Tokugawa Japan


Tokugawa Ieyasu (b. 1543, d. 1616) unified Japan by defeating his rivals at the Battle of Sekighara in 1600. In 1603, the Emperor appointed him Shogun, supreme military commander, and Ieyasu’s aspirations of ruling a unified Japan were fulfilled. Despite a rivalry from the Tozama clan, who had opposed Ieyasu’s authority from the beginning, the Pax Edona, “Peace of Edo,” was maintained for two hundred and fifty years (1603-1853).

However, enjoyment of this peace was never intended for all. Over the course of their reign, Ieyasu and his successors imposed several austere and ruthless tactics for maintaining Pax Edona. One such tactic was sakoku, “closed country,” enacted in 1639, which cloistered Japan by barring all foreign access.

The Tokugawa eventually realized that they needed to be open to some foreign information, so they commissioned a man-made island, called Dejima, to be built in the port of Nagasaki, and opened it to Dutch and Chinese traders exclusively. Despite this minor laxity in austerity, the Tokugawas were still weary of foreign influences gaining a foothold in Japan, especially Catholicism, which could potentially divide the authority of the Emperor with that of the Pope.

By 1603, roughly 200,000 Christians were living in Japan. Ieyasu had nearly all of them executed – ironically, most often by crucifixion. Guns were also banned, which an earlier rival, Oda Nobunaga, had embraced, because they were considered a threat to the solemn and traditional use of the katana. With the advent of guns, samurai would no longer be the only ones who could kill effectively.

With the peace maintained for two and a half centuries, the warrior class, accustomed to a century of warfare during the previous Warring States period, began to bide their time educating themselves in matters other than sword fighting. They became scholars, known as “Samurai of the Brush,” many of whom became administrators in Edo, the capital during that period.

In the frontier regions of the country, feudal lords, called daimyo, grew restless. Among them, the Tozama, being defeated by Ieyasu at the end of the Warring States period, were excluded from central government and seditiously began to trade with foreigners and bolster their forces.

Growing weary of these recalcitrant daimyo, Ieyasu imposed a “hostage system” in which he forced the daimyo and their families to live in Edo under his circumspection, in alternating years – one year spent on their estates, the next spent in the city. He also required that they bring with them their annual rice revenue and forfeit it to the Shogun. In the years when they were at home, a member of each daimyo’s family would be held hostage in Edo.

This system, introduced by Ieyasu and maintained by subsequent Tokugawa Shoguns for the duration of the Pax Edona, stifled any daimyo’s ability to subvert the Shogun or amass any significant wealth.

Sakoku, the prohibition on guns, the hostage system, and the persecution of Christians were the primary touchstones of the Tokugawa’s Pax Edona. Although it successfully pacified the nation during this epoch, it would eventually disintegrate when in 1853 US Commodore Matthew Perry fired his infamous cannons against the port of Nagasaki, initiating the reopening of Japan to the West.

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