The Polity of the Tokugawa Era
The Polity of the Tokugawa Eraby J.S.A. Elisonas Editor's Note: This article was originally written for Japan Society's previous site for educators, "Journey through Japan," in 2003.
The polity of the Tokugawa era was a multifaceted but comprehensive governmental organism. That organism is commonly called the bakuhan system, after its key constituents—the bakufu, a military term meaning “general headquarters” but used historically for a national government headed by a shogun (hence synonymous with the word shogunate); and the multiple han, the domains of provincial lords known as daimyo, “great names.” In this context, the word shogun signifies much more than its literal meaning, “a general.” It refers to the government’s chief executive, the supreme power-holder in the state. Another title held by the shogun, “pillar of the military,” reflected the fact that the government he led was run by members of the military class, that is, by samurai.
Under discussion in this essay is the bakufu or shogunate founded by Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616) in the year 1603. Ieyasu was the first of a long line of Tokugawa shoguns. His hereditary successors, members of the Tokugawa family, exercised ultimate power over Japan until 1868. Because the city of Edo (now Tokyo) was its capital, the Tokugawa shogunate is frequently identified as the Edo bakufu, and the period of Tokugawa rule is often labeled the Edo era. But the shoguns did not rule the country by themselves. Rather, the bakufu and the daimyo domains or han controlled Japan together.
According to the definition current in the Tokugawa era, a lord was considered to be a daimyo if his domains had an annual productivity equivalent to at least 10,000 koku of rice (one koku equals 5.1 bushels). In other words, all daimyo were lords from the samurai class, but not all samurai lords were daimyo. The daimyo were classified in three categories according to their relationship with the main line of the Tokugawa family. Highest in status were the shinpan (collateral) lords, the descendants of the founder Ieyasu’s younger sons. The existence of these branch families safeguarded the continuity of the Tokugawa lineage, but their members were not usually appointed to the shogunate’s governing councils. The daimyo called fudai (hereditary vassals) came from families that had owed allegiance to their Tokugawa overlord before Ieyasu’s decisive victory at the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600 and had risen to prominence in his service. These were the bulwarks of the bakufu. They were placed in domains that surrounded Edo or protected other strategic areas of Japan, and were entrusted with the highest posts in the shogunate’s official authority structure. The tozama (outside lords) were the third category of daimyo. They were from families that had achieved daimyo status prior to the Battle of Sekigahara, independently of the Tokugawa, to whom they did not swear fealty until after that crucial combat. Literally and figuratively, they were kept on the margins of the shogun’s realm. In a word, the shinpan were of Tokugawa stock. The fudai owed everything to the Tokugawa. And the tozama were outweighed by the rest of the daimyo—at the start, in any event; for at the end (as seen in the essay on the Meiji Restoration) it was the intrusion of a few prominent tozama domains into national politics that upset the balance of the bakuhan system and led to its collapse.
The daimyo domains varied greatly in size. The largest han, estimated to yield 1,025,000 koku of rice a year, was the domain of the Maeda, a tozama family, with its capital at Kanazawa in Kaga Province on the Sea of Japan. The rest ran the gamut from large, province-sized dominions to minuscule enclaves in the territories of more powerful lords. Their number fluctuated. The names of no less than 603 different han were recorded over the long course of the Tokugawa period, but no more than 270 or so ever existed at the same time; at the very end of the era, in 1865, there were 266. Each was in theory a realm in itself, run by its daimyo from his castle, but all were in actuality overshadowed by the bakufu. The shogun had the power to make and unmake daimyo. He could move them from one part of the country to another. He could increase or reduce the size of their domains. And he could confiscate those domains altogether for a real or perceived infraction of his rules. As a contemporary simile put it, the daimyo were the shogun’s “potted plants.”
The material foundations of the Tokugawa shogunate’s predominance within the polity were military and economic. As noted in the preceding essay, “The Epoch of Unification,” Tokugawa Ieyasu won the day at Sekigahara and domination over Japan by mustering the bigger battalions, and the military establishment of his successors remained numerically preponderant throughout the Edo era. The shogunal family’s direct vassals (samurai not of daimyo rank) made up by far the largest and—on paper, at least— strongest armed force in Japan. According to an official survey from the year 1722, some 5,200 hatamoto (bannermen), men who had the right to be received in audience by the shogun, were on the bakufu’s rosters, and they were supplemented by more than 17,000 gokenin (shogunal housemen), who did not enjoy that privilege. When the numerous retainers of these samurai, the shogun’s rear vassals, were added, the sum total, if only according to the popular saying, was “eighty thousand bannermen.” Moreover, the shogunate’s authority to mobilize the military contingents of all daimyo as it saw fit was unquestioned; until the 1860s, none of the han dared to contravene that right and oppose the bakufu overtly.
