Tokugawa Shogunate

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Tokugawa Shogunate

Type of Government

During the Tokugawa period (1603–1868); also known as the Edo period), Japan was under the control of a military regime, or shogunate. The leader of the nation’s dominant warrior clan, known as the shogun, served as head of state, head of government and commander of the armed forces, with the assistance of a council of advisors. The capital city, Edo (present-day Tokyo), and the surrounding territory were divided into urban and suburban districts, each led by an appointed governor. Rural areas were partitioned into semi-autonomous fiefdoms controlled by feudal lords and their families. Though an imperial lineage existed, governmental power was vested in the warrior clans while the emperor served a symbolic role.


The Japanese archipelago, which contains more than 3,000 individual islands, has been occupied continuously since the Paleolithic era. The earliest period described by historians is the Jomon period (c. 7500–c. 250 BC), during which Japan’s hunter-gatherer tribes coalesced through military conquest and the development of agricultural communities based on rice cultivation.

During the Yayoi period (c. 250 BC–AD 250), hereditary clans of warriors dominated and organized the populace under military regimes. Through generations of military competition, an imperial lineage emerged. Japanese emperors are believed to be descendents of Ameterasu Omi-Kami, a sun-goddess of the native Shinto religion. Though traditional history asserts that the first emperor, known by the honorific Jimmu (god-king) Tenno (heavenly sovereign), took the throne in the seventh century BC, the quasi-mythical status of Japan’s early emperors makes verification difficult.

Throughout the Kofun period (c. 250–710), immigrants from China introduced cultural innovations to Japanese society. Japan developed a written language based on Chinese characters and also adopted Chinese-style clothing and arts. The Buddhist religion and the teachings of the Chinese philosopher Confucius (551–479 BC) were imported toward the end of the Kofun period and were adopted by elite society.

The government was led by emperors from the Yamato and Soga clans. The Soga clan gained their position through marriage to the Yamato Emperor Kimmei (509–571). Prince Shotoku Taishi (573–621) of the Soga clan was one of the most influential leaders of the period and led a series of reforms that created a strong imperial government modeled after China’s Sui Dynasty. Shotoku Taishi is credited with developing the seventeen-article code of conduct that served as the basic legal and ethical model for the government.

In 645 the Fujiwara clan displaced the Soga to become the most powerful family in the nation. The Fujiwara instituted the “Taika Reforms,” a set of initiatives that strengthened the central government by reforming the system of land ownership and centralizing the tax system. The empire grew under the Fujiwara, and in 710 a capital city was established at Nara.

During the Nara period (710–784) and the Heian period (784–1185), Japanese culture flourished with the development of art, literature, theatre, and philosophy. However, as the empire grew, the central government was unable to control the nation’s noble clans. As the larger clans began to function as autonomous states, they recruited and trained soldiers to serve as military retainers. It was during this period that the bushi (samurai, or warrior-nobles) emerged as the nation’s dominant social caste.

By the twelfth century, the Fujiwara, Minamoto, and Taira clans were competing for control of the nation. During the Gempei War (1180–1185), the Minamoto clan defeated the Taira and Fujiwara to establish a centralized military regime. The Fujiwara leader Minamoto Yoritomo (1147–1199) became the nation’s first shogun (supreme general) and developed a feudal system, known as the bakufu, in which the nation was divided into military fiefdoms. The shogunate remained in power until 1333, when Emperor Go-Daigo (1287–1339) organized a coup that removed the Minamoto clan. The imperial coup was short lived, however, as a new shogunate, under the leadership of Ashikaga Takauji (1305–1358), took power in 1336.

From 1336 to 1568, under the Ashikaga clan, the shogunate failed to consolidate power, and most of the nation’s noble clans maintained relative autonomy. In 1542 European merchants introduced firearms to Japan. The new weaponry, and alliances with European powers, stimulated conflict between the clans. In 1590, after an extended militaristic period, Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537–1598) succeeded in uniting the country under a new military regime. After Toyotomi’s death, military adviser Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543–1616) seized power for the Tokugawa clan and installed himself as shogun. The capital city was moved to Edo, and a strong, central government was organized around a succession of Tokugawa shoguns.

