Activity 6: About feudal Japan
The Tokugawa era
For 253 years, Japan was ruled by one powerful clan, the Tokugawas, until 1868, when the emperor was restored to power. Think about how this one family may have maintained control over the position of shogun for so long. How much significance would you place on military power as a means of maintaining this dominance? Check your conclusions by reading the article by Marcia Yonemoto (see the resources section). The Answers section contains a summary of her arguments.
- Using the Tokugawa era as a guide, why might the feudal era have continued for so long in Japan? What reasons can you suggest? Think of several and then read a Japanese story that has been popular since the feudal era, The tale of the 47 ronin. This can be accessed in various places on the internet.
- The tale of the 47 ronin is a literary trope and figures abundantly in plays. It has has entered Japanese folklore and as such it has been incorporated into numerous kabuki plays, performed as bunraku puppet shows for children, captured in paintings and woodblock prints, and later depicted in films and televisions shows. This enduring popularity demonstrates the value of this story as representative of values and attitudes that many people presume to have existed in Japan. However, the story does not represent contemporary behaviour and ways of thinking as only a small fraction of the samurai who could have joined this specific vendetta joined; most abstained. This is crucial: there was a big gap between ideal representations and actual behaviour of samurai. More often than not samurai were self-interested and held little personal loyalty to their lords. The story highlights the double power structure of the warrior society: samurai were first obedient to their daimyô, not to the shogun – but they could not breach the laws of the bakufu without punishment.
- What does it reveal to you about values and attitudes that may have assisted the longevity of the Tokugawa regime?
- Make notes to remind you of terms you or your students need to know in order to understand the story.
- Speculate on possible reasons why any society might change little over time. Based on this and what you have read so far, take a few minutes now and hypothesise five possible reasons why Japan seems to have remained such a hierarchical, militaristic and conservative society during most of the feudal era, then check the answers provided.
The Treaty of Kanagawa
The arrival of a USA trade delegation in 1853, the forcible opening of Japan and the signing of the Treaty of Kanagawa, the first treaty with a Western nation, created divisions within Japan. Some daimyô wanted to industrialise. Others did not. The matter was settled, after some fighting, by the 1868 Meiji Restoration. Powerful pro-industrialisation daimyô returned the emperor to real power and used his authority to justify major reforms, including the introduction of Western education. The feudal era was over and much sooner than it was in places like China or Russia.
The first page of the
Treaty of Kanagawa, 1858
Which of the five hypotheses listed below is the most supported?
- Balance of power: the shogun had direct control over one fourth of the economic resources (rice) of the land; he was by far the most powerful of the warlords, and from this minority position was able, by division, to control the rest of the warlords (daimyô). Real power lay with the shoguns and local daimyô so the central authority, the emperor, could exercise little influence.
- The norms of behaviour for samurai did not encourage new ideas and thoughts.
- Division between daimyô: between trusted daimyô and less trusted daimyô. The daimyô were not a unified lot; the bakufu had divided trust (fudai daimyô) and less trusted vassals (tozama daimyô); only the first participate in the bakufu; their fiefs were strategically placed to control if need be, others (who ultimately would be instigators of Meiji). There was a rigid social class system in feudal Japan and new ideas from those wanting to climb the social ladder did not emerge.
- Control over foreign trade: Japan was generally closed to outsiders so there were few new ideas from outside Japan. By controlling foreign trade, the bakufu made it impossible for the daimyô to make alliances with outside powers – a cause of constant instability in feudal Europe; obviously the fact that Japan was isolated by the sea made this possible.
- Respect for authority: if peasants were respecting authority it was probably more because ritual displays of authority (processions, official temples) impressed in them the notion that political order was natural, than because they were told so by Confucian or Buddhist discourses.
Check the answers provided.
You should now have enough basic knowledge to begin planning student learning activities in more detail. If not, read some brief overviews about feudal Japan in sources such as a textbook from your school library, or an online overview for students such as Feudal Japan – East Asia History for Kids.
First, the term feudalism needs to be understood in the context of Japan's history. The feudal era in Japan lasted from the 8th to the 18th century. During the last 200 or so years of Japan's feudal era, the country was ruled by the members of one clan, the Tokugawa clan, whose members held the position of shogun. Pause a minute to think about a brief explanation of a feudal system. Write your explanation in your learning log. Once you have done this, check in the Glossary to see how close your explanation is to the one provided.
Make sure you have a working understanding of the following terms: Buddhism, bushido, Confucianism, daimyo, emperor, kabuki, ronin, samurai, Shinto, shogun.
Answers about feudal Japan
Question 1: Was Japan isolated from foreign events during the pre-Tokugawa feudal era?
There was foreign contact with China in the first few hundred years of the feudal era but then very little until the arrival of the Portuguese in 1542. Despite these foreign influences, Japan remained feudal. There was no equivalent to the rapid changes associated with the European Renaissance. It seems to have been largely a conservative and militaristic culture. To test this further and make the task manageable for students the focus is on the last 268 years of the feudal era; the era of Tokugawa rule (1600–1868). In theory the emperor still ruled but in reality the hereditary military commander, the shogun, had real power, just as they had throughout most of the period from 1192 to 1867. Students will investigate why the feudal era continued for so long in Japan and why values and attitudes associated with loyalty to superiors remained for so long. They will see these values represented in popular stories, like The tale of the 47 ronin.