In large part, the shogunate was able to finance its extensive commitments because it was the country’s greatest landowner. Immediately after his great victory at Sekigahara in 1600, Ieyasu augmented his direct holdings—at two and a half million koku already the most extensive and productive in Japan—by confiscating the territories of his enemies. At one fell swoop, his possessions increased to four million koku. His successors added to the shogunal demesne (that is, the real property held by the shogun in his own right) by various means, including large-scale reclamation schemes, over the years. Toward the end of the Tokugawa bakufu’s first century, in 1697, the annual productive capacity of the shogun’s granary lands was calculated at 4,346,500 koku, almost 17 percent of the country’s total. In principle (though not in universal practice, as the principle was not fully realizable), these lands were managed by daikan (intendants) drawn from the ranks of the shogun’s own vassal samurai. Although shogunal holdings were concentrated in the central and northern part of Honshu, they were found throughout the country, being distributed over forty-seven of Japan’s sixty-six provinces. Additional lands with a productivity of some three million koku were set apart for the sustenance of the shogun’s bannermen.
Wealth also flowed into the shogunate’s coffers from the gold, silver, and copper mines that it exploited directly. What is more, the bakufu directly administered and taxed Japan’s most important cities. These were Edo, its capital, which grew into a metropolis of a million people under the shogun’s rule; Kyoto, the ancient imperial city, which retained its standing as Japan’s cultural capital into the eighteenth century and was also a great manufacturing center, famous for its silks and other high-quality goods; and Osaka, popularly known as “the realm’s pantry,” a harbor through which much of the nation’s agricultural and commercial product was distributed—not to speak of Nagasaki, the nation’s only international port city.
Just as important were the ritual and symbolic foundations of the shogunate’s authority. Tokugawa Ieyasu was Japan’s most powerful general but nothing more until 1603, when he obtained the title of shogun—more formally, seii taishôgun, Barbarian-Conquering Generalissimo—which was the time-honored attribute of the military leader having greatest authority. This supreme title was awarded to him by the emperor—more properly, tennô, Heavenly Sovereign—whose sovereignty over Japan, while it existed in name only, nevertheless was universally revered, because it was anchored deep in the myth of the country’s divine genesis. In other words, the shogun obtained his identity as a secular ruler from Japan’s sacred monarch. In order to demonstrate that the country’s government would remain hereditarily in Tokugawa hands, Ieyasu resigned the shogunal title after only two years, in 1605, to the benefit of his son Hidetada (1579-1632); and Hidetada in turn passed it on to his son Iemitsu (1604-1651) in 1623. The premature succession was duly ratified by imperial investiture.
Especially these first three Tokugawa shoguns made sure they cultivated the roots of their institutional legitimacy, embracing but at the same time exploiting the imperial court. Hidetada and Iemitsu, in particular, are known for their spectacular state journeys from Edo to Kyoto, where they traveled with a supporting cast of thousands, ostensibly to pay their respects to the tennô. Ceremony and splendid display surrounded their every step in the imperial city. No doubt the most elaborate of their extravaganzas took place in 1626 at Nijô Castle, the lavishly refurbished headquarters of the bakufu in Kyoto, where the retired shogun Hidetada and the ruling shogun Iemitsu were both on hand to host an extraordinary visit by Emperor Go-Mizunoo (1596-1680; reigned 1611-1629). No expense was spared on the production. Save for those who had been left on guard in the Kantô region, the shogunate’s heartland in eastern Japan, practically all the daimyo were in attendance, having been ordered by the bakufu to present themselves; so this was in effect a show of allegiance to the Tokugawa staged before the backdrop of an act of obeisance to the emperor.
