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Learning area: History
Year level: Year 8
Country: Japan
General capability: Intercultural understanding

This module has been written for teachers of students in Year 8 History to assist them in implementing the cross-curriculum priority Asia and Australia's engagement with Asia. This is done through a developed approach to the Asia-Pacific world depth study. This approach can be adapted for use in Year 7 History.

Teachers become familiar with key terms and concepts of the history of feudal Japan with reference to the shogunate and the Tokugawa clan. Activities assist students to undertake research.


Japanese samurai, hand coloured albumen, circa 1890, public domainJapanese samurai


Image: Japanese samurai - hand-coloured albumen, c 1890, public domain

Related resources

Activity 1: Motivating and focusing the inquiry

Student learning experiences could begin with either stimulus material, the interpretation of a primary source leading to understandings of broader historical contexts, or the historical contexts and then the primary source.

Read the following and decide which you prefer.

Option 1: Beginning with specific events or sources

  1. Introduce The tale of the 47 ronin by noting it is a primary source and explaining the meaning of key terms like samurai (like Western knights), daimyô (local lords), ronin (leaderless samurai) and seppuku (ritual suicide).
  2. Select a few students to take notes about the story to compose a summary of the story for the class and then select a few students to make inferences (that is, read between the lines) about what the popularity of this story might tell us about Japan, and develop interpretations based on these inferences.
  3. Students will present their brief summary of the story while the other students present their interpretation. The whole class will then discuss the interpretations.
  4. Encourage students to pose as many questions as they can about Japanese society at the time and then consider what information would be needed to answer these questions.
  5. Provide some of this information yourself if you know it and set students small research tasks to locate other information. The emphasis at this point is on motivation and focus, not factual detail.

Option 2: Beginning with general contexts

  1. Explain to students that European countries also experienced feudalism for several centuries (it varied from one country to another) from about the 9th century until about the 15th century. In Britain, a hierarchical feudal system was established by William the Conqueror after his victory at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. This was a highly centralised system where the king was served by his lords who in turn were served by their knights. These knights controlled landed estates where the majority of the population was obliged to work in the service of the knights. Feudal society in Japan was less centralised. The daimyô (local lords) were more independent.
  2. Ask students to pose questions about the possible consequences of a system like the one in Japan. Have them also pose questions about the kinds of sources they might need to explore this. Encourage them to think about popular stories.
  3. Introduce some of the basic terms such as samurai (like Western knights), daimyô (local lords), ronin (leaderless samurai) and seppuku (ritual suicide).
  4. Read The tale of the 47 ronin.
  5. Have students list questions that they would like answered as a result of hearing the general context. Have students discuss which of the questions they posed might be answered from the story.


Image: Utagawa Hiroshige, Ronin Enter Sengakuji Temple to Pay Homage to Their Lord, Enya c. 1836. Public domain.

Activity 2: Question framing and modelling inquiry

Whether teachers begin with stimulus materials or contexts or a mixture of both, an inquiry approach incorporating historical skills needs to be modelled before students are set to work on the research task supplied.

  1. Identify a primary source, like The tale of the 47 ronin.
  2. Set tasks associated with comprehending the source such as: What happens? Who is involved?
  3. Set tasks associated with analysing and interpreting the source, for example:
    • What sorts of ideas and values is this story promoting?
    • Which viewpoints are emphasised?
    • From whose perspective is the story told?
    • Which groups in society are likely to benefit the most if this story became very popular?
  4. Set contexts. Provide chronologies of Japanese history and some that relate to the European feudal era.
  5. Describe a main question to be investigated by the whole class.

    For example: Why were the Tokugawa shoguns able to sustain power for so long?

    We have introduced some evidence to justify such a question, but like all questions it contains assumptions. These need to be teased out and more evidence located; as indicated in the next stage below.

    Note that a sophisticated group could tackle a different question such as: To what extent did feudal Japan develop its culture in isolation from the ideas of other societies?

