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The Demise of Tokugawa Shogunate

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Sometimes even a stable regime with powerful and well-revered governance could still be undermined by unexpected factors as believed by some researchers (Encarta:Japan, 2007, Section F.3, para 5). The established traditional political system which manipulated the whole Edo period during the sovereignty of Tokugawa shogunate was ironically one of the factors which maneuvered the unstoppable breakdown of this ruling government (Encarta:Japan, 2007, Section F.3., para. 1). Apart from the strict reliance of the ruling people to their “traditional dictatorial military government” the penetration of Western influences and pressures synergistically facilitated the downfall of Tokugawa shogunate (Mishina, 2006, Section 2, para 14).

Tokugawa shogunate, as some historians have considered, was the most effective government that Japan had experienced so far in its history. Although this political system was held stable for almost 300 years, it was successfully weakened by those concerned citizen who desire for improvement and modernization so as to cope up with other developing countries which apparently lead Japan to stand up in greater currency with the rest of the world (Hanneman, 1995).  Undeniably, accounting all the flaws of Tokugawa shogunate and even though this downfall was painful and tragic for the Japanese; its significance to Japan’s history had brought countless benefits which placed Japan to its successful governance and stable economic status at present (Norman, 1940; Stanley and Irving, 2000; Encarta:Japan, 2007).

This research paper is succinctly embodied on Tokugawa shogunate’s reign. This will concisely discuss how it begun and how it was ended. The reasons on the demise of this ruling government will be carefully analyzed in this study. This will also highlight some important concerns such as the social and political features of Japanese society under Tokugawa shogunate. This paper will briefly discuss the consequences after the downfall of Tokugawa shogunate.


            The intriguing state of Japan during the Tokugawa shogunate had caught the interest of historians in analyzing the pros and cons of this government. Based on the arguments presented by Mishina (2006), one substantial question that we could raise is “How Tokugawa shogunate successfully reinforced their legitimacy and what political system did it followed?” (p. 2).

Tokugawa shogunate (1603-1868)

            The ruling power of Tokugawa shogunate dominated Japan in 1603 when Tokugawa Ieyasu won the great battle of Sekigahara. This decisive battle on October 21, 1600 had cleared the path to the Shogunate for Tokugawa Ieyasu to be the central authority in controlling the Japanese government (Stanley and Irving, 2000). The entire period – the Edo period – of Tokugawa shogunate was a consolidation of power during the reigns of Ieyasu (1603-1605), his son Hidetada (1605-1623) and his grandson Iemitsu (1623-1651) (Encarta:Japan, 2007).

            Tokugawa shogunate was a feudal military dictatorship that lasted for almost three hundred years (Encarta:Japan, 2007). It was considered to be a bureaucratic government due to rigid hierarchy and administration. It is based on a complex feudal system where the hierarchy is composed of the emperor, the shogun (the ruler of the nation), the daimyo (Feudal Lord) and samurai retainers in Japan. Based on this hierarchy, “the shogun shared power and authority with the local daimyo in a system known as bakuhan” (Encarta:Japan, 2007, Section F.1., para 1) (a combination of the bakufu, which functioned as the central government, and the han, feudal domains under the control of the daimyo)” (Encarta:Japan, 2007, Section F.1., para 1). With this arrangement, it is evident that great power is given to the ruling family, however, based on these feudal system as noted in an article entitled as “What was Tokugawa shogunate?” (2007), the shoguns are only offered to manipulate about “one quarter of the productive land in the country” (p. 1).

On the other hand, they are still in control with the samurai class and they respond with all the demands of the country (Stanley and Irving, 2000). Contrary on the privileges vested on the ruling family, the rest of the productive land was dominated by the daimyo. They are the ones who collected taxes and military service from their peasant vassals. They enjoy numerous privileges such us acquiring their own government, castle towns, warrior armies and courts (What was Tokugawa shogunate?, 2007). However, the daimyo and samurai class were highly dependent with these agricultural taxes collected from peasants. While enjoying these privileges, the shogunate and daimyo became increasingly indebted to the merchants who finance their luxurious lifestyle. As end result, their inability to pay back has broken the barrier on caste system and blurred the rigid status hierarchy.  The political and economic set-up during this period is that rules were imposed by the noble which will be reinforced by the samurais and strictly followed by the peasants.

One important feature of this political system is the inclusion of a police and spy network which monitored the activity of daimyo. Constant surveillance was enabled to keep track on the activities if the daimyos wherein they are requested to ask for permission when building castles, repairing military fortifications, or arranging contract marriage with other daimyo families (Encarta:Japan, 2007). Any violations or suspicious acts against the military government by the daimyos will be punished by the shogunate in a variety of ways such as: a domain could be reduced in size, shifting to entirely different domain, reducing the status to a non-daimyo level and the ultimate sanction, forced suicide (Mishina, 2006). According to these political features as explained in Encarta (2007), these only imply how Tokugawa shogunate strictly imposed rules to its people without being unaware of the possible grievances when this people start to connive. This eventually emerged as a political turmoil which initially brought the weakening of the Tokugawa shogunate.