Reveling in the aura of majesty generated by the court of Kyoto, the Tokugawa shoguns showered its denizens with gold, silver, rare perfumes, deeds to property, and other tangible signs of esteem. But their generosity had a price: They imposed controls on the imperial establishment. As early as 1615, the shogunate promulgated a seventeen-article set of “Regulations for the Imperial Palace and Aristocracy,” famously defining the sovereign’s prime occupation as learning and the arts, and prescribing even such trivial matters as the seating order at court. Then, in 1627, the bakufu made an issue of the court’s having failed to follow the “Regulations” in awarding certain Buddhist clerics the right to wear the purple robes that designated high ecclesiastical rank. Two years later, it nullified all such awards made since 1615, thereby asserting the primacy of shogunal law over imperial prerogative. The most intrusive demonstration of the Tokugawa family’s ascendancy, however, was no doubt the marriage of Shogun Hidetada’s daughter, Tokugawa Masako (1607-1678), to Emperor Go-Mizunoo. Their child, Princess Okiko (1624-1696), acceded to the throne in 1629, upon her father’s sudden abdication in the wake of the “Purple Robe Incident,” and reigned until 1643 as Meishô Tennô, the first regnant empress in Japan since the eighth century. In short, when Shogun Iemitsu made his grand progress to the Heavenly Sovereign’s palace in Kyoto in 1634, he came to visit his niece. Clearly, the Tokugawa rulers had achieved more than mere legitimacy.
Indeed, the shogunate’s founding father, Tokugawa Ieyasu, had been proclaimed a god. On his deathbed in 1616, Ieyasu allegedly declared that he would manifest himself as a deity in order to continue extending his protection over the land he had pacified, commanding: “Let a year pass, and build a small chapel in the Nikkô Mountains as an oratory where I shall be venerated.” In 1617 the imperial court officially decreed the late shogun’s elevation to divine status under the name Tôshô Daigongen, “Great Manifest Incarnation Shining in the East.” His earthly remains were transported to Nikkô, a holy mountain site about 75 miles north of Edo, where a shrine was consecrated to him on the first anniversary of his death.
The designation chosen for Ieyasu reflected the syncretic strain in Japanese religion. His title of divinity embedded him in both the Buddhist and the Shinto traditions, as the term gongen means an avatar, defined in the Japanese context as a Buddha’s manifestation on earth in bodily form as a Shinto deity. Ieyasu was identified as the avatar of the Buddha Yakushi, the Great Physician who cures all the world’s ills. At the same time, he was venerated as Tôshô Daishinkun, “Great Divine Lord Shining in the East,” a Shintoist name juxtaposing him with Tenshô Daijin, “Great Deity Shining in the Sky”—that is, the Sun Goddess Amaterasu, ancestress of the imperial lineage. In time, the scholar Arai Hakuseki (1657-1725) was to equate the veneration of Ieyasu with that of Heaven, the ultimate source of ethics and validation of politics, thereby adding a Confucian dimension and sanction to his cult.
In early 1635, the third shogun, Tokugawa Iemitsu, began the construction project that would within a year and a half transform the oratory enshrining his grandfather’s spirit into a grandiose mausoleum complex—the Nikkô Tôshôgû—which inspires admiration if not awe even today as one of Japan’s most stupendous edifices. The pilgrimages undertaken by successive shoguns who traveled from Edo to Nikkô with great retinues of daimyo and bannermen were among the bakufu’s most splendid and costly public rituals. The shogunal and collateral families of the Tokugawa built other shrines named Tôshôgû in Edo and elsewhere. Following their lead, various daimyo consecrated shrines to Tôshô Daigongen in their castle towns. It is estimated that no fewer than five hundred shrines, large and small, in which Ieyasu was worshipped as a deity existed in the Tokugawa era.
Fostering the cult of Ieyasu was not the only area of activity where the daimyo followed the shogunate’s lead. Far from it, they did so in general. To be sure, their domains were autonomous in the sense that they possessed the right of internal self-government. Each han was administered according to its own laws. Each had its own armed force, made up of samurai who were the daimyo’s liegemen. Each collected its own taxes. Each regimented its own population. For all that, they did not enjoy political freedom of action. They operated within a framework defined by the shogunate.
That the han mimicked the bakufu was no accident. The Tokugawa prescribed its model to the daimyo. The final article of the “Regulations for Military Houses” as revised under Shogun Iemitsu in 1635 put it in black and white: “In the various provinces and localities, observance shall abide by the laws of Edo in everything.” First issued in 1615, in Ieyasu’s lifetime, these “Regulations” told the daimyo that they could not undertake repairs on their castles or plan to be married without its prior approval; cautioned them that addiction to sex and indulgence in gambling were the foundations of ruin; determined what kind of clothing was proper and who was or was not permitted to ride in sedan chairs; and put the lords under various other constraints and obligations. The revised version of 1635 additionally instructed them to keep their roads, post stations, ferries, and bridges in good repair so that there would be no tie-ups anywhere; moreover, they were prohibited from instituting toll stations or imposing new embargoes. Conducive to the free flow of trade throughout the country though these regulations may have been, they were clear intrusions into the autonomous sphere of the daimyo domains.