    The term culture would need to be explored here before proceeding.

  6. Assuming the main question is why were the Tokugawa shoguns able to sustain power for so long, have students suggest what questions need answering in order to answer this main question.

    For example:
    • What is meant by 'sustain' and 'power'?
    • Does 'sustain' mean there was no change in society?
    Create sub-questions such as:
    • How much did the system of government change during the feudal era?
    • Did the main religions change?
    • Are there any signs in artworks or elsewhere of technical inventions occurring?
    • Was there much growth in the economy under the Tokugawas?
    • Did the number of people living in cities increase?

    At the same time, create a hypothesis to test. Select from one you have chosen earlier. Remember the five you have already developed? See the answers section.

  7. Think aloud and let students listen as you consider what sort of evidence is needed to test a hypothesis. Clearly you will have already decided what sort of evidence to use. For example, if your hypothesis concerned whether belief systems encouraged people to keep to strict rules of behaviour as witnessed in The tale of the 47 ronin, look for evidence of beliefs.

    Find a primary source such as an image of a large feudal Buddha statue, for example, the bronze Great Buddha of Kamakura.

    Think aloud and invite students into your thinking about how long it would have taken to build, what purposes it may have served and what beliefs of the Buddhists it may reveal. Investigate these beliefs from secondary sources, possibly school textbooks, and 'discover' the four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path and Shintoism with its reverence for ancestors and nature. Speculate that such beliefs may have encouraged 'conservatism'. Reiterate the meaning of this term by including it in regular start-of-lesson spelling/vocabulary revisions.

  8. Follow this sequence: 'I do, you do, we do'. You have demonstrated 'I do', now allow students in groups to imitate what you did ('you do'). Provide a different primary source such as a statue from the Heian Period found in a textbook or on a website. Ask some groups to consider what it reveals about one of your five hypotheses. Ask others to closely analyse the primary source with questions such as:

    • What is it made from?
    • Why was it probably made?
    • For whom was it made?
    • What does it depict?
    • How would you feel looking at this?

    Sequence questions starting from those requiring direct comprehension and then progressing to those requiring more 'reading between the lines' – more interpretation. Ask the students:

    • Where can we find some secondary sources to corroborate some of these conclusions?
    • What conclusions can we reach?
  9. Note what you have been doing with historical skills.

    Different models of inquiry learning have been used in History teaching and related humanities and social sciences' disciplines. Rather than specifying an inquiry model for History, the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority has identified key historical skills that are essential to the process of inquiry. To some extent, so far they have been invoked in the order presented in the syllabus:

    • developing chronologyterms and concepts
    • formulating historical questions and engaging in research
    • the analysis and use of sources
    • developing perspectives and interpretations
    • explanation and communication.

    Note that these skills are incorporated into the learning expectations of students on the Teacher preparation page. So far, however, skills 4 and 5 have not been emphasised. This will occur in the context of students embarking on their own inquiries and completing the assessment task.

  10. 'We do': Distribute the assessment task (DOC 139 KB). Make sure all students understand the requirements. The essence is that the class will be investigating this main question: 

    Why were the Tokugawa shoguns able to sustain power for so long?

    The class will divide into five groups and each group will investigate one of five possibilities or hypotheses:

    • 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.
    • There was a rigid social class system in feudal Japan and new ideas from those wanting to climb the social ladder did not emerge.
    • Japan was generally closed to outsiders so there were few new ideas from outside Japan.
    • The religions encouraged people to accept life as it always had been and to not ask questions.

    The assessment task makes clear that students do not have to accept the hypothesis they are given. They are testing it. They can disprove it. If they can produce enough corroborating evidence then their hypothesis may then be called a verified interpretation. Students should understand that a theory can always be challenged by new evidence and new ways of looking at the evidence – new perspectives. We haven't explicitly taught the latter yet but by introducing the five groups we have introduced the idea of perspectives.


Image: View of Edo – Military practice drills. 17th Century. Public domain.

