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The Tokugawa Era, the Meiji Restoration, and the Rise of Japanese Nationalism

Japan was engulfed in political conflicts and wars between the 12th and 16th centuries. This period of upheaval ended during the reign of the Three Unifiers (Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu). Wary of foreigners and their influence, the shōgun Tokugawa Ieyasu issued the sakoku edicts in 1635 and started the self-imposed isolation of Japan in 1639.  The country would remain isolated until Commodore Matthew Perry and his “Black Ships” arrived off the coast of Japan in 1853. Japan was forced to open itself to the West, but its people resented the concessions it was forced to give to America and other European nations. This resentment of Western Imperialism would evolve into excessive nationalism and motivate Japan to prosperity by the end of the 19th century.  These events are recorded on the Bible Timeline with World History during that time period.  

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The End of the Sengoku Period (1467-1603) and the Rise of the Tokugawa Era (1603–1868)

The first shōgun of the Tokugawa shogunate was named Tokugawa Ieyasu,

During the early 1550s, Oda Nobunaga overcame rival daimyōs and started the long process of unifying a country during the last years of the Sengoku Period. He and his army terrorized the Japanese people, but were able to bring stability to a country torn by civil war. He and his soldiers were armed with Portuguese arquebuses which they used to the full extent to subdue daimyōs, samurais, and civilians alike. Oda Nobunaga died in 1582 after he was forced to commit seppuku by one of his vassals. He was succeeded by one of his generals, the brilliant and equally ruthless Toyotomi Hideyoshi.

By 1590, Toyotomi Hideyoshi had defeated most of his enemies to become the most powerful man in Japan. Brutal yet more flexible than his predecessor, he consolidated power by playing off rivals until they eliminated each other. He viewed European missionaries with suspicion and started the persecution of Christians in his domain. He led the Japanese invasion of Korea which devastated the kingdom during the last years of his reign.

Toyotomi Hideyoshi died in 1598 and was succeeded by his young son who was to be guided by appointed regents until he came of age. The regents and various generals promptly ignored him and soon embroiled themselves in a civil war. They came to a head in the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600 which was won by Tokugawa Ieyasu and his supporters. He also defeated Hideyori, Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s son, when the boy came of age.

Tokugawa Ieyasu took for himself the prefectures of Nara, Kyoto, Edo, Nagasaki, and Osaka as fiefs. He ruled as shōgun (military dictator) starting in 1603, but soon abdicated in favor of his son Hidetada. Although he was technically a retired shogun, he still wielded considerable power up until his death in 1616.

Portuguese, Spanish, English, and Dutch traders and evangelists flocked to Japan during the early years of the Tokugawa shogunate. The Europeans played each other off in their quest to dominate the Japanese market and acquire converts, but their strategies soon backfired. Tokugawa Ieyasu had always been wary of foreign and Christian influence on his subjects, leading him to prohibit trading and evangelization activities in his domain. (The only exception to the rule were the Dutch traders whom the Japanese perceived as pragmatic and cooperative.) In 1614, Japanese and European Christians alike were persecuted. The shōgun’s heirs maintained the anti-Christian policies until the end of the Tokugawa shogunate in the 19th century.

The Tokugawa shogunate’s anti-foreign stance hardened during the mid-1600s. The deep-seated suspicion on foreigners led the shōgun to impose the edicts of seclusion (sakoku) starting in 1635. Japanese citizens were not allowed to travel abroad, while foreign traders and European missionaries were ordered to leave Japan. Those who left and dare to come back were punished with death. The shōgun ordered the destruction of large ships to discourage the Japanese people from leaving the country.

Although feudal and backward, the Tokugawa era was generally a period marked by peace and stability. Though Japan still had an emperor, he and his family faded into obscurity.  The shōgun was the head of the bakufu (military dictatorship) and was at the top of the hierarchy. He was followed by various daimyōs and samurais. Those who were at the bottom of the hierarchy (peasants, artisans, and merchants) were expected to toe the line.

Cracks in the Tokugawa shogunate started to appear during the 1830s when Japan was plagued by droughts. Famine set in, and people soon died of starvation. The hoarding done by ruthless traders led to the rising prices of grain. Starving people engaged in protests, but these assemblies sometimes led to riots. The bakufu implemented reforms, but these measures often came too late.

Even samurais were not immune to changing fortunes during the last decades of the Tokugawa shogunate. They were forced to work other jobs, as well as contribute a part of their stipend to an incompetent government. Unable to maintain them any longer, some daimyōs were forced to let their samurais go. These masterless samurais (rōnins) sometimes became bodyguards of wealthier people or mercenaries.

Japan remained irresistible to the West despite its self-imposed isolation. Britain tried to initiate trade but was rebuffed by the bakufu. During the late 1700s and early 1800s, news of Russia’s colonization of eastern Siberia reached Japan. The bakufu prepared for any eventuality by tightening its control on the Ainus of Hokkaido. American ships also made attempts to land in Japan but were turned away.