The most significant of the new regulations of 1635, however, was the one requiring the daimyo to take turns in attending on the shogun in Edo, which institutionalized the sankin kôtai (alternate attendance) system. Eventually, this requirement came to mean that most daimyo spent every other year not in their domains but in the shogun’s capital. Their wives and children lived in Edo all the time, being in effect hostages of the shogunate. A daimyo was therefore obliged to lead a double life or, rather, to keep up two establishments, maintaining both a provincial castle and a metropolitan residence, not to mention detached villas and other dependencies. As though being required to flaunt his lordly status in two separate domiciles—his han and Edo— were not wasteful enough, a daimyo could not do without a large entourage and an ostentatious display on his yearly journeys back and forth between them. In the case of the more distant domains, this meant a continuous road show for many hundreds of miles, and was ruinously expensive.
The shogunate did not tax the provincial lords directly. But it certainly found other ways to bleed them economically. The daimyo were compelled to provide funds, labor, and materials for the grand construction projects of the bakufu. This was the case from 1603, the very first year of the shogunate’s existence, when the “great names” were made to take a hand in transforming Edo from a small town into a city worthy of being called the shogun’s capital. The ambitious design required reshaping Edo’s topographical contours to provide space for the townspeople’s residential quarters and simultaneously to clear ground for the enlargement of Edo Castle, the center of the shogun’s Japan. What was involved was nothing less than leveling a line of hills and filling in an inlet of Edo Bay. When work on the castle’s expansion got under way in 1604, the greatest names of western Japan had the construction of the massive stonework embankments apportioned to them. The vast citadel was built in stages and not finished until 1638; at one point, no fewer than 68 daimyo were actively engaged in this project. Edo Castle was but one example. The bakufu also charged the “great names” with building its Osaka fortress and a good half dozen other castles, not to speak of such great engineering schemes as the diversion of the course of the Tone River. At the shogun’s behest the daimyo moved mountains.
And yet the shogun was not an unmitigated despot. The bakufu was not an autocratic but a bureaucratic organization. On the whole, it was a prudent master of the realm—although the best word for its attitude might be “paternalistic.” The shogunate was well aware of two basic rules of Confucianism, the dominant East Asian political philosophy. One of those principles insisted that “nourishing the people” was the essential business of government—that the populace must be guaranteed a secure livelihood. The other affirmed that natural disasters were portents from Heaven, signaling that society was in disorder—that they indicated government’s failure to live up to its obligations. When calamities did strike and its public performance was called to account by that very fact, the shogunate had to demonstrate that it was indeed the true, legitimate, and fully sanctioned ruler of the entire realm—earthquakes, typhoons, and the 1732 plague of locusts notwithstanding. Taking its national responsibilities seriously, the bakufu mounted relief efforts not only in its own territories but also in those of the daimyo. It distributed rice in famine-afflicted areas, subsidized flood control projects, and made loans available to financially troubled domains. On balance, it surely gave as much as it took. Moreover, it was more than willing to share the task of governing the country with the han.
To be sure, in that regard it was moved not by benevolence but by necessity. The pool of competent administrators at the bakufu’s direct disposal, drawn from the shogun’s own vassal samurai, was large but not limitless. The shogunate could not do without the active assistance of the daimyo, whose domains after all covered the greater part of the country. Nothing illustrates this fact better than the bakufu’s practice of entrusting the administration of the more remote portions of the shogun’s lands to daimyo that were located in their proximity. At any given time in the eighteenth century, about 15 percent of all shogunal granary lands were apt to be in the hands of such trustees. In northern Honshu—rich rice-producing regions such as Echigo Province (now Niigata Prefecture)— where almost a third of the demesne was located, the proportion of delegated trust territories was close to 30 percent. Certainly, in the early stages of its existence, the bakufu aggrandized itself at the expense of the daimyo. But it could never contemplate doing away with them altogether. It knew that creating a unitary system of national administration staffed by its own men was an impossibility—there were not enough of them to go around.
