History of Japan


Eric Allen Mayer

As Tokugawa consolidated his military victories it appeared that Japan would follow a policy of expanding commercial contacts with the west, the Portuguese, Spanish and the Dutch and English in 1603.

The T. period has been described as "an unhappy interlude" between Japan's first and second encounters within the West in the 16th and the 19th centuries.

This was a period of isolationism, of 100% Japanism, of extreme conservatism in social policy, and of political tyranny of the military state.

The period from 1603 to 1840 was a notable and perplexing age in which stability and change were in constant conflict, creating a kind of tension not always evident on the surface of life.

Two and a half centuries of peace or Taihei (the Great Peace) had an important impact on the later years of this period.

The government continued to be authoritarian, a monopoly of the military aristocracy, the samurai. But the samurai did not remain unchanged in their manner of life and thought during the Tokugawa period.

The samurai changed from becoming a military class to that of a bureaucratic class.

The military campaigns of Nobunaga, Hideyoshi and finally Ieyeyasu and his allied daimyo forced the submission of all the great daimyo houses. After the battles of Sekigahara (1600) and of Osaka Castle (1615) the Tokugawas were the military masters of Japan.

The emperor would continue to be the de jure sovereign at Kyoto. In 1603 he bestowed the title of Shogun on Iyeyasu, just as it had been bestowed upon Yoritomo at the end of the 12th century.

In 1603 the Tokugawas decided to rule through the daimyo system. This meant that while the ultimate national authority resided with the shogun, the daimyo remained as regional rulers.

This was quite an achievement in statecraft. It survived for more that 2 and a half centuries. Its central framework, the daimyo systems proved to be far more effective than its appearance suggest.

In addition to military power, the Tokugawas maintained control by a body of bureaucratic agents who exercised thorough supervision throughout the land.

The daimyo governments did not pay direct taxes to the government and the shogun, they supported the shogunate by presents that were virtually compulsory, and the shogunate was free from the obligations of local government and defense.

In Tokugawa Japan there were 270 daimyos that varied greatly in terms of agricultural wealth, which was the basis for social wealth. In Japan wealth was measured in terms of the annual rice yield that was calculated in Koku (5.11 bushels).

The Tokugawas also controlled the growing urban and commercial centers, where in time great wealth would be concentrated. And the result was a central power block that could not be challenged easily.

In a Political sense daimyo were classified in three groups: (1) Shimpan were descendants of Tokugawa shoguns who did not gain entrance to higher office; (2) fudai were descendants of men who had accepted Iyeyasu as their overlord prior to 1600; and (3) tozama were descendants of lords who in 1600 had been equals of Iyeyasu.

The Tokugawa and fudai lands occupied the central part of the country. The strongest Tozama, potential enemies of the shogun were for the most part in the south and west. In time the smaller fudai holdings came to be located on the borders of these potential enemies.

The Tokugawas created barriers against discontent and rebellions through a complex system of control under the mandatory system of sankin kotai, whereby the daimyo alternated in attendance on the Shogun in Edo.

Fudai, in central Japan alternated semi-annually, while other fudai and all tozama usually alternated annually. Their wives and children remained in Edo as hostages when the Daimyo returned to their fiefs.

The system of Sankin kotai was remarkably effective and the tendency was for them to become courtiers rather than effective rebels.

Far back in the days of Nara and heian, the central government had failed to develop an adequate body of administrative officials loyal to and appreciative of its stabilizing role in protecting the throne and controlling frontier clans.

At the high level of policy making, the Tokugawas relied heavily on their council of elders (Toshiyori).

Necessary personnel for the running of the government were drawn on an hereditary basis from the Tokugawa and the Fudai.


The machinery of government in both China and Japan was relatively simple. It was possible to control China and Japan due to the fact that the overall system relied on social, rather than political principles and agencies.

First in rank and in social prestige was the Imperial family and the emperor's immediate vassals, the court nobles or kuge.

Second in the social scale, but first in power and privilege were the military men, the knights, or samurai.

Within this class was a vast array of grades to make up the ruling class of Japan's military feudal dictatorship.

First were the daimyos, or great lords who were classified according to wealth, and all of whom enjoyed a rice annually of more than 10,000 koku.

Second the were the direct retainers of the shogun, known as hatamoto and goenkin, some of whom lived in Edo performing civil and military duties.

