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Crisis of Tokugawa Regime in Japan

In what ways did the political, social, and economic system of the
Tokugawa lead to the disintegration of the Bakuhan system?

From years 1603 to 1869, the country of Japan was under the rule of the
Tokugawa Shogunate. During this period of Japanese history, the country
suffered from a feudal military dictatorship under the rule of the shoguns
of the Tokugawa family. The Feudal period in Japan, also known as the
Edo period, was a time when the caste system was very firmly fixed and
only the feudal lords and the samurai stood on top. Japan also became
isolated because of foreign policies rejecting any offers from western
nations to trade with the exception of the Dutch. Eventually due to the
strict social orders and the exploitation of the peasant class by the
government Japan became socially unstable. It was until the arrival of the
United States naval ships led by Commodore Matthew Perry that Japan
was forced to end its isolation from the western empires. This event
created crisis within the country leading to the downfall of the Tokugawa
Shogunate. Opposition forces in Japan used the humiliating intrusion of
foreigners as an excuse to overthrow the discredited shogun and the
Tokugawa bakufu.

The Tokugawa Shogunate consolidated its power during the reigns of

Ieyasu (1603-1605), his son Hidetada (1605-1623), and his grandson

Crisis of Tokugawa Regime in Japan

Iemitsu (1623-1651). The Tokugawa Shogunate was the most effective
government that Japan had experienced so far in its history, but it was not
a centralized monarchy. The shogun shared power and authority with the
local daimyo in a system known as Bakuhan. Bakuhan was a combination
of the bakufu, which functioned as the central government, and the han,
feudal domains under the control of the daimyo. The Tokugawa family
had direct control over one quarter of the productive land in the country.
The rest were dominated by the daimyo, who had their own governments,
castle towns, warrior armies, tax and land systems, and courts.

The fall of the Tokugawa Shogunate was a result of many events such as
wars, rebellion, and treaties that caused the end of the Tokugawa
rule. Historians of Japan and modernity agree to a great extent that the
history of modern Japan begins with the crise de regime of the Tokugawa
Shogunate, the military rulers of Japan from the year 1600. It is therefore
appropriate to explore the relevant themes of political instability, foreign
contact and inner contradictions that eventually led to the decline and
subsequent collapse of this regime, while at the same time giving these
factors a closer look in order to understand whether the bakuhan system
could have been preserved had the Tokugawa leaders followed an
alternate policy.


Crisis of Tokugawa Regime in Japan

Historians debate the importance of the events that occur during the fall
of the Tokugawa but they all agree that foreign invasion, economic crisis,
and revolutions are major reasons for the collapse of the feudal
government. The Tokugawa Shogunate was abolished in year 1868 when
the imperialist rebels defeated the Shogunate forces and restored the
power to the emperor of Japan.

There has been a debate regarding the nature of the Tokugawa Shogunate,
i.e., whether it was feudal or not. Most historians, such as Barrington
Moore Jr. and others have argued that Tokugawa Japan was a feudal state,
which came to an end due to Western influences, leading to

E.H. Norman opines that a society in which political power derived

exclusively from control over agricultural produce and the agricultural
producer, regardless of the extent of sub-infeudation, might fairly be
called feudal, even though he disagrees with regard to the impact of the

However, recently some Western scholars like Andrew Gordon and some
Japanese historians such as Asakawa and Fukuda Tokuzo have denied
that a state so highly centralized as Tokugawa Japan could be described

Crisis of Tokugawa Regime in Japan

as feudal.

Fairbank has adopted the terminology of the Japanese social historian,

Professor Honjo, who spoke of early or decentralized feudalism and late
or centralized feudalism to describe the nature of the Tokugawa state as
centralized feudalism. He says that in Japan, a centralization of political
power occurred in the late 16th century but through the use of a basic
feudal pattern.

The real power was in the hands of a dynastic military leader or shogun
(bakufu). The political system of the bakufu was called the bakuhan
(military government). The shogunate implied a distinctly separate set of
government for the Emperor and his court, and exercised supreme
administrative authority. This office had been hereditary in the Tokugawa
family since 1603.