The bakufu conducted its operations through an elaborate bureaucratic machinery. At its highest level in Edo, two policy-making boards assisted the shogun. The first was the so-called Senior Council, a group of four or five rôjû (elders) selected from among the greatest of the fudai, the hereditary vassal daimyo. Such a council had existed informally under various names from the foundation of the shogunate, but it was not institutionalized until its duties were defined at the end of the year 1635. This group was charged with national affairs. Among its major tasks was overseeing the imperial court and the daimyo. Such important departments as the offices of the kanjô bugyô (commissioners of finance), which supervised the administration of shogunal domains and storehouses, and of the several ongoku bugyô (commissioners of distant territories), including the township magistrates of Kyoto and Osaka, were under the Senior Council’s jurisdiction. The other key group was the Junior Council, composed of three to five wakadoshiyori (junior elders), who were hereditary vassals of somewhat lesser stature than the rôjû. This board, formally instituted in 1662, was in charge of the vast corps of bannermen and shogunal housemen who staffed the bakufu’s headquarters and manned the guard units at Edo Castle. The shogun’s physicians, veterinarians, pharmacists, astrologers, Confucian professors, and the like also came under the purview of the Junior Council. Both councils may be regarded as the sounding boards of fudai interests.
One official stood above all bakufu councils—the tairô or Great Elder, who was responsible to the shogun alone. This was a position filled only under special circumstances, not a permanent fixture in the bakufu’s table of organization. In theory, the Great Elder was a chief magistrate with extraordinary powers, one who exercised general jurisdiction and control over the shogunate’s policy, but most of the thirteen men who occupied it between 1638 and 1866 acted in an advisory capacity. Only one can be said to have wielded real power—Ii Naosuke (1815-1860), the lord of the great fudai domain of Hikone on the shore of Lake Biwa, who was appointed Great Elder in 1858 as the storm clouds of foreign intervention in Japanese affairs were brewing over the bakufu. Ii Tairô used his dictatorial powers to sign treaties of commerce and friendship with the United States and four other imperialist countries in spite of the shogunate’s failure to secure approval from the “heavenly sovereign” in Kyoto; forced the question of the shogunal succession in favor of his own candidate; conducted a bloody purge of his political opponents; and for his trouble was killed by a band of super-patriotic rogue samurai.
The post of soba yônin (literally, “attendant factotum,” usually rendered as Grand Chamberlain), an office inaugurated in 1681 and held by two or more persons concomitantly until 1730, was meant to act as a link to assist communication between the shogun and the Senior Council. Because of their proximity to the shogun, however, some of the chamberlains acquired more influence than the rôjû. The most notorious case was Tanuma Okitsugu (1719-1788), the factotum of the tenth shogun, Tokugawa Yoshiharu (1737-1786; ruled from 1760). Not content with using his favorite to bypass the rôjû, Yoshiharu introduced him into their midst, appointing Tanuma to the Senior Council despite his lowly family background. For almost two decades, until he was dismissed and put under house arrest upon his patron’s death, Tanuma seemed all-powerful. His name became a byword for corruption, and his bold economic policies were widely blamed for the crop failures, farmers’ uprisings, and other calamities that plagued Japan in the 1770s and 1780s. Modern scholars tend to view his bad reputation as a reflection of the ill will borne toward him by the daimyo—most notably the fudai lords—who resented the strongman’s pursuit of the shogunate’s interests at the expense of their own.
This is merely a rough outline of the shogunate’s huge administrative apparatus and a short list of the most important of its thousands of officials. The smaller machineries of the han in the aggregate occupied additional tens of thousands. These legions of functionaries were all of the samurai class, men whose hereditary profession, nominally, was arms. Obviously—as one old warhorse remarked grumpily as early as the 1620s—in an age of peace the abacus counted more than the sword, the taxman brought home more than the warrior, and one got promoted for smooth talk rather than rough deeds. In the course of the Tokugawa era the samurai were domesticated. They retained their monopoly on the right to inflict violence, but they lost their medieval ferocity. Bureaucracy, not arms, became their profession.
The daimyo ruled their han by virtue of their investiture by the shogun, the overlord to whom they were obliged to pledge allegiance before assuming their position as domanial lords. In exchange for the oath of fealty, and on condition of good behavior, they received the inestimable benefit of a privileged place in a stable world; for it was under Ieyasu, we must remember, that the process of Japan’s unification after a century of violence was completed, and under his Tokugawa successors that the country enjoyed two and a quarter centuries of peace. Between 1638, when the Shimabara Rebellion was put down bloodily, and 1863, when two tozama domains, Chôshû (situated on the strategic Strait of Shimonoseki) and Satsuma (in southernmost Kyushu), were involved in armed hostilities with foreign powers, there was no military conflict worth noting in Japan. In other words, the daimyo gave up their freedom of action for something arguably of greater value —security. They were no longer living in a world of perpetual conflict, as they had been in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, a period historians call sengoku, “country at war.”
