History of Japan

From Roses, Tulips, & Liberty

Fudai supremacy: 1651–1675

Geba Shogun period

The combined tenures of shoguns Tokugawa Ieçuna and Çunaxige were dominated by the Senior Council, an executive institution composed of several high-ranking feudal lords, the fudai (譜代). This era would see Japan engage in a complex and tense geopolitical situation in eastern Asia while experiencing the formation of a samurai-run bureaucracy and a bourgeois centered on the rising merchant class.

First established in 1636, the Senior Council initially functioned as an advisory council to the shogun. Under the auspices of three Grand Councillors from the Sakai clan, the power of the shogun gradually declined in favor of the Council and the fudai families. In order to cement their power, the Sakai clan formed an alliance with the scholarly Hayashi clan, creating an alliance between the aristocracy and the Teixu school (程朱理学) of Neo-Confucianism.

Meireki era: 1655–1658

Since the Japanese silver boom of 1550–1645, silver had become increasingly rare in Japan. In Meireki 1 (1655), the itowappu system, which provided that Japanese merchants buy Chinese silk at set prices, was abolished. In 1666, the state banned silver exports altogether, instead encouraging the export of copper, gold, and marine products to China and the Dutch East India Company (VOC). Despite their labor, these policies did not prevent the illegal smuggling of silver out of Japan by Asian vagabonds, a practice which was discreetly encouraged by the VOC.

The threat posed by the rise of the VOC led the Japanese government to take drastic measures which conflicted with its previous kaikin (海禁, maritime prohibition) policies. Shortly before the ascension of Ieçuna in 1651, Tokugawa Iemiçu consented to establishing a formal relationship with the anti-Qing vagabond Zeng clan, led by the half-Japanese half-Chinese warlord Koxinga. Later, in 1654, the government proposed the formation of an anti-Qing, anti-Dutch alliance. The offer was only accepted by Koxinga in 1656, after a Dutch embassy to Beiging established the two-century-long Dutch-Qing-Corea alliance, threatening the economic