            With regard to hierarchy, the emperor was considered as official leader of Japan with Tokugawa shogunate as its administrative arm. However, the Shogunate still emerges as the ruling arm of the country where all social, political, economic and environmental policies were fiercely manipulated by them. It was only at the end of Tokugawa shogunate’s reign when all the powers were vested to the Emperor, a sign of new governance.

            The Tokugawa political system was confined by its policy to sustain a limited seclusion from other countries which successfully maintained the peace and order of the country until the mid-19th century. There were attempts to destabilize the government such as political oppression and revolution which occurred in the 17th century (Stanley and Irving, 2000; Encarta: Japan, 2007; Mishina, 2006). However, Tokugawa shogunate remained undisputed during this time (Encarta:Japan, 2007).

            Every form of government has its own strategy however, even though it has countless advantages, there are still disadvantages that should be dealt with. The weakness of a hierarchal government is that when the supreme ones were weakened, everything follows just like a “domino-effect.”  The monopolization of Japan’s properties and resources by the higher classes during this regime provided security for the ruling family; however, it failed to consider the lower classes who worked for them. It is agreeable that the country’s resources should be trusted to the higher classes since it is a hierarchal system with the great power vested to the supreme ones, however, the occurrence of corruption and some opportunist who wants to penetrate in the system are unavoidable. These factors were not anticipated by the Tokugawa shogunate reign, thus, in effect, when a simple problem was created, it grew until it eventually clashed the whole political system. Another weakness in this type of government is the strict control of the shoguns to the daimyos. Too much manipulation can be dangerous; it could catalyze revolt and discontentment among the people.

The Demise of Tokugawa Shogunate

            As several authors have considered, Tokugawa shogunate was the longest and most effective uninterrupted government that Japan had practiced so far in its history, but it was not a “centralized monarchy like the old imperial government” (Encarta:Japan, 2007, Section F.1., para 1).

 Several factors were theorized which led to the unstoppable and irrevocable collapse of the Tokugawa shogunate. As believed by several researchers, the downfall of Tokugawa shogunate was brought by internal changes as well as the uncontrollable destabilization of the traditional political system and the influences of the Westerners. (Norman, 1940; Mishina, 2006; Hanneman, 1995).

            As noted by Mishina (2006) in his lecture about “Tokugawa Shogunate and the Opening of Japan,” he mentioned that the decay of the “Dynastic Cycle” of Tokugawa Japan can be accounted to weak leadership, corruption, military inefficiency as well as accumulated debts of shogun and daimyos to the merchant class. He also stressed out the desire for the people to reform the traditional way of government which lead to fiscal retrenchment. Other factors include the frustration of Samurais and the poverty which forced Japan to open his doors for Western traders and eventually signing on a treaty on alliance with the Westerners.

            Similarly, Norman (1940) had generalized that the downfall of the Tokugawa regime was the result of the conjunction of two processes: a) internal decay of the feudal society; b) pressure from the Western nations. Based on his propositions, he cited that the Japan did not anticipate the impact of successful Western pressure in 1850’s even though Tokugawa succeeded in establishing a well-preserved and stable political system. Even the most stable government could still be penetrated and destabilized once you determined the weakness of the system. This has been the weapon used by the foreigners in pressuring Japan to entertain trading and commerce from the outside world. Several propositions were made by some researchers in determining who’s to blame on the destabilization and eventually the demise of Tokugawa shogunate; they “emphasized the undoubted fact that the whole regime has been under attack from many directions inside Japan long before Commodore Matthew C. Perry arrived”(Norman, 1940). Norman (1940) has also stressed out that the economic weakening of Tokugawa feudalism which is way different from the status of Tokugawa government during the glorious years of the regime.

            The demise of Tokugawa shogunate will not be successful without the alliance of anti-Tokugawa parties to overthrow the traditional and collapsing feudal political system. Whatever their reasons are, they were able to alter the Japan’s history due to the consequences after the downfall. Norman (1940) listed some of the people behind the political oppression against Tokugawa shogunate reign. This weakening was accomplished through the lower samurai and ronin, particularly the great western clans of Satsuma, Choshu, Tosa and Hizen which divulge the armies and the territorial base of the operations (Norman, 1940).

The merchants also joined the party and contributed money for the planned rebellion. The court nobility of the Emperor, the kuge, who functioned as the ideological justification for conquering the Shoguns, also joined the Anti-Tokigawa parties. It is obvious that the Emperor joined this revolution to finally gain the ultimate power in maneuvering the political system of Japan. Nevertheless, these people who rallied against the “close-door” or limited penetration of the Tokugawa shogunate regime fortunately made their upright decision in overthrowing the present ruling dynasty. It is because, Japan was finally opened for modernization and was able to “achieve equality with Western powers and to free the country from the unequal treaties” (Hanneman, 1995). These endless mutual benefits from the Westerner’s offered to Japan had forced and pressured the Tokugawa leadership to sign the agreement.