Japan’s isolation was finally lifted when the American Commodore Matthew Perry and his flotilla of steamships arrived in the Edo Bay on July 8, 1853. Perry insisted on delivering a letter from President Fillmore to the “emperor” (it was, in fact, the shōgun). The letter contained a request for trade and diplomatic relations, shelter and provisions for stranded American whalers, and coal for their ships. The presence of the large steamships and the volley of the gunner’s practice shots compelled the Japanese authorities to receive Commodore Perry’s letter. Perry and his flotilla left, but not before promising to return to Japan one year later.

Despite Japan’s isolation, the bakufu was aware of China’s defeat and humiliation at the hands of Britain and her allies during the First Opium War. They feared that the Americans would do something similar, so some daimyōs counseled the shogun to resist any attempts to open the country to foreigners. Other daimyōs, however, acknowledged that Japan had remained isolated for so long that its weapons and army had become outdated. They simply would not stand a chance against foreign forces in the event of an invasion.

Perry and his flotilla returned in early 1534. Representatives of the bakufu signed the Treaty of Kanagawa with Perry but gave few concessions to their American counterparts. Perry, however, was satisfied with the outcome and left Japan in the same year. His visit was followed by Townsend Harris who became the first American consul general in Japan. He succeeded in forcing the bakufu to sign the Treaty of Shimoda in 1858 after insinuating that the humiliations China suffered might also happen to Japan if it did not comply.

The Treaty of Shimoda included terms that were advantageous only to Western nations. Apart from trade concessions, the treaty also granted Europeans and Americans the right to reside in or near the treaty ports and enjoy the benefit of extraterritoriality. Although it was not included in the treaty, foreigners began to bring Christianity back to Japan’s shores. Cheap goods from the West flooded Japan’s market, rendering local manufacturers unable to compete.

Japan was also forced to set the tariff on imported goods at a measly 5 percent, as well as grant the Most Favored Nation status on all Western nations which traded in its ports. What angered the Japanese authorities most was the fact that they were bound to this treaty forever. There was also no way for them to revise the terms without the consent of all concerned foreign powers.

The enemies of the Tokugawa shōgun felt that the bakufu had conceded much in dealing with the “barbarians.” They believed that this behavior was unbecoming of a shōgun and that he no longer held the privilege to rule them. Enemies of the Tokugawa shōgun—particularly the daimyōs of Satsuma and Chōshū—saw their chance to topple him during the early 1860s. They formed the Satchō Alliance with the intent of restoring the emperor to the seat of power after getting rid of the shōgun.

The humiliations Japan suffered after the bakufu signed the Treaty of Shimoda gave way to nationalism. To counter their feelings of inferiority, traditionalists asserted that Japanese culture and religion were superior to those of the “barbarian West.” The clamor to restore the emperor also became louder among the Japanese population.

Taking a cue from China, the nation embarked on its own “self-strengthening” program. Intellectuals learned about Western science and technology and translated Western books into Japanese. For the first time, Japanese students were allowed to leave their homeland and travel to the United States to study. Samurais were also sent by their daimyōs abroad to learn Western military tactics and acquire knowledge on Western weapons. Unlike in China, however, Japan’s “self-strengthening” program was a success story.

The Fall of the Tokugawa Shogunate

As years passed, the anti-foreign feelings of nationalistic Japanese often manifested in violence against Europeans and Americans living in the country. Foreign envoys promptly protested to the bakufu, but the shōgun’s position was already tenuous among his people so there was nothing he could do. The foreigners retaliated by bombarding Shimonoseki (the stronghold of the Chōshū clan) and Kagoshima (the stronghold of the Satsuma clan). The Satsuma clan secretly befriended the British to get them to stop the bombardment, and claimed that members of their clan had managed to drive the enemy away. This was done so they could save face.

The Satsuma clan was now subdued, so the Chōshū clan took up the slack. In 1863, the emperor decided to once again isolate Japan and gave the foreigners an ultimatum. When the foreigners refused to leave, the Chōshū clan fired upon Western ships off the coast of Shimonoseki. The American, Dutch, English, and French fleet promptly retaliated and overcame the Chōshū clan in September 1864.

Frustrated in their efforts to dislodge the foreigners, the Satsuma and Chōshū daimyō focused on toppling the Tokugawa shogunate and strengthening the Japanese military instead. The shogun died in September 1866, and it was followed by the emperor in the following year. This emboldened the daimyōs to convince the new shōgun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, to retire. The shōgun agreed and allowed the restoration of Japan’s Yamato Dynasty to the seat of power. The 15-year old Prince Mutsuhito acceded the throne and took the name Emperor Meiji (“Enlightened One”) in 1868.

A short civil war (the Boshin War) ensued when the former shogun refused to give up his extensive lands and return them to the crown. The Tokugawa forces, however, were soon defeated and the family was forced to give up their claims to the lands. From then on, the Emperor and his ministers were free to implement reforms and usher Japan into the 20th century.


Photo by: Kanō Tan’yūOsaka Castle main tower, Public Domain, Link

Meyer, Milton Walter. Japan: A Concise History. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2012.

Nish, Ian H. A Short History of Japan. New York: Praeger, 1968.

Perez, Louis G. A History of Japan. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1998.


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