The Tokugawas also set out to create institutions that would stabilize
political and social conditions and thereby prevent a lapse back into
feudal warfare. Among their officials, the most powerful were the
councillors of the state (Roju), called the elders, who were responsible
for national policy and for supervision of the court and the shoguns own


Crisis of Tokugawa Regime in Japan

domain. The shogunate classified the various daimyo into categories in
terms of to the lords relationship to the Tokugawa family.

The Tokugawa society was Confucian based. Confucian concepts of

natural law and social hierarchy were applied in determining not only
social control and status, but also a moral order and code of conduct for
all classes. This also became the basis of the four-fold class system,
known as shi-no-ko-sho (warrior-farmer-artisan-merchant), which placed
samurai, farmer, artisan, and merchant in a natural order of merit and

Samurai were at the top stage of the social hierarchical order. The
samurai were part of the ruling class consisting of shogun, daimyo, and
his retainers. The samurai enjoyed consistency of status, wealth, and
power. There were three ranks of samurai upper, middle, and lower.

Below them were the peasants, who were accorded second place in
society because they produced the basic essential food. However, they
were exploited and were deprived of many privileges. The peasants had
been regarded by the rulers as tax-producing machines, whose surplus
crops were to be swallowed by those in power. They were even forbidden
to drink tea of superior quality.

Crisis of Tokugawa Regime in Japan

The peasants were followed by artisans. The carpenter, the mechanic, the
weaver, artist, sculptor, crafts-worker, were all included in this class. The
artisans mostly were in the same kind of predicament as the peasants.

The chonin (merchants) were at the lowest stage of the social ladder. The
chonin were not given a high status because according to Confucian
ethics, a trader lived on the labour of others. They were not allowed to
used palanquins, wear silk or carry swords.

All the four classes were assigned their distinct roles and were not
allowed to interact with each other. Each class was facing social,
economic, and psychological problems and were unhappy in the
Tokugawa regime.

Samurai was unhappy because he held superior social status but had
declined financially. In order to cope up with the increasing economic
difficulties, the daimyo-samurai had become dependent upon the rich
peasants and merchants. This indebtedness of the top social class to the
lowest class obviously undermined the whole theory and spirit of the
Tokugawa system. Artisans and peasants were unhappy because of
poverty and shortage of food. The chief cause of chonin's discontent was

Crisis of Tokugawa Regime in Japan

their inferior social status and the richest of them suffered from various
interferences, high taxes and other restrictions by the bakufu.

Thus, the rise of a daimyo-ronin-chonin alliance with a distinct antibakuhan character and a common cause to end the Tokugawa regime,
according to Barrington Moore Jr., represented a breakdown of the rigid
social hierarchies that was part of the system of what John K. Fairbank
called centralized feudalism.

Nathaniel Peffer claimed that the nice balance of the Tokugawa clan, the
lesser feudal lords and their attendant samurai, the peasants, artisans and
merchants could be kept steady only as long as all the weights in the scale
were even. However, according to him, the emergence of the Japanese
version of the European bourgeoisie from amongst the merchant classes
was the real deal-breaker in the entire precariously balanced equation.

According to W.G. Beasley, the immediate background to the threat Japan

faced from the Western powers was the latters trade with China. The
isolationist policy of the Tokugawa regime with regard to foreign trade
was envisaged in the policy of sakoku which aimed to show hostility and
aggression to any foreigner in Japanese waters.


Crisis of Tokugawa Regime in Japan

Among historians, there have been two main schools of opinion on what
really caused the downfall of the Shogunate.

The first school believed that the Tokugawa system of government might
have continued essentially unchanged had it not been for the forcible
opening of the closed door by the United States and other countries. It
had been customary for these historians to refer to the primitive nature of
Japan's economy before 1867 and to treat the Tokugawa period as though
it were an era of almost stagnation. Therefore, the school of opinion
argued that it was only the coming of the foreigners that undermined the
authority of the Tokugawa government and so ruined it.

The second school of opinion, however, emphasized the undoubted fact

that the whole regime had been under indirect attack from many
directions inside Japan long before Perry arrived.

In the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, rapid economic growth had produced
an advanced economy capable of ready transformation into an entirely
new political and social order.