Activity 3: Locating and recording evidence

  1. In their groups, ask students to brainstorm some possible primary source evidence that could help with their group's question. There are many mind mapping programmes that are ideal for this purpose. In reality, with assistance from a librarian, you will have already extracted one or two sources for each question from school textbooks, library books or the internet, so you will have an idea of possibilities and availabilities.

    Guide students' brainstorming. The aim is to make sure students appreciate a diversity of primary sources, which could range from a work of art to a law. Certainly some of these can be found in books or websites devoted to feudal Japan but students should be encouraged to think more laterally. Art books, for example, often contain valuable primary sources. Tourism websites, such as Japan, while biased toward what might attract tourists, can provide useful access to artefacts and information.

  2. Locating sources requires assistance from librarians and cybrarians. Many schools have whole-school approaches to research where students in different subjects work through common processes to locate and evaluate information from print and non-print sources. Textbooks often have chapters devoted to 'using the contents page'. The use of indexes will need to be revised as well as techniques for administering 'advanced' searches in search engines such as Google. The problem in the 21st century is not access to information but an over-abundance of information; much of it in language inaccessible to students. Some possible sources of evidence are provided in the resources section.

  3. Class time at this point is spent individualising instruction but students should be encouraged to share, for example via the use of online forums. Website tools such as Diigo support collaborative learning as students locate, tag and comment on websites then share. Certainly their consequent research notes, which are submitted for assessment, will be compilations, but they will still need to be in their own words and with their own reflections evident.

  4. Provide assistance through modelling and feedback. You have already demonstrated ways of using evidence in Activity 2. It is supportive if the examples you use benefit the student group that you consider needs the most assistance with research. At this point you may want to go further and, using the concept of the 'flipped classroom' video/screen, capture yourself locating a relevant source. This could be set for homework, along with some suitable comprehension questions. Class time is for active research.

    Where students are taking electronic notes anyone who is possibly off-task can be asked to email you what they have completed so far. Individual feedback on such work is beneficial, but the aim is not to burden teachers with excessive emails. Encourage students to ask questions via communal online forums and to help each other. The advantage is that your responses are communicated to the whole group and you are not repeating yourself. Learn with your students, even if one of the sources that you 'discover' was actually located during planning.

  5. Whatever method students use, such as electronic or pen and paper, note taking should not be burdensome. If there are Japanese language students in the class encourage them to focus on interpreting any kanji characters that they find. The notes of some students could consist of many tagged and captioned visual images. Flow charts, tables and verbal notes using programmes like One Note, can all assist in the recording of useful information for later interpretation and comparison.

    Traditional subheaded, point-form notes can be used. The aim is to avoid transcription into the final multimodal product. What will be common to all these formats is that bibliographical details are maintained and there are some signs of reflection. That is, students have allowed questions to emerge as they researched and they have recorded these questions and comments along with their following up of such reflections. Specific examples of how to teach this are provided in Activity 4.

    Enforcing a one-size-fits-all research booklet strategy is unlikely to be beneficial and in fact may alienate students. Encouraging note taking that is eclectic and creates summaries that can be re-sorted later into some order is crucial. That is where practices such as tagging in One Note, note taking in sortable tables, or even colour-highlighting with pen and paper notes are essential.


Image: Japanese samurai - hand-coloured albumen, c 1890, public domain

Activity 4: Analysis and corroboration of evidence

In reality analysing and corroborating occur simultaneously with note taking but it will be useful to take some time out from individual student research to reiterate these difficult skills; possibly in a whole-class activity.

Analysing, breaking information into smaller parts, cross-checking and corroborating can occur when seeking information from secondary sources or evidence from primary sources.

Analysing and corroborating general information from secondary sources will mean that students must learn to read actively. They must ask themselves questions as they read and follow up those questions. The following could be used to demonstrate this skill but you could create your own example by starting with a textbook or website that is familiar to you.

