Tokugawa Shogunate: Strengths and Weaknesses
Robert H. Webb
Professor John H. Sagers
6 August 2010
The death of emperor Hideyoshi and subsequent ascension to the throne of Hideyori in 1598 set into motion events that would alter the political landscape in Japan for the next two hundred and fifty years. Tokugawa Ieyasu, in his quest to become absolute ruler of Japan defeated Hideyori loyalists in the battle of Sekigahara and was appointed Shogun by Hideyori in 1603. This military “coup d’état” effectively gave Tokugawa complete control of Japan and reduced the emperor to little more than a figurehead in the governing of Japan. As history would show, the feudal system of government that Tokugawa created ultimately led to Japan’s movement from an isolated country to the first industrialized Asian nation.
Although effectively a military dictatorship, the Tokugawa shogunate had the positive effect of unifying Japan under one government. Prior to Tokugawa being appointed as shogun Japan was a fragmented nation with many clan leaders. By completing his power grab, Tokugawa effectively joined the three main islands of Japan. Japan entered a period of prolonged peace in which many changes could occur. Tokugawa established a government centered in Edo (modern day Tokyo) called a bakufu in which daimyo (lords or barons in the European system) controlled regional lands and in turned served the shogun. The Tokugawa political system was very complex in its operation. It was similar in many aspects to the European feudal system but it was very bureaucratic. Although the emperor remained seated on the throne he had little to no political power and was primarily a remnant of the neo-Confucian ideological theory. This theory prescribed a very structured society in which all people in society fell into certain classes. The four major classes within Japanese society were samurai, farmers, artisans, and merchants. Some members of Japanese society were not considered part of this hierarchy; most notably the Imperial family. Each class was required to perform specific functions within society. A major drawback of this system was the prohibition of elevating one’s social status. One’s position within society was set by familial relationships and not ability. Therefore, positions of authority may not be held by the most competent person. These restrictions ultimately created tensions within Japan that later precipitated change. The frustrations of citizens desiring change ultimately led for a push to change this system and appoint people of ability to government positions (Hideshike 1997). Another initial positive impact of the bakufu was the incredible economic development that occurred. The shogun, as the political and military center of Japan, established a common system of economic control in which all wealth was dispersed in set values among classes. The daimyo that were loyal to Tokugawa were given increased arable land and therefore increased wealth. Japan was primarily an agricultural nation and wealth was measured in rice yield. Those daimyo that fell out of favor could have lands taken away and subsequently faced reduced financial income. Ultimately, the ruling class began to suffer financial hardships as well. Under the Tokugawa system, daimyo were forced to participate in a system called “Sankin Kotai” or alternate attendance (Shoten 1997). Originally this was instituted as a system of political control in which the daimyo (and his family) were required to spend lengthy periods in Edo. During this time, if the daimyo returned to his domain, the family was required to remain in Edo. This system weakened and impoverished the daimyo’s finance and caused him to become indebted to merchants. Due to the cumbersome nature of rice as means of exchange rice ultimate gave way to a money economy-silver and gold coin. Any financial difficulties realized by the daimyo ultimately fell to...
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