Those lords whose ancestors had crossed the great divide of the year 1600 successfully, establishing themselves as daimyo in the realm of the Tokugawa, had inherited corps of samurai assembled by their forefathers in an age of incessant combat that faded into ever more distant memory as the Edo period progressed. These retainers and their descendants remained on the duty rosters of the han long after there was anything left for them to do militarily. They all had to be given at least the semblance of employment. Ostensibly, they earned their stipends as functionaries in the domain’s administration. For all too many of these samurai, however, there was little to do administratively, either.
The typical daimyo domain’s table of organization had a complexity akin to the bakufu’s in form, even if the scope of operations was incomparably smaller and simpler. For instance, from 1632 on the shogunate employed four to five ômetsuke (inspectors general) charged with ensuring that daimyo, bannermen, and other shogunal officials obeyed its regulations. According to official records from the 1660s, the Hirado han—a small to middling tozama domain located at the northwestern tip of Kyushu—also employed five inspectors general to make sure that its internal regulations were observed. As was the case in the bakufu, one of this domain’s inspectors general concurrently served as its shûmon-aratame yaku (religious inquisitor), an office instituted in the shogunate in 1640 and replicated in domains from Mutsu Province in the Far North to Satsuma in the Deep South. Its mission was the complete eradication of Christianity in Japan. To assist him in the pursuit of that task in the domain’s villages, the inquisitor of Hirado could count on nine samurai officials called zaizai oshi, “local enforcers.” This looks like a fine example of an overblown bureaucratic structure.
Surely there was no need to eradicate Christianity where it had never taken root, and that was the case in most han. But, in fact, if the existence of an anti-Christian inquisition could be justified anywhere, it was in the Hirado domain. An old pirate harbor, Hirado had been one of the first places visited by the Jesuit priest Francis Xavier on the mid-sixteenth-century journey that made him famous as the “Apostle of Japan.” He and the European missionaries who followed him there had, in spite of suffering many discouragements, gained a modicum of success in their work of conversion. Even in the 1660s, after half a century of persecution, the domain’s authorities could not be sure that all traces of the foreign religion had been wiped out. So they stayed vigilant and, indeed, in this matter they had little choice. The shogunate required them to keep careful watch for subversive, un-Japanese activities and their alien fomenters.
The persecution of Christianity was initiated by a “Statement on the Expulsion of the Padres” issued in early 1614 over Shogun Hidetada’s seal but drafted on the orders of Ieyasu himself. This document defined Japan as the “Land of the Gods and the Land of the Buddhas.” It stressed, moreover, that the whole realm followed the Confucian “Way of Humanity and Righteousness.” In other words, Shinto, the spiritual core of the native tradition, was amalgamated with the sublime elements of the Indian and Chinese traditions to form the national polity of Japan. This unique polity was under attack, the shogunate’s decree asserted, by the Christian missionaries—“that notorious band of evildoers, the padres”—who not only defied governmental regulations but ridiculed Shinto, slandered Buddhism, and violated Confucian morality. The conclusion was that under a virtuous ruler—“a recipient of the Mandate of Heaven”—the disseminators of the “pernicious” Christian doctrine must be expelled or executed.
The daimyo and the regional agents of the bakufu correctly interpreted this decree as an order not only to rid Japan of the missionaries but also to stamp out the adherents of their faith. At the time, there were approximately 300,000 Christians in the country. The priests were harried from the land or tracked down and martyred. Although most of the Japanese Christians abandoned their religion and were registered as parishioners in Buddhist temples, those who refused to recant and died for their faith in the ensuing two and a half centuries of persecution numbered in the thousands. The Christian religion never died out in Japan, as small communities of farmers and fishermen kept its fading tradition alive in remote locations, such as the islands offshore from Hirado. Having been inspired by the regime’s founding father, the deified Ieyasu, the decrees prohibiting Christianity acquired the character of the Tokugawa shogunate’s ancestral law. Their inertia was evidently difficult to counteract. They survived the fall of the bakufu by five years, remaining on the books of the new Meiji government until 1873.
