GUEST POST: Culture and Politics in Tokugawa Japan, Part 1

Country in Chains

We’ve got a new guest post today from writer Carson Rogers. I love Japanese history but know very little about it. Luckily Carson does, and today he begins what looks like a two-part series on the politics and culture of the Edo/Tokugawa period. Today’s installment looks at the political structure of that period and how it shaped Japanese society and culture. Part 2 will look at the rise of the Japanese merchant class and the effect it had on Japanese culture. Enjoy!

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by Carson Rogers

The goal of this two part series is to reflect on the impact that politics, economic structure, and class has on a culture and its aesthetics. To do so we will look at the case of Tokugawa Japan (1600-1862), an epoch also known as the Edo period. Japan during this period saw massive changes to its politics, social dynamics, and economics, all of which resulted in an almost completely new culture developing out of the old. While certain traditions of Japanese culture remained, new parts of the culture flourished, and new aesthetics were created that would become some of historical Japan’s most identifiable cultural products. This series will explore how these cultural products and aesthetics came into creation, and how the politics, social dynamics, economics, and class structure of Tokugawa Japan had such a defining effect on the art being produced.

Tokugawa Japan emerged out of the Sengoku period, or the Age of Warring States (1467-1568). It was a time in which Japan was fractured, split up between multiple warlord factions that were constantly in conflict with each other. This period of perpetual warfare was brought to an end by the three great unifiers, Japan’s most important historical figures. The first is Oda Nobunaga (1534-1582), a strong military tactician who succeeded in gaining control over almost half of the country. In 1582, one of Nobunaga’s retainers enacted a coup that resulted in his death, and started a conflict among his retainers for claim to the lands he had conquered. The one who emerged victorious was Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-1598), who had remained loyal to Nobunaga during the coup. He was a former peasant who quickly rose in the ranks to become an important retainer. He avenged his former master in 1582, at the Battle of Yamazaki. In 1583, Hideyoshi cemented himself as the successor to his former lord and would go on to complete Nobunaga’s goal of conquering all of Japan.

Hideyoshi ruled over Japan until his death in 1598. His wish was for his son to succeed him, but the boy was 5 at the time of Hideyoshi’s death. So Hideyoshi selected five of his retainers to serve as a council that would actually control the government. This created an inevitable struggle for power, which one of the council elders, Tokugawa Ieyasu, used to create division and gain control for himself. By 1599, the country was split into two factions vying for power, one of which was led by Tokugawa Ieyasu. In 1600, his forces won the Battle of Sekigahara and Ieyasu became the new ruler of Japan.


An Edo period screen depicting the Battle of Sekigahara (Wikimedia Commons)

This was the beginning of the Tokugawa period, which would impressively continue without interruption until 1862. Ieyasu took the title of Shogun in 1603. This was the pinnacle position in Japan’s military government, known as the Bakufu. While the Shogun was technically head of the military, in the Bakufu the military had taken over all administrative duties of the state, meaning the Shogun was in reality the ruler of the country. While by definition the Bakufu was a military dictatorship, in characteristic it was really more like an absolute monarchy, like the ones we see in Europe during the same time period. The Tokugawa bloodline would occupy the Shogunate for the whole Edo period, and had absolute control over Japanese politics and culture. Ieyasu abdicated the position of Shogun in 1605, giving it to his son, but continued to run the country from behind the scenes. In doing so he headed off any potential succession crisis and ensured his family’s ruling position. One way in which Ieyasu and his successors kept a tight grasp on power, was through manipulating Japan’s social structure and culture in ways that locked everyone into their positions in society and ensured that feelings of dissent had a hard time taking root among the Japanese people.


Portrait of Tokugawa Ieyasu by 17th century Japanese painter Kanō Tan’yū (Wikimedia Commons)

The social structure of Tokugawa Japan was extremely hierarchical, based on Neo-Confucian philosophy. At the top was the samurai, the ruling class that made up the Bakufu. Next were the peasants, honoured for their position as providers of subsistence for the country. Artisans came next because of their skills of production, and occupying the lowest position was the merchant class. It was hard, but possible, for a peasant to become a merchant or artisan, but in the Tokugawa period it was impossible for any of them to become a samurai, which had not been the case previously. The social structure also went beyond class, and Neo-Confucian ideas of hierarchy played a major role in people’s personal lives as well. There was a set hierarchy for 5 specific relationships: father-son, ruler-subject, husband-wife, brother-brother, and friend-friend. Hierarchy dominated Japanese culture at this time, and played a major role in shaping it. Obviously the intense pressure placed on individuals through this network of enforced hierarchies created internal conflict. A person would feel conflicted between their duty and obligation, called giri, and their human feelings, ninjo. This feeling was at the heart of a lot of Japanese art of the Tokugawa period, and would be a driving factor in its culture.

These hierarchies, and one’s adherence to them, were a way for the Tokugawa government to keep tight control over their subjects. There were many other policies they used to enforce these hierarchies though, including tight controls on how much an individual could move up within their own class. The Samurai class was tightly controlled, and many Tokugawa policies went into making sure no one who might want to replace them would be able to amass enough power or influence to do so. The Tokugawa regime had control over samurais’ residences, clothing, transport, seating positions in the capitol, and their ability to rise and fall within their own class. If a samurai had multiple sons, only one could succeed him in taking over his house, and by Tokugawa law the others could not start their own houses, as a measure to limit the total number of samurai houses.