By the middle of the 19th century, the antiquated political system and
absurd political and social philosophy of the Tokugawa were more than

Crisis of Tokugawa Regime in Japan

200 years out of date. The simple concept of the division of classes into
rulers, warriors and commoners had little relation to Japan of the 19th
century with its crowded cities, rich merchants, restless samurai and
discontent peasantry.

Despite the division of the land into a large number of feudal fiefs, the
people had developed a strong sense of national consciousness. The
growth of nationalism and the development of a modern commercial
economy had made Japan ready for the more efficient political forms of
the modern nation.

The coming of the foreigners, symbolized by the Perry expedition,

merely provided the final impulse towards a collapse that was

The theory that the main cause of the Shogunate's collapse was the forced
opening of Japan to foreigners cannot be accepted, but the 2nd school of
opinion has inclined to go too far in underestimating the impact of
successful Western pressure on Japan in the 1850's. It is hardly believable
that the Shogunate would have collapsed had it been able to resist the
demands made by the United States, Russia, Great Britain and other
countries of the West. The early Tokugawa succeeded in creating a

Crisis of Tokugawa Regime in Japan

system capable of preserving political stability that the machine was still
running relatively smooth. It was therefore necessary for an external
pressure to disrupt it. This pressure provided by the foreigners was
consequently fatal to the power of the Tokugawa which had already been
weakened by other forces.

The economic weakening of the Tokugawa feudalism had been serious by

the early 18th century. Moreover, the Shogunate itself was on the whole
better off than most of the daimyo. It could debase the currency to its own
advantage and it controlled all the great cities and most of the
economically advanced parts of the country. It would be hard to argue
that the Shogunate fell from the economic difficulties, all the easier. The
downfall of the Tokugawa regime was thus the result of the conjunction
of 2 processes:
the internal decay of feudal society
pressure from the Western nations

The defeat of the Tokugawa government was a result of the anger

Japanese people had of the western invasion, economic crisis, and abuses
of their Shogunate rulers. In 1853 a fleet of U.S. warships steamed into
Tokyo Bay and demanded permission to establish trade and diplomatic

Crisis of Tokugawa Regime in Japan

relations with Japan. This event is considered by John Whitney Hall to be
critical to the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate of Japan.

The 19th century Western impact on Japan led first to the opening of the
country to foreign commerce and then in 1868 to the end of the
Tokugawa hegemony. According to Hall, the western pressure was
acutely felt first as a threat to national security and secondly as a stimulus
to reform. The Japanese at that time felt that seclusion from foreign
policies was good because they needed nothing from the western nations.
They also feared that the western nations would invade their nation and
colonize their territory. The Japanese knew what happened to the Chinese
and how they were forced to sign unequal treaties during the Opium
Wars. For these reasons, the people of Japan saw this western invasion as
dangerous for their country and they blamed the Tokugawa Shogunate for
being weak.

It was only through the coincidence of these forces of internal decay and
external pressure that contributed to the so-called Meiji Restoration in

However, before Japan could come to a firm policy one way or another,
the West intervened to decide the issue. The United States, by taking

Crisis of Tokugawa Regime in Japan

California in the Mexican War (1846-48), had become a Pacific power
practically overnight. In 1853, a fleet of American warships commanded
by Commodore Perry delivered a conciliatory letter from the president to
the Japanese head of state and a more belligerent letter written by Perry
himself. The gist of Perry's message was that Japan had better open its
doors to the West or the United States would kick down those doors and
force Japan to trade.

The bakuhan system was created with flaws from the outset, and the
precarious position that the Tokugawas enjoyed was bound to collapse at
some point. Compounding these were various other factors financial
instability, the arrival of Western powers, the unequal treaties, feudal
nature of society, the daimyo-ronin-chonin alliance, the sankin-kotai
system and the opposition of certain daimyo to Tokugawa rule led to a
situation where it was only a matter of time for the Tokugawa to fall. It is
unsure whether or not the Tokugawas would have survived had events in
the two decades prior to the deposition been handled differently.
However, it does not seem likely that such a significant difference would
have been made, as the Tokugawa Shogunate dug its own grave as events
continued on course. Hence, the fall of the Tokugawa bakuhan system
was the result of a variety of internal and external factors, at some points

Crisis of Tokugawa Regime in Japan

working together while at others being especially distinct in themselves,
and paved the way for the eventual Meiji Restoration.