Third were the baishin who were retainers of the daimyo, and who according to their own rank within their class served as government advisers, administrative officials, or foot soldiers--the most numerous within the samurai class.

Fourth were the ronin, or soldiers unattached to any lord; and fifth were the goshi or samurai peasants who acquired the status of active soldiers only in time of war.

In the 18th century Japan's entire population numbered 30 million, and of these the daimyo and their vassals numbered about 2 million and the ronin about 500,000 until about 1650.

For the masses of majority of people were farmers or peasants.

Differentiated from the farmer, but of about the same social rank among common men were the artisans and craftsmen.

Ranking as the commonest of common men were the merchant or chonin class.

At the bottom of society were the eta or untouchables, who were gamblers, tanners and executioners. Below the eta were the hinin composed of beggars and they were classified as animals rather than humans and were not even included in the censuses until 1871.

The intellectual cornerstone fashioned to uphold this Tokugawa scheme of government was a cluster of Confucian principles that stressed the proper relationship between the ruler and the ruled.

Confucian thought could support the concept of social classes and hierarchy in a society of status, and more importantly it could provide a moral order prescribing the conduct of both the ruler and the ruled.

Its usefulness was even now greater in the Tokugawa period because the Buddhist church had already been reduced to obedience to the state by Nobunaga and Hideyoshi, while the first Tokugawa shogunate had suppressed Christianity.

Yet, almost from the beginning, processes of change were at work. The start of the unbroken peace and the closing of the country to foreign intercourse created conditions that forced the Tokugawas to tolerate and even to encourage changes in a policy that was designed to resist change.


When military Japan settled down to a life of peace in the early 1600's, it was possible for trade to grow to proportions previously unknown. In peace there was also less reason for local commercial restrictions, so that even though the country was still divided into the many domains of individual lords, the tendency was for the whole to become one economic unit.

The official and aristocratic populace of government officials created a demand for goods and services which only artisans and tradesman could furnish.

In this circumstance the relatively simple rice economy of the individual feudal domain gradually gave way to a money and credit economy managed by merchants, brokers, and bankers, who controlled the rice markets and storehouses of great cities such as Osaka and Edo.

Throughout the Tokugawa period the power of the merchant class grew to the point where it could exploit the military classes and farmers and there were two reasons for this.

(1) First was the further development of Edo as a large city which had to be supplied in part by importing food and which demanded a large supply of manufactured luxuries.

Secondly, the military class, by reason of its new consumptive habits, became more and more dependent on the merchant. Once a taste of luxury was acquired, the nobility was prepared to mortgage its future to the merchant rather than be surpassed in conspicuous consumption by their neighbors.

Japanese farming had changed very little over the centuries and during the Tokugawa period it shifted from cooperative enterprises to individual farms.

Thereby the exchange of goods became less a matter of social or ritual obligation and more of a question of whether the price was right.

By 1700 or 100 years after the rise of the Tokugawas, Japan had not only modified its economy, but had also acquired in its larger cities a growing and prosperous middle class

It has been suggested that the long period of peace the bakafu was able to impose opened the way for a new society which eventually destroyed the social and political order that Iyeyasu had founded, and laid the foundations for a new state and nation.

Japan during most of the Edo period was taking the first steps in the direction of modern nationalism and industrialization.

The Tokugawa period saw the beginnings of prolonged struggles between a rice agriculture and industry, between a local barter economy and a national money economy, between a feudal and military aristocracy and the power of commercial and then industrial capital and between the food supply and the growing population that had to be fed.

Agro-productivity was declining and there was much agrarian distress from taxation, usury, flood, drought, and price fluctuations.

By the end of the Tokugawa period there was a growing class of prosperous farmers.

For the first half of the Tokugawa period population increased rapidly. Through the second half it remained practically stationary at about 30 million. The initial increase bore heavily on the food supply and the growth of cities contributed to a severe labor shortage in the rural areas.

The stability of the Bakafu was also undermined by its failure to pursue sound policies in public finance.

While the state was organized in a feudal pattern, the Bakafu derived regular revenue from its domains only. The consequence was a state of chronic deficit relieved little from the drastic economic policies enacted at the time.

Because of the political organization of the country there was no access to national loans, and the coinage was in a constant state of devaluation.

By the 1830's the once secure Tokugawa shogunate was in a serious crisis.