  1. Tell the class you are going to demonstrate active reading for testing the hypothesis that it was religion that kept the Tokugawa shoguns in power for so long. Think. What could I find out? What about finding out who the first shogun was and what religion he practiced? A web search for 'religion first shogun' reveals many hits but it is a good idea to start with one that seems to have been created by a person or organisation with some authority, for example, the BBC.

    So we discover his name was Ieyasu.

    Now we can complete another search to find out his religion, and quickly we find a tour of his shrine is available. We watch this but it does not reveal what religion was involved so we check another source; this time not an academic source like the BBC but a travel agent, a different perspective.

    We learn that '…It is said that fifty third Head Priest of the Tendai faith …' arranged the shrine for Ieyasu, but what religion is that?

  2. Search 'Tendai faith' but skip the people whose name is Tendai Faith and find, perhaps on Wikipedia or or Google books, that this religion:

    • is associated with Mahayana Buddhism
    • is eclectic (but what does this mean?)
    • believes truths can only be realised through meditation (but what is meditation?)
    • is often related to Shinto deities (more terms to check. Decide how this might be relevant to our main question about how religion assisted the shoguns to stay in power for so long).

    Shintoism with its emphasis on ritual and nature worship began around 500 AD. This could be an ideal time to introduce the term conservatism to the brief vocabulary and spelling exercises that you hold regularly.

  3. Explain to students that there is no need to try to read academic articles intended for university students, but what they need to do is cross-check what they are finding out from readable sources and follow up the questions that must be arising as they research. This can occur in the library too where a set textbook could be the starting point, but a collection of books on the topic and an encyclopaedia will also be needed.

    So a belief system that emphasised ritual may have been conservative and assisted the shoguns to stay in power, but what about that last family of shoguns – the Tokugawas? Particularly if students are sharing their research, for example via an online forum, they will soon discover:

    • During the Tokugawa era Christianity was outlawed, so the eclecticism of the Tendai was not sustained, and the dominant rituals and proper attitudes of the Tokugawa era was a form of Confucianism, where only four social classes were recognised. In order of status and power they were: warriors, artisans, farmers and merchants. Movement between them was officially banned, for example see the A & E Television Networks website.

    Explain that there is a need to pause here and decide what might be the consequences if a 'belief' set such a hierarchy and rigid relations between social classes. That is, there is a need to 'read between the lines' – to interpret.

  4. Note that this teacher demonstration of analysis and corroboration is not occurring in isolation, for each student has already begun research into their particular hypothesis. Students could be asked to interpret how a Confucian-inspired, rigid hierarchical society may have helped keep the Tokugawa shoguns in power. They could do this by meeting in groups where each student represents a different perspective, emanating from their assignment. For example, in each group there could be:

    • a daimyô loyal to the emperor
    • a traditional samurai – fully aware of the norms of behaviour for samurai
    • a merchant (from someone in group 3 on the assignment task) who wanted to import foreign goods but was not permitted
    • a daimyô who wanted to adopt more Western-style weapons and fighting techniques
    • a Tendai, eclectic Buddhist
    • a ronin.
  5. Groups meet, share evidence and report back to the class verbally, or preferably using some of the formats that they will use in their multimodal assignments. For example, a group could present electronically using hyperlinked visual images.

Analysing and corroborating specific information from primary sources

During such exchanges, inevitably some intriguing primary sources are located. Demonstrating how to analyse primary sources, read them actively, allow questions to emerge from them and corroborate them will occur during your assistance to small groups or individuals. This will be modelled on what you have demonstrated to the whole class for secondary sources. Sometimes a primary source will be of such intriguing interest that there will be a need for further time out from individual student research to demonstrate, or have a student demonstrate, how this source can be analysed, corroborated and interpreted from different perspectives.


