The Tokugawa Shogunate was a feudal military dictatorship in Japan that lasted from 1603 to 1868. Samurais, who were essentially professional warriors, were the primary leaders in this period, but all of them were governed and ultimately controlled by shoguns from the Tokugawan clan. Shoguns don’t exist in modern Japan, but they were essentially military dictators who inherited their positions as if they were members of a ruling royal family. Many scholars say that the caste system in Japan was most rigid during this time, which may have been why this was the last official feudal leadership structure in the country; at the same time, though, the period is also well regarded as one of the most peaceful and prosperous times in Japan’s history.
Source and Structure of Power
In the early 1600s Japan was experiencing a lot of clan warfare and general instability. The Tokugawa family rose to power amidst this chaos in 1603 when they were able to mobilize and incentivize the loyalty of many of the most influential warrior samurai. They ruled from Edo castle in what is today’s Tokyo, and based their power on a very rigid social hierarchy that had basically no mobility between classes. In this way they were able to keep the status quo while growing their own support and strength.
The warrior samurai held the most power, followed by farmers, artisans, and traders. Land was controlled by a group of people who were known as daimyo, or feudal lords; these people collected taxes and enforced military service against the people who lived and worked on their land. All of this was overseen and governed from a distance by the shogunate, however. The members of the family held ultimate power over land and could dispense, annex, or transform properties held by the daimyo at will.
Daimyo families were expected to divide their time between managing their han, or land holdings, and making official visits to Edo to socialize with the Shogunate and keep the clan informed of the land’s prosperity and earnings. Daimyo were expected to have absolute loyalty to the Shogunate and could be severely punished if they were suspected of plotting against the leaders, or even just befriending the “wrong” people.
The Emperor was considered the official leader of Japan, and for all official purposes the Shogunate acted merely as his administrative arm. In practice, however, the Shogunate controlled basically all of the social, political, economic, and environmental policies of the time. During this period the emperor was basically a figurehead who had to retain the people’s graces to stay in power, but wasn’t able to do much of anything without someone from the Tokugawa house’s permission. In this way the Shogunate exercised a great deal of power, often through little more than influence.
The Tokugawa Shogunate also controlled all foreign trade. Leaders invoked heavy penalties on anyone who attempted to make deals without their permission, and they essentially had a monopoly on all ports. By about 1683 the Shogunate banned all trade with the West, primarily Europe, in large part because they didn’t want European influences entering the country. Limited trade was allowed with the Dutch, but otherwise exchanges of information and goods were mostly limited to other East Asian countries, particularly China and Korea.
Controlling trade was one of the ways the Shogunate was able to enforce its rigid system of class and political power. The Japanese studied Western technology through books and materials brought on board Dutch ships, but did not have a wide view of what was going on elsewhere in the world. Refinements of Western inventions like clocks and astronomical devices happened during this period, but a lot was left unknown, too.
Stance on Religion
The Shogunate also sought to control religious belief among the people. Christianity in particular seemed to have posed a particular threat; by 1613, most forms of the religion were outlawed, and believers were persecuted if not killed. Scholars frequently say that all forms of Christianity were prohibited for most of the Shogunate’s reign, though there does seem to be a particular emphasis on Catholics — Jesuits especially — in many of the anti-Christian writings of the time.
Cultural and Artistic Influence
The Tokugawan period is well regarded as one of cultural, literary, and artistic advancement. It saw an explosion of woodblock prints, for example, and a dynamic geisha culture thrived; there was also an increased interest in literature and fine arts like painting. The Shogunate embraced many Confucian values and integrated them into Japanese culture to create graceful and contemplative works of art, literature, and theater.
There was no single reason why the Shogunate ultimately lost power after nearly 200 years of rule, but advancements in trade and changing social sensibilities surely mattered. Part of the problem may have been the daimyo system of taxation, which was fixed and did not account for inflation. Poverty and a great deal of social bitterness and upheaval resulted, which weakened the leaders’ authority.
Improved trade relations, many of which were illegal, also changed things. It became very difficult to reconcile the commercial and capitalized society that the West brought with the military society of the Shogunate, and the clan ultimately lost power in favor of more democratic and flexible methods of government. The period that followed is known as the “Meiji Restoration,” and it was during this time that the Emperor was returned to a position of real power and authority.