The failure of the government to ease the burden of the peasantry was dramatized by a rebellion in 1837 within the official ranks. A minor official in the Bakafu in Osaka encouraged the peasants and urban workers to rise up and kill heartless officials and corrupt merchants.

This proved to be a minor flare up and was quickly suppressed, but it was symptomatic of popular resentment toward central authority.

Popular reinterpretation of Confucian classics and of Japan's political history produced a picture of the shogunate as a usurper of the emperor's legitimate functions, a government that didn't deserve obedience.


At the top of the socio-political scale, many of the daimyo were plagued by the same financial ailments that beset the shogunate.

The existence of the samurai posed the problem of what to do with an idle standing army in a time of unbroken peace. As the financial stability of the government went from bad to worse the allowances and wages of the samurai were cut as well. As a result the samurai had little money and too much time on their hands.

In the rural sector the farmers and peasants suffered hardships and well into the 19th century enacted rebellions and protests against their economic plight which was magnified by poor economic planning and natural disasters.

The merchants even with their wealth were vulnerable and insecure and they were never free from government influence and policy.

Nevertheless, at the beginning of the 17th century the Tokugawas had created a society of great stability. By the 18th century this stability was only a memory.

The political framework of the past still stood, but Japanese society had moved beyond this framework to create a new way of life unforeseen by the founding fathers in the 1600's.

Even by 1720, the idea of Western exclusion was circumvented as the ban against western books was modified to permit the study of geography, military science and medicine.

To meet the internal crisis both the shogun and the daimyo attempted to become reformers, seeking to evade bankruptcy in the shogunate and the han.

However, the crisis arising from external sources was even more alarming to the Japanese.

They had become increasingly sensitive to the presence of Russian settlements on the coast of Siberia and to Russian explorations of the Kurile Islands. As early as 1792 the Russians had sought to open trade with the Japanese but were rebuffed. Then in the 1820's British whaling ships appeared in Japanese waters.

Then came the unwelcome tidings that in 1840-1842 Britain had humiliated China in the Opium War, had exacted a huge indemnity and had forced the opening of ports to foreign trade.

With the European powers struggling over the spoils of China, the way was cleared for Americans to pursue their designs on Japan.

In 1837 an American firm doing business in Canton sent the ship Morrison to Edo bay. The unarmed ship was fired upon and forced to retire. In 1846 the U.S. sent Commodore James Biddle, commander of the East Indian squadron to Edo Bay but he gained nothing as well.

The Japanese soon felt that the Americans didn't have the desire to force the issue, but events in America now moved rapidly.

The Oregon Territory was acquired in 1846; California two years later and the United States had a border on the Pacific Ocean and this westward expansion was strengthened and clarified by those in the U.S. at the time who felt that the country should now become a trans-pacific power.

By 1851 this notion of an American role in the Pacific was formalized and approved by Secretary of State Daniel Webster and the result was the appointment of Commodore Matthew C. Perry to head a U.S. naval mission to end Japan's exclusion.

The mission was one of the great turning points in terms of both Japanese and American history.

Perry in confronting Japan was commissioned to destroy a national policy which the Japanese had followed for more than 2 centuries.

Perry's mission sought to guarantee proper treatment by Japan for Shipwrecked American seamen, to gain the right to secure provisions and to satisfy the need for coaling deposits, and most importantly to create a profitable trade relation with the Japanese.

American public reaction to the mission at the time was conflicting and confused, though many of the religious thought that the merchants would "*opena highway for the chariot of the Lord Jesus Christ."

For the most part Americans like the rest of the world were extremely ignorant of Japan and its culture and its geography.

With a fleet of four ships Perry entered Edo Bay on July 8, 1853. The Japanese knew that he was coming for they had been tipped off by the Dutch.

Yet, the appearance of the American squadron precipitated one of the great crises of Japanese history. Perry delivered a letter by President Fillmore, informed the Japanese that he would return a year later and then sailed away.

Perry's visit confronted the shogun with the most serious decision ever faced by the Tokugawas and they took the absolutely unprecedented step of seeking the advice not only of the leading daimyo, but also of the emperor himself.

The majority favored to repel the overtures of the foreigner, but some in the Tokugawa clan saw the futility of armed opposition.

Perry was already hastening his return spurred by rumors that French and Russian squadrons planned to visit Japan. This time Perry sailed with 7 vessels and entered Edo Bay on February 13, 1854.