Image: Tokugawa Ieyasu at the Entrance to a Palace, Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839-1892), public domain

Activity 5: Reports, conclusion and assessments

Part 1: Progress reports

  1. Approximately halfway through the time you have allocated for students to undertake this unit of work, a progress report should be required. This is mentioned on the assessment task description. Students submit a two-page report that has their name and main research question at the top of the first page. It is crucial that students remain focused on their main question. Beneath it they summarise their answer to the main question where dot-pointed information is broken into three or four component parts.

  2. This requires students to group and classify the information they are locating into manageable, relevant components and so constitutes a basic plan for their multimodal presentation. They should have also identified the format of their presentation by now, and, as this can influence the sorts of evidence to be collected and interpreted from here on, this is identified on the progress report.

  3. Finally, they should make a statement about how their research notes are progressing and whether they are allowing questions to emerge as they research. A sample progress report (DOC 135 KB) with teacher checklist is provided. Teachers can quickly identify from such reports where they may want to check the actual research notes and provide further assistance. You may want to incorporate feedback or distance travelled between the progress report and the final submission into the standards descriptors you create for final assessment.

Part 2: Communicating conclusions

  1. Class time is needed to allow students to experiment and translate the basic answers of their progress reports into coherent answers presented in multimodal formats. At this time the focus is on presentation skills associated with literacies and ICT skills but the very act of translating the answers into a simulated inquiry or a movie will generate new sub-questions to research. Students should be prepared for this. For example, they may need visual evidence of an event that until now was largely in words.

  2. Decide on a format with which you are comfortable. For example, if it is with create-your-own-adventure type simulation games and you can use hyperlinks in PowerPoint then demonstrate the skills needed. Have students demonstrate other formats, using skills associated with programmes like Movie Maker. Invite student or teacher guest presenters from other subjects or e-learning experts. This is a time for learning with your students about how to communicate complex ideas in new ways. Flow charts, mind maps and other tools can be used as presentation tools and the assessment task (DOC 139 KB) description provides other possibilities.

  3. This is a time to emphasise collaborative learning and the beauty of creating electronic presentations is that copies can be so easily shared with peers for comment while the original continues to be modified and developed. It may be possible that two presentations lend themselves to being linked. For example a simulated inquiry based in PowerPoint may 'join' in connection with a particular piece of evidence. The possibilities are endless.

Part 3: Assessment submissions and sharing

Students can now either submit their work for assessment while in class they continue to share and discuss or they could share and discuss and then submit.

  1. The original main question has now been explored from at least the five perspectives represented by the different hypotheses in the assessment task (DOC 139 KB). Ask students to view, use, or interact with the presentations of at least four other students and decide on the main reason for the continuity of Tokugawa rule. Here students are creating a hierarchy of causes and, while not a requirement of the assessment task, it will prepare them for future historical exercises. The benefit of this approach is that it avoids all students presenting to all other students and the inevitable embarrassment for the least able students and boredom for the conscript audience. It also enables students to compare the standards represented by different presentations and so appreciate the decisions their teacher is making at this time in terms of assessing their work.

  2. In small groups students complete a visual summary that outlines their group's answer to the whole class question. This should be a summary that would be suitable for continuous loop display on a hall or library display screen. It cannot be too wordy. It must quickly grab the attention of people passing by. It will demonstrate critical and creative thinking as well as multiple literacies.

Note that when assessing, teachers will need to apply standards descriptors as supplied by their school authority, to the criteria supplied on the sample assessment task.

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.

    Treaty of KanagawaThe first page of the
    Treaty of Kanagawa, 1858

Which of the five hypotheses listed below is the most supported?

  1. 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.
  2. The norms of behaviour for samurai did not encourage new ideas and thoughts.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

Key terms

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: BuddhismbushidoConfucianismdaimyoemperorkabukironinsamuraiShintoshogun.

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
  1. The emperors were only nominal leaders, with some authority but no real power, for power lay with the shoguns.
  2. Traditions began which enforced strict codes of behaviour, for example, the samurai code of bushido.
  3. 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.
  4. 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).
  5. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Japan was generally closed to outsiders so there were few new ideas from outside Japan until US gunship diplomacy forced a change.
  5. 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
  • urbanisation
  • 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.