The feudal lords of Japan were known as daimyo. These were the land holding samurai who served as retainers to the Shogun. Tokugawa policy was heavily concerned with controlling these daimyo so that they never gained more power than they needed. They were split into two groups; the fodai, those who were loyal to the Tokugawa during their struggle for control of Japan, and the tozama, those who became loyal only after Ieyasu’s ascent to Shogun. The fodai were the only samurai allowed to take part in the Shogunate government.

The Tokugawa regime exercised complete control over the lives of the daimyo. Inspectors from the Bakufu were sent to their domains to ensure no one there was plotting against the Shogun. Marriages between different houses needed Tokugawa approval. Tokugawa Iemitsu (1604-1651) would solidify this control even further, by allowing the Shogunate to freely confiscate daimyos’ land and force them to trade land. The Shogunate’s ultimate control over the daimyo was sankin kotai, or alternate attendance. The lords were required to spend every other year residing in Edo (present day Tokyo), the capitol of Tokugawa Japan. They were also required to leave their spouse and children in the capital even when they returned to their domains. The policy of alternate attendance kept the daimyo away from their domains, under the close inspection of the Shogun, and provided a constant supply of hostages. The travel required from one’s domain to the capitol, upkeep of multiple properties, and the cost of keeping up appearances in Edo, all worked its effect on draining the coffers of the daimyos, leaving them little excess funds to put toward things that may increase their influence. Alternate attendance was the system that helped the Tokugawa government dominate the members of the ruling class.


“View of Edo,” a folding screen from the 17th century–Edo Castle is depicted on the right side (Wikimedia Commons)

Cultural controls were also needed though to keep the lower classes under Tokugawa control as well. The most impactful cultural policy of the Tokugawa was sakoku, translated roughly as “country in chains”. In 1633, the Tokugawa government barred their citizens from leaving the country, cut off communications with almost all other countries, and tightly censored what cultural products could be brought in from abroad. They only communicated and traded with China, Korea, and the Dutch during this period, and cultural exchange was extremely minimal. Sakoku was meant to give the Tokugawa government complete control over their populace. They completely controlled politics and society inside Japan, and they were not going to allow outside influences to undermine that control.

The goal of the Tokugawa government’s political and cultural policies was ultimate control, but they ended up having an indirect effect on the development of Japanese culture and aesthetics. Both the alternate attendance and closed country policies helped push Japanese culture into a new epoch.

The policy of alternate attendance turned Edo into the cultural hub of the country. Kyoto (pop. 350,000), and Osaka (pop. 360,000), played their own important roles in shaping Japanese culture in this period, but it was Edo that defined it. With at least half of the Japanese elite forced to live in the capital every year, and their families forced to live there full time, Edo’s population rose to over one million. The preponderance of elites within the city meant a high demand for cultural products, and a need for those who produced them. This ended up creating a large cultural economy within Edo.

Alternate attendance impacted Tokugawa culture in other ways. The policy meant that roads had to be able to accommodate daimyos traveling from their prefectures to Edo on a regular basis, which meant the highway system in Japan was always under constant improvement and maintenance. This not only benefited the elite, but most Japanese people, as the improved roads made traveling a viable and popular option for many. The newfound connectedness of the country resulted in a Japanese lingua franca, based on the Edo dialect. Also, the popular culture of Edo would be carried back with the elites when they returned to their domains. Aesthetics and products that were popular in Edo soon started to become popular across the whole nation. Alternate attendance was intended to help control the daimyos, but it also resulted in making Edo the cultural hub of the country. This inevitably produced Japan’s first mass culture, after Edo’s tastes began making their way throughout the rest of the country.

The closed country policy, meanwhile, allowed that burgeoning mass culture to exist in a bubble, at a time in the world’s history when European culture was forcibly spreading itself around the globe. Sakoku allowed Japanese culture to develop for more than 200 years with minimal influence from outside sources. This enabled Japan to produce its own unique culture focused on its own aesthetics and techniques, developing them to the point of near perfection. The closed country policy is what makes Tokugawa Japan such an interesting case study. It makes for a culture developing entirely along its own lines, its only influences coming from within as outside sources are largely ignored.

Culture is not the absolute product of politics, but before it is produced it has to be filtered through politics, class, social dynamics, and economics. The Tokugawa Shogunate had absolute control over all aspects of Japanese life, and it set the boundaries for how Japanese culture would develop. The Shogunate’s policies were meant to control the population, but had the unintended effect of helping Japanese culture flourish. In this part of the series, we have seen how the system of the Tokugawa Shogunate ended up shaping culture from the top down. The next installment will focus on the art that was produced, the economics and class dynamics that helped it thrive, and the social conditions that gave rise to the floating world.

Carson Rogers is a writer and librarian living in the Canadian prairies. His writing focuses on politics, history, and culture.