Fortunately, the minority at the shogun's court had prevailed and the Treaty of Kanagawa was signed by Perry and representatives of the Shogun on March 31 1854. The treaty covered only the provisos of shipwreck and supply ports and some limited trade.

To Perry and his political supporters the opening of Japan was not an end in itself but rather one in a series of steps creating American maritime power in the Pacific. This pattern would include coaling stations and naval bases throughout the Pacific.

Representatives of other powers soon followed Perry to Japan and secured treaties similar to that of the United States.

In 1856 the treaty was broadened to include permission to secure supplies at Shimoda, Hakodate and Nagasaki; (2) permission to trade through Japanese officials and under regulations at their ports; (3) the right of male residence at Nagasaki; (4) Permission to appoint consuls at Shimoda and Hakodate; and (5) a limited extraterritorial jurisdiction.

Shortly after the Perry treaty was concluded the United States the American government sent its first consul general to reside at Shimoda. He was Townshend Harris of New York, merchant familiar with East Asia.

The principal objective of the Harris mission was to secure a full commercial treaty. The prospects of success for this were small. From the moment Harris landed "the Japanese used every device of obstruction and deceit to discourage and defeat him."

Harris sought to convince the shogunate that the limited intercourse established by the first treaties was no longer adequate or practical. By January, 1858 the shogunate had agreed to the principal terms of the treaty.

When the treaty was completed, Harris waited impatiently for months for the Japanese to sign. Despite bitter division of opinion within the shogunate the treaty was signed in July of 1858 and the treaty provided for formal representation at the capitals of both powers, the opening of new treaty ports, civil and criminal extraterritoriality, freedom of foreigner to practice their own religion and the prohibition of the opium trade.

The Harris treaty became the fundamental document in Japan's foreign relations until 1894 and the European powers accepted it as a model.

The shogunate had signed the Harris treaty but had a hard time enforcing the new policy among its enemies at home. In 1857 there was a powerful anti-foreign opposition group composed of tozama lords and powerful leaders within the Tokugawa family itself.

Also the emperor never consented to this treaty and the opposition by opposing the treaty could claim that to be loyal supporters of the divine right of rule by the emperor against an usurping shogun.

At the imperial court at Kyoto the anti-foreign opposition and anti-bakafu party centered deriving its support from the tozama lords, from disgruntled allies of the Tokugawa clan and from branch families within the Tokugawa house itself, such as the Mito group.

By the summer of 1859 there were two immediate dangers that threatened the regime. The first danger was the so-called ultra-patriots of samurai and ronin, who had detached themselves from their clans, and were anxious to embarrass the shogunate by attacking foreigners. The second danger was that this might in fact happen and it did to several westerners and this created outrage in America and Britain.

The British government demanded concessions and indemnities for the murders of its countrymen and it was at this period that the shogun was summoned to Kyoto to explain his conduct and this meant that those who opposed him and the foreigners and shogun policy were now in control of the throne.

According to imperial decree, the expelling of foreigners and the discarding of the treaties were to be carried out by the shogun's government. Also the Choshu clan fired on an American ship lying off Shimonoseki. French and Dutch vessels were also attacked. In the satsuma and Choshu clans anti-foreignism was in part an artifice hiding a determination to destroy the shogunate.

Dissension then appeared in the councils of Kyoto where Choshu leaders were accused of attempting to kidnap the emperor. Choshu troops were ordered to leave the capital and when they attempted a coup d'etat the shogun was ordered by the emperor to deal with the rebellious clan.

After this attempted rebellion the most serious imperial faction that opposed the treaties was disposed of. The western daimyo were no longer aligned against the foreigners, but their determination to overthrow the shogunate and restore the emperor still remained.

The first phase of what has been described as Japan's 19th century revolution was now complete and 200 years of exclusion and isolationism had been abandoned.

However, there was a high price to pay for the commercial opening of Japan. The cost of living was increased by large exports of consumer goods. The price of tea soon doubled; that of raw silk tripled and before 1867 the price of rice in Japan increased twelve fold.

The disastrous revolution in prices was created in part by the outflowing of Japan's gold supply to pay for imports from the West.

Economic hardships resulting from price inflation supported the case of those factions who regarded anti-foreignism as a patriotic duty.

But bu repudiating the policy of exclusion and seclusion Japan took the first step toward modernization.

What had happened in Japan by 1865 was a result of the threat from the West, but it was also a result of a result of the contradictions and attempts in the later Tokugawa years towards a new order of society.