Question 2: For 253 years, Japan was ruled by one powerful clan, the Tokugawas, until 1868 when the emperor was restored to power.
Think about how this one family may have maintained control over the position of shogun for so long. How much significance would you place on military power as a means of maintaining this dominance?
In her article, 'Tokugawa Japan: an introductory essay', Marcia Yonemoto argues that the Tokugawa shogunate maintained political authority for 253 years:
- without resorting to military combat
- by permitting daimyô to use land owned by the Tokugawa shoguns in return not for taxes but for the supply of labour and raw materials used in the construction and maintenance of castles, roads, post stations and the like
- by forcing all daimyô to commute between their home domains and the shogunal capital of Edo,
- by compelling the wives and children of all daimyô to reside permanently in Edo.
Yonemoto argues that the wise use of shogunate environmental resources helped sustain them in power and that this is evident in that:
- more land was farmed and used intensely under the Tokugawa than ever before
- agricultural production increased by about 70 percent between 1450 and 1600
- Tokugawa policies promoted land reclamation and land clearance
- disarming peasants put more people back on the land
- ninety new towns appeared between 1572 and 1590 alone and by 1720, assisted by drainage and deforestation, Edo was the world's largest city outside of China, with a population of about 1.4 million.
The decline of the Tokugawa, Yonemoto concludes, had a lot to do with the fact that most samurai were forbidden by law from engaging in farming or commerce, which might have afforded them some economic relief. Without wars they struggled to survive and benefited little from the growth occurring in the economy.
Those samurai and daimyô who did associate themselves with industrialisation eventually led the rebellions against the Tokugawas.
Question 3: Five possible reasons Japan remained such a hierarchical, militaristic and conservative society during most of the feudal era
- The emperors were only nominal leaders, with some authority but no real power, for power lay with the shoguns.
- Traditions began which enforced strict codes of behaviour, for example, the samurai code of bushido.
- The social class system was rigid in feudal Japanese society. For Australian students raised with the ideals of an egalitarian society, this will need explaining.
- Foreign influences were minimal and Japan remained largely a monoculture without a diversity of perspectives to encourage change. In the 1630s, the Tokugawa shogunate restricted Japan's international contacts. By 1639, the Dutch were the only Europeans permitted to come to Japan, and the conditions under which they were allowed to trade and interact with the Japanese were extremely circumscribed by the Tokugawa authorities. See the primary sources located via the Asia for Educators website (PDF 123 KB).
- The two main religions were conservative. Buddhism maintained the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path; while Shintoism promoted reverence for ancestors and nature, kami.
All of these remain contestable. In the first instance students could not be expected to generate such hypotheses. They would need to practice listing, grouping and classifying their hypotheses and then checking to see if the classifications they created are similar to any of the five above.
Question 4: Which of the five hypotheses explaining continuity prior to 1868 is best supported by the evidence?
Just 15 years after the arrival of the USA, the Meiji Restoration occurred. This seems to show that:
- In the feudal era the emperor exercised little influence but his authority seems to have remained intact and was used to support radical change, including a new Constitution and new education system.
- The behavioural norms of the samurai may not have encouraged new ideas and thoughts for many groups before 1853, but after that some daimyô and samurai, motivated by a desire to improve their military capacity, clearly wanted to embrace new Western ideas.
- There was a rigid social class system in feudal Japan and new ideas from those wanting to climb the social ladder did not emerge until the arrival of the Satsuma–Choshu alliance. They had felt left out of an economy that against all traditions was beginning to favour the merchant class.
- Japan was generally closed to outsiders so there were few new ideas from outside Japan until US gunship diplomacy forced a change.
- Respect for authority by peasants was likely due to ritual displays of authority (processions, official temples) that impressed in them the notion that political order was natural, than because they were told by Confucian or Buddhist discourses). Little seems to have changed after 1853.
So overall it seems that hypothesis number four is most supported by the events between 1853 and 1868: Japan was generally closed to outsiders so there were few new ideas from outside Japan.
NOTE: Role of the Tokugawa period and the subsequent rise of Japan as a major power; compare with China at the time. If Japan was the first non western power to industrialise (and to defeat a western power, Russia), it is evident from the groundwork done in Tokugawa times. Some factors that could have paved the way for subsequent industrialisation of Japan include:
- high rate of literacy
- inheritance system: only one son inherited so there was a large manpower available for new jobs
- presence of a strong financial bourgeoisie with its own work ethics (the financiers of Tokugawa set up a very sophisticated bank and credit system
- Osaka is the birthplace of the first futures market in the world
- accumulation: a class of rich peasants merged (because taxation was not a heavy as it has been long thought); they were able to accumulate surplus that could be quickly invested
- military and pragmatist outlook of the samurai.
To check that you recognise these terms, or to familiarise yourself with the terms you do not know, go to the glossary.