain expensive residences in Edo, and it allowed the bakufu to monitor the daimyo. This also had the effect of further developing an intricate system of roads between the periphery and the center. Trade and culture benefited from this, and everything from commercial goods to fashion sense traversed these increasingly well-traveled roads. Consequently, the idea of a shared sense of national tastes and interests slowly began to emerge.

The era of peace under the Pax Tokugawa generally had major impacts on society. As living standards improved and cities and localities became more prosperous, the population boomed. In the 17th c. the population grew from 12 million to 25 million, and the capital in Edo became the largest city in the world with a population of one million people. The population also benefited from increased education and improvements in mass printing technologies and more published works. Private education was extended to large portions of the public through “temple-schools” known as tera goya. By the early 1800s, 40 percent of men and 10 percent of women were literate, an incredibly high rate for the time.

Not everyone benefited from this system equally, however. The Tokugawa Era is also known for its rigid class system known as shi-nō-kō-sho which means samurai, peasants, artisans, and merchants. In other words, this ranked samurai at the top of society; peasants were ranked next in the hierarchy of importance, since they produced food for society. Artisans were mainly perceived in their pragmatic role as the makers of pots and pans within which to store and consume foodstuffs; and finally merchants were listed at the bottom since their role was simply seen as an intermediary and seller of the wares needed in food production/consumption.

  • See an example of a primary source document on the four classes in Tokugawa here

In fact, the shi-nō-kō-sho idea masked a number of inconvenient realities. Namely, despite the high social standing of the samurai, which made up seven percent of the population, their economic position was quite weak. No longer able to rely solely on military pursuits in an age of peace, the samurai largely became government bureaucrats. However, their small stipend was often not enough to support their families, and many samurai were forced to turn to other pursuits, sometimes scholarly and occasionally mercantilist. A well-known example of Hiraga Gennai (1728-80), a low-ranking samurai who transcended the class system to become somewhat of a renaissance man, eventually taking up the natural sciences (honzōgaku) and Dutch learning (rangaku), as well as becoming an inventor; he even produced literary works such as the satirical “On Farting,” in which he expressed his discontent with society at the time. “Confucius himself did not eschew childish ditties,” says the narrator of the story, toying with conventional morality; “No more do I exclude from my discourse the matter of farts” (Jones, 397).

There was another side to the class system as well – the so-called “untouchables” of society known as eta and hinin. These were people who were engaged in professions considered as “unclean” including tannery and/or butchery. These groups were forced to literally live outside of society, on the outskirts of villages and hamlets and were forbidden, for example, from entering the houses of commoners and city folk. The groups were discriminated against in society and largely considered to be less than human by most. In modern history, these groups became known as burakumin, and some forms of discrimination against them (namely the profession of butchery, tannery, and others relating to death in general) remain today.

The beneficiaries of the Tokugawa-era class system, aside from the ruling classes themselves, were the merchants and, to a lesser extent, the commoners (chōnin). These groups retained a remarkable degree of freedom and economic autonomy, evidenced by the fact that they produced most of the major works of art and literature of this time. One major topic of art at the time were the large pleasure and entertainment districts of the major urban areas. The great amount of leisure time spent here, as well as the controlled nature of interactions between courtesans and patrons gave rise to the idea of a “floating world” (ukiyo). Combined with mass printing techniques, this gave way to one of the era’s signature art forms, the ukiyo-e. The growing wealth of the merchant class also eventually resulted in families like Mitsui and companies such as Noda Shōyu (Kikkoman) getting their start at this time.

(Suzuki Harunobu; "Night Rain at the Double-shelf Stand"; 1766; Met Museum)

(Katsushika Hokusai; "Under the Wave Off Kanagawa"; 1830-2; Met Museum)

  • See an example of Matsuo Basho's poetry here and a section from his Narrow Road to the North here.
  • See an example of writing by the novelist Ihara Saikaku here.
  • See an section from Kaibara Ekiken's Onna Daigaku (Greater Learning for Women) here.

In the 19th c., however, the sense of peace and security largely gave way to a feeling of impending doom. Most notably, this was brought on by worsening economic conditions, increasing pressure from foreign countries such as Russia, the U.S., and Britain, and finally the perceived and real inability of the Tokugawa bakufu to handle these changes. Difficult economic conditions resulted in numerous peasant uprisings such as Ōshio Heihachirō’s famous 1837 fight against Osaka’s rich and powerful. In the 1780s, there were more than 30 such protests each year. In addition, Western nations began to pressure the bakufu to open up to increased foreign trade. The embarrassing defeat of China to British forces in the Opium Wars from 1839-42 and again in 1856-60 seemed to confirm that Japan was facing an impending crisis. This was reflected especially vehemently in the writings of National Learning (Kokugaku) scholars of the time such as Aizawa Seisaishi. In his 1825 Shinron (“New Thesis”), Aizawa wrote that foreign “barbarians” had been “coming to spy on our Middle Kingdom during the past three hundred years” and that now:

The bakufu once made it plain to Russia that Japanese law requires us to destroy on sight any barbarian ship approaching our coasts. But now the English regularly appear and anchor off our shores, and we do not lift a finger to drive them away. […] Will the barbarians have any respect for our laws after they hear about this? […] Who knows what future conspiracies may hatch? (East Asia for Educators)

Aizawa’s thought came to form the basis of the Mito School, a branch which would rally like-minded proto-nationalists under the slogan of sonnō-jōi (revere the Emperor and expel the barbarians). It was in this context that disgruntled samurai and daimyo, especially from the Satsuma and Chōshū domains would find the opportunity ripe for political revolution – one which eventually resulted in the overthrow of the Tokugawa bakufu and the establishment of the Meiji government.

*Test your knowledge of Tokugawa Period history with these reading response questions.

Huffman, James L. Japan in World History. Oxford University Press, 2010.

Jones, Sumie, and Kenji Watanabe, eds. An Edo Anthology: Literature from Japan’s Mega-
City, 1750-1850. University of Hawaii Press, 2013.

Columbia University. East Asia for Educators. “Excerpts from Shinron (New Thesis): ‘The
Barbarians’ Nature.’” 2009.

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