Structure of Government

The Tokugawa government was a military dictatorship under the direction of the shogun (supreme general), who was the senior leader of the nation’s dominant clan. The imperial aristocracy remained in place but was divested of power and served as a symbolic office to legitimize the authority of the shogun, who served as head of state, head of government, and commander of the armed forces. The shogun had the power to appoint and remove members from the government, institute law by decree, and negotiate treaties and agreements with foreign governments.

The central government, known as the bakufu (shogunate), was administered as an authoritarian dictatorship disseminated through a military aristocracy. The shogun was assisted by the roju (chief elders), a council of ministers with authority over the nation’s executive departments. The roju were appointed directly by the shogun and were responsible for creating and implementing legislation and supervising public works projects. The roju also supervised all lower-level administrators including the bugyo, officials with authority over particular segments of the populace, such as farmers, monks, or prisoners.

The capital region of Edo was led by three machi-bugyo (city mayors) who handled all administrative issues and supervised hundreds of civil servants and junior administrators. Two machi-bugyos took turns governing the central portions of the city in alternating months while a third machi-bugyo was designated to supervise new territories at the periphery of the city.

Machi-bugyos were aided by yoriki (assistants), who were citizens “deputized” as civil servants. In addition to the yoriki, the machi-bugyos relied on na-nushi (land owners) and toshi-yori (town elders) to serve as local leaders in the city’s townships. While the machi-bugyos were responsible for supervising the city’s general population, additional bugyos were assigned to supervise other portions of the population, such as the religious community.

The territory surrounding the capital region was partitioned into semi-autonomous, military fiefdoms led by diamyos (feudal lords). The diamyos were divided into three classes, kokushu, ryoshu, and joshu, based on the physical location and economic significance of their territories. The diamyos exercised complete autonomy in local governance but were subordinate to the shogun and the central administration. Within each fiefdom, the diamyo would establish an administration composed of military vassals, who owed allegiance to the diamyo in the same way that the diamyos owed allegiance to the shogun.

The central government maintained a special body of laws that applied only to diamyos and members of the samurai class. In order to keep the noble clans responsive to the central government, diamyos and their families were required to maintain a second residence in Edo and to stay at the capital for a portion of every second year. The cost of maintaining two households and the physical proximity of government supervision kept the diamyos from developing into secessionist factions.

The bakufu did not contain an independent judicial branch; local leaders were responsible for apprehending criminals and determining punishment. Peasants and samurai living in the fiefdoms were under the authority of the diamyo, who determined sentencing and appointed retainers to act as peacekeepers. In urban districts, the machi-bugyos were the final authority in criminal and civil disputes. Machi-bugyos appointed citizens to serve as police and supervised the operation of detention centers.

Political Parties and Factions

Japanese culture during the Tokugawa period was based on a system of social castes. The leading caste, known as the bushi or shimigin, consisted of samurai retainers, diamyo, administrative central leaders, and the shogun. Only diamyos were permitted to own property, train in military skills, and carry weapons. The shimigin were also the elite, intellectual class in society, as most bushi were required to train in literature, arts, and philosophy. Samurai who decided to leave the service of their diamyo were forced to forfeit their weapons and join the peasantry.

More than eighty percent of the population belonged to the peasant or nomin caste, which was directly below the samurai caste. Though the nomin were exalted as the “core” of Japanese society, they did not enjoy the same rights as members of the elite class. Members of the nomin were subject to severe regulations regarding taxation, travel, and social activity. To influence the government, members of the nomin gathered into social clubs to gain influence over local leaders.

Artisans and craftsmen were members of the komin class. The komin were generally confined to live and work in certain urban districts, though many were employed or retained by diamyos. Below the komin were members of the merchant or shomin class, who were reviled for their participation in commerce, which was considered a disreputable trade. The shomin and komin gathered into social clubs or cliques but were not permitted to form labor unions.