            The most notable event before the demise of the Tokugawa shogunate was the arrival of gunboat expedition headed by Commodore Matthew C. Perry in 1853 which initiated the Japan’s political and economic turmoil. Because of the ardent interest in opening Japan to normal trading and diplomatic relationships in 1840s of the US government, they have patiently wooed the Tokugawa shogunate to sign up for a treaty declaring the friendship of US and Japan with mutual benefits. Tokugawa was then pressured by Perry due to the threat of warships once the treaty will be turned down. This demanding acts of the United States eventually convinced Tokugawa in signing the agreement in 1854 without the consensus of the daimyos. More often than not, the US force could inevitably exercise their power to countries inferior to them, thus, their demands or propositions were usually irresistible and irrefutable.

            Any form of government has their own advantages and disadvantages. It’s the good strategic ruling of the supreme one that could successfully balance the system and truthfully serve his people. If we look into the inflexible hierarchy of Tokugawa shogunate, we can visually understand why it was weakened and overruled by internal and external factors.  Although it prospered for hundred years and even though the ruling family has built a strong foundation that made their regime undeniably victorious, they have overlooked some factors that eventually ruined their dynasty.

The rulers considered themselves unbreakable and omnipotent that they could exercise their power to the infinity. What is conspicuous in Tokugawa shogunate failure is the thirst of power by some of the subordinate people who taught that Japan’s status could still be uplifted and Japan’s way of living could still be improved. The unbounded changes happened in the course of the regime affected the legitimacy of the governance. The dependency of the shoguns with the service of their subordinates weakened their credibility to rule and maneuver the political system. If only the supreme ones played harmoniously with their subordinates, they may not experience pressure by the US government to sign for a treaty. However, change is inevitable; thus, the decision in allowing Japan to be open for trading and commerce with the outside world as well as the alliance built with the Westerners  was still a good move for them. Though this decision was risky, it was still fulfilling as I see, Japan’s economy is moving smoothly and it is continuously climbing its way to prosperity.

The Meiji Restoration

            The demise of Tokugawa shogunate has paved the way for the restoration of Meiji, an imperial authority. This restoration emphasized the full authority that should be vested on the Emperor in ruling the country. After the downfall of Tokugawa shogunate, this new era for Japan’s government has brought a smoother opening to the “modern world” as stressed out by Kenji Mishina (2006) in his lecture notes. However, this event leads to the irrevocable damage of the reputation and authority of shogunate. Undeniably, this downfall has created tension between the Westerners and the Japanese who were disappointed with the bending of Tokugawa shogunate (according to some Japanese, it was a sign of weakness) to Western influences. This might be unavoidable but sometimes a country should know how to stand and progress on its own without depending on the help of some opportunist.

            On the other hand, this downfall had ignited the new governance of Meiji to institute numerous reforms on the current political system to stabilized the nation’s economic and political, to uphold the industrialization of Japan, enhance education system and to improve the hierarchy and responsibilities assumed in the government structure as discussed by Bill Gordon (2000) in his article.

            The economy continued to flourish in keeping abreast in the economic modernization and subsequent industrialization of Japan. Apart from these end-results, the country had achieved a high general literacy rate due to the smooth transition of Japan to modern age. Only three years after the fall of Tokugawa shogunate, the promulgation of the law in 1872 was beneficial in strengthening the educational system of Japan which was communal for the citizenry of Japan (Gordon, 2000).

            The positive feedback on the penetration of the Westerners to Japan continued to thrive as it was envied by other Asian countries (Hanneman, 1995). As highlighted by Hanneman in her article, several Asian countries envisioned Japan as a potential model for modernization and independence from Western domination. Hanneman (1995) argued that “while the animosity and fear that Japan’s Asian neighbors harbor toward it have not completely abated, Japan has nevertheless emerged once again as a model for development” (p. 56). Change may be inevitable, whether it leads to positive or negative outcome, what matters most is that history has been disrupted and lessons learned will be irreplaceable.


Gordon, B. (2000). Tokugawa Period’s Influence on Meiji Restoration. Retrieved on March 13, 2007

Hanneman, M.L. Ph.D. (1995) Liberalism in Prewar Japan: Origins, Evolution and Demise. Reason Paper. Issue No. 20. Retrieved on March 13, 2007 from, http://www.mises.org/reasonpapers/pdf/20/rp_20_4.pdf. 

Japan. (2007, March 12). In Encarta. Retrieved 04:41, March 13, 2007 from encarta.msn.com/encyclopedia_761566679/Japan” http://www.encarta.msn.com/encyclopedia_761566679/Japan. 

Mishina, K. (2006). Tokugawa Shogunate and the Opening of Japan. Retrieved on March 13, 2007 from, http://www007.upp.so-net.ne.jp/m-kenji/lecture.htm. 

Norman, H. (1940). The Emergence of Japan as a Modern State. Retrieved on March 13, 2007 from, http://www.thecorner.org/hist/japan/meiji1.htm. 

Stanley, T. A. and Irving, R.T.A. (2000). The Story of the Battle of Sekigahara. Retrieved on March 13, 2007 from, http://www.hku.hk/history/nakasendo/sekibatl.htm.

WiseGeek. (2007).What was the Tokugawa shogunate? (2007, March 12). Retrieved on March 13, 2007 from, http://www.wisegeek.com/what-was-the-tokugawa-shogunate.htm.

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