Missionaries were not the only foreigners to suffer under the Tokugawa; so did their fellow Catholics, the Portuguese traders. These merchants, whose ships had first called at Kyushu ports in the early 1540s, enriched themselves through their monopoly on the carrying trade from China, importing Chinese silk to Japan through the harbor of Nagasaki. Sanctioned by the Tokugawa bakufu, which itself profited from the silk trade through monopolistic arrangements made with a select group of Japanese merchants as early as 1604, the Portuguese pursued their profitable activities well into the fourth decade of the seventeenth century.
Two circumstances doomed the Portuguese. One was the arrival of the Dutch, their deadly competitors in Asian waters. When the Dutch United East India Company established a trading factory in Hirado in 1609, a clear alternative to the traditional relationship with the Portuguese became apparent to the Japanese rulers. The second fatal factor was that unlike the Dutch, who were guided strictly by the Protestant spirit and did not proselytize, the Portuguese traders were Catholics who continued to aid the Christian mission even after it was banned by the bakufu, smuggling priests into Japan and supplying them with funds and provisions. Intent on putting the foreigners under close control, the shogunal authorities in 1636 had an artificial island, called Deshima, built in Nagasaki harbor as a place for isolating Portuguese traders who called at that port.
In the late autumn of the following year, a massive peasant uprising broke out in Amakusa and Shimabara, an area of Kyushu that had been heavily Christianized in the sixteenth century. The shogunate blamed the revolt on the pernicious nature of the Christian ideology. Actually, the mass of the population of that area had fallen away from the faith years previously as a result of the persecution unleashed among them by a daimyo who renounced the faith in 1612. The leaders of the uprising used the symbols of a residual Christianity, availing themselves of the powerful motivating force of messianism. But it was extortionate local taxation, not a perverse foreign religion, that drove the farmers to despair and rebellion.
The bakufu mobilized more than 120,000 men, most of them provided by the various daimyo of Kyushu, to crush the Shimabara Rebellion. The bulk of the rebels entrenched themselves with their women and children in a castle on Ariake Bay, where they were put under siege. The Dutch assisted the shogunate’s effort by bombarding the fortress from the sea. When at length the defense crumbled in April 1638, the survivors were not spared. The number of the “Christians” put to death in the course of the uprising is said to have totaled 37,000. But the bakufu’s sense of just retribution cut both ways. The affected area’s two daimyo were convicted of misgovernment. One of them was decapitated. The other was deprived of his lands. Mindful of his honor as a samurai, he committed suicide.
It is clear that the Christian peril was a propagandistic image used by the bakufu to rationalize its general hostility to foreign—European, Russian, and eventually also American—influences. Attendant on the Tokugawa peace was the policy of national seclusion. In the 1630s, beginning in the year 1633, the shogunate issued a series of edicts that practically eliminated its own nationals’ travel beyond Japan’s borders and rigorously controlled foreigners’ entry within. No doubt the Shimabara Rebellion provoked the fifth and final decree in that series, which was promulgated in August 1639. Denouncing those who continued to abet the Christian cause in Japan in full knowledge of the illegality of their actions, and pointing to the insurrection of the “sectarian rabble who plotted evil and were accordingly executed,” the bakufu told the Portuguese never again to cross the sea in their ships, terminating their traffic with Japan.
The Dutch were permitted to stay in the country. In 1641, however, they were transferred from their factory in Hirado to Deshima, the place of confinement originally built for their Catholic rivals. Their presence there, constricted as it was, guaranteed that a tenuous link with Europe was maintained by Japan even if the Tokugawa shogunate had turned the realm it ruled into sakoku, a “closed country.” The national seclusion continued until 1853, when Commodore Matthew Perry and his squadron of the U.S. Navy broke down the walls of Japan’s isolation once and for all, exposing the inability of the “Barbarian-Conquering Generalissimo” to perform the duty specified by his title. The shogunate took the unprecedented and, as it proved, fatal step of consulting the daimyo on how to meet the crisis. Disapproving comments and demands for reform were among the responses even of the “collateral” lords. Thus Perry opened and the bakufu itself widened the breach for the pro-imperial zealots and the anti-Tokugawa “outside” lords who were to bring down the shogunate and the bakuhan system in the Meiji Restoration of 1868.
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Orchids and Rocks
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The Rebellions of the Hōgen and Heiji Eras
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