Beneath the shomin class were members of the eta (filthy) and hinin (untouchable) classes. The eta and hinin worked in positions that violated accepted Buddhist moral principles. Though the eta and hinin were not highly regarded, they performed services that were in high demand, including prostitution, the preparation of meat, and executions. Both the eta and hinin were required to live and work only in certain urban districts that were restricted to the general population.

Major Events

Upon seizing power, the immediate goal of the Tokugawa was to create a strong, centralized bureaucracy that would be immune to the power struggles that weakened previous shogunates. In order to accomplish this goal, the Tokugawa used the distribution of land to control fiefdoms and to limit the power of any clan that posed a threat to the shogun.

In addition to controlling the diamyos, the shogunate was also concerned about the danger of foreign influence. The Tokugawa restricted trade with most European nations, though they retained alliances with China and the Netherlands. The Tokugawa also restricted foreign literature, art, and other cultural material. In 1624 the Tokugawa made it illegal for citizens to leave the country and forbade those living abroad to return.

In 1614 the Tokugawa made Buddhism the official state cult and banned alternative and foreign religions. The Tokugawa militia imprisoned and executed thousands of Japanese Christians, converted by missionaries in previous periods, and instituted a campaign to locate and destroy all foreign religious texts.

The strict isolationism of Tokugawa Japan prevented the Japanese from integrating technological and social advancements into society and eventually proved disastrous to the government. However, isolation also allowed Japanese culture to develop along a unique path in music, art, and literature.

In the eighteenth century, the stability of the government was threatened by economic turmoil and popular unrest. The Tokugawa remained in power but were forced to contend with factionalism among the diamyos. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries foreign governments, including the United States and Russia, attempted to convince the Tokugawa to allow foreign trade. The Tokugawa refused diplomatic envoys until 1853, when Commodore Matthew Perry (1794–1858) and a squadron of military vessels brought a message from President Millard Fillmore (1800–1874) that the United States would use force unless Japan agreed to open their ports to U.S. trade. In the 1854 Convention of Kanagawa, the shogunate agreed to allow limited trade access to the United States.

The nation’s economy continued to deteriorate, leading to popular dissent, protests, and rising unemployment. Many citizens lobbied the shogunate to remove trade and travel restrictions and to allow the nation to reap the financial and cultural benefit of engagement with other nations. Eventually, citizen groups united behind the young Emperor Meiji (1852–1912), to stage a coup d’etat that removed the Tokugawa bakufu from power. During the reign of Emperor Meiji, the government enacted numerous reforms that disassembled the feudal system and introduced a representative, constitutional monarchy.


The Tokugawa bakufu was the most successful of Japan’s feudal governments but also hindered progress toward industrialization. During the period known as the Meiji Restoration, which began in 1868, the central government, military, and workforce were transformed through the introduction of technology, popular representation, and international influence. Japan achieve modernization quickly, and by the end of the nineteenth century joined European powers in attempting to expand its territorial holdings and establish colonies in Asia and the Pacific.

During Japan’s colonial period, the military began to usurp power in the government. Over the following century, military leaders dictated the path of Japan’s foreign relations, eventually leading the nation to support Germany during World War II. Japan suffered a major defeat at the hands of the Allied powers and enduring the only atomic assault in global history. In the wake of World War II, Japan reorganized its government, adopting a parliamentary democracy and a pacifist policy with regard to foreign relations. In the post-colonial period, a renewed focus on industrialization and export enabled Japan to become one of the most economically prosperous and influential nations in the world.

McClain, James L. et al. “Edo and Paris: Urban Life and the State in the Early Modern Era.” Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997.

Matsunosuke, Nishiyama. “Edo Culture: Daily Life and Diversions in Urban Japan, 1600–1868.” Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1997.

Sorensen, André. “The Making of Urban Japan: Cities and Planning from Edo to the Twenty-First Century.” New York: Routledge, 2002.