Image: The Great Bronze Buddha at Kakamura, circa 1915. Oregon State University Special Collections and Archives, no known copyright restrictions

This module is based on the Asia–Pacific world depth study of the Australian Curriculum.

This professional development for teachers is intended to take approximately six hours. Completion of it will mean most lessons and assessment tasks will be planned.

The student activities emanating from the module will occupy students for approximately 50 hours.

Expectations of teachers

By the completion of the activities associated with this module teachers should:

  • have sufficient knowledge of feudal Japanese history and historical procedures to assist students to demonstrate the learning expectations identified below
  • be ready to teach and assess this in-depth study without a lot of additional preparation.


Students are helped to frame individual research questions. These are related to a larger whole class question. Students submit the results of their historical research into their questions in the form of a multimodal electronic presentation. This could take many formats including interactive PowerPoints or short YouTube clips.

Some assessment can also occur in class, using observation checklists during the research phase and as students share the results of their research. A progress report is required.

There is no attempt in this module to cover large amounts of content, but rather to develop conceptual understandings related to the causes of changes, particularly continuities over time. In addition this module offers opportunities for teachers to develop digital literacies with their students and enhance research skills and critical and creative thinking in the process.

Images featured throughout the module are linked to their location on the internet and can be used for classroom activities.


    The student activities are presented as an investigation which progresses over seven phases. Following is an outline of the main phases of the students' investigation. Each phase is then expanded in depth. Elaborations of the phases are found in the student inquiry section of this module.

    Overview and sequence of learning phases

    Phase Hours (approx)
    1 2 Orientation and motivation – suggestions for beginning the module are provided.
    2 3 Question framing and modelling inquiry – one main question guides everyone's research but through stimulus material and self-reflection students are taught the importance of hypothesising and creating related sub-questions. The assessment task is distributed in this phase so that students will be clear about where learning experiences are headed.
    3 10 Locating and recording evidence – students are provided with class time to begin work on their assessment task and most teaching involves small groups or individuals. In this context teachers help students to develop their skills in locating relevant evidence, primary and secondary, from books, libraries, databases, and online. Some evidence is presented for use in demonstrating analysis with this module and can be provided to students. In this phase students are also taught some recording or note taking techniques.
    4 3 Analysis and corroboration of evidence – students take time out from their individual research to observe the teacher demonstrating how to analyse and compare some evidence, including the use of perspectives and interpretations.
    5 6 Progress reports – class work involves students continuing to work on their research task and the teacher continues to provide assistance but now some evidence of progress is required. The module contains checklists for teachers to use as they interact with students.
    6 12 Communicating conclusions – students begin creating drafts and the sharing of them is facilitated by the teacher. By now most students will have decided on the format of their multimodal presentation and this will influence the nature of the evidence they are collecting. Students take time out from their individual work to observe the teacher demonstrate some ways of effectively communicating in multimodal formats. This is the phase when any technical skills needed by large groups or the whole class need to be taught. Ways of constructing timelines need to be provided here if they haven't already been provided during Phase 3.
    7 4 Assessment submissions and sharing – while on a quest for an answer to the whole class question, the whole class begins to share copies of their electronic submissions. Suggestions are provided about how awkwardness can be avoided for those who do not want, or cannot, share. In small groups students complete a visual summary outlining their answer to the whole-class question.

    Useful websites

    Timeline of Japanese history

    Era General dates Specific dates Important events
    Yamato period AD 300–645 538 or 552 Introduction of Buddhism from China
    593–622 Empress Suiko promotes the spread of Buddhism. Prince Shotoku, regent for Empress Suiko, encourages further contacts with China
    607 Prince Shotoku sends first Japanese Embassy to China
    702 Taiho Law Codes, based on Chinese Tang Dynasty Code, passed
    Nara period 710–784 752 Dedication of the Great Buddha of Todaiji in Nara
    781–806 Reign of Kammu, who moved the capital from Nara, the centre of Buddhism in Japan, to Kyoto
    Heian period 794–1185 805 Introduction of Buddhist Tendai sect
    806 Introduction of Buddhist Shingon sect
    838 Twelfth and last embassy to China – inward focus of Japanese rulers in this period
    995–1027 Reign of Fujiwara no Michinaga
    1175 Founding of the Jodo (Pure Land) Buddhist sect
    Kamakura period 1185–1333 1192 Title of Shogun granted to Minamoto no Yoritomo
    1232 Kamakura Law Code (Joei shikimoku)
    1274 First unsuccessful Mongol invasion by Yuan Dynasty of China
    1281 Second, unsuccessful Mongol invasion by Yuan Dynasty of China – shoguns increasingly wary of threat from China – warrior class of Japan bolstered by these successes
    1334 Widespread rebellion leads to the Kemmu restoration of imperial authority in place of the shogun and a return to a focus on Confucian values
    Ashikaga (Muromachi) period 1338–1573 1368–1394 Yoshimitsu, third Shogun
    1449–1473 Yoshimasa, eighth Shogun
    1467–1477 Onin War
    1542 or 1543 Portuguese arrive at Tanegashima; introduction of western firearms
    1549 Christian Missonary, St Francis Xavier arrives in Japan


    Term Explanation
    Buddhism A faith that some say is a more of a philosophy, founded by the Buddha in India about 2500 years ago and reaching China about 2000 years ago. Its main doctrines are that suffering is inseparable from existence, and caused mainly by desire. It is focused on the salvation of the soul. Buddhism explains how suffering can be avoided by controlling desire through being moral, mindful and developing wisdom.
    bushido Norms of behaviour for samurai which samurai were expected to observe. It outlines the chivalrous way samurai should live and stresses frugality, loyalty, mastery of the martial arts and honour unto death.
    Confucianism Confucianism is firstly a very this-worldly ethics based on the concept of obedience (of children to parents, of inferior to superior, of young to old). The characteristic of this ethical doctrine is that proper behaviour is (ideally) guaranteed not by the violence of force and laws but the effects of rituals which are codified performances of proper attitudes. This system of cosmology, ethics and politics which evolved in China around 2000 years ago and regarded the emperor and hierarchy of officials as appointed by a natural order that should not be disturbed.
    daimyô Similar to local lords in Britain, these were powerful landholders in Japan from about the 10th century who controlled vast areas of land. These nobles could rent out their land to lower classes but they retained ownership.
    emperor Since about 2600 years ago, in Japan, the supreme hereditary ruler. The emperors before 97 BC were possibly legendary. During the feudal era the emperor was a token leader only, as the military commanders, the shoguns, had real power.
    feudal system A way of life where society is divided into strict social classes. The social class with the most power and influence derived from owning, or being given control over, land. In Japan those associated with the shogun or military rulers were in the highest social class; then the local lords or daimyô; then the peasants; and last of all the merchants, who had little status or influence.
    kabuki Classical Japanese dance drama which is highly formal, staged and stylised. Actors/singers dress in extreme styles and are known for their exaggerated movements.
    kamikaze Originally a divine wind that was said to protect Japan about 1000 years ago. The term is mainly applied today to those Japanese suicide pilots who deliberately crashed their planes into Allied ships during World War II.
    ronin A samurai without a lord or master (daimyo) during the feudal era in Japan. This could occur as the result of a daimyô dying or falling from power. Often ronin became wanderers and beggars.
    samurai Warriors in pre-modern Japan. They later made up the ruling military class and were the highest ranking social class in the Edo period 1603–1867.
    Shinto A uniquely Japanese religious practice derived from Buddhism where a lot of emphasis is put on ritual and much respect paid to the forces of nature.
    shogun Hereditary military commander in Japan from 1192 to 1867. These were the actual rulers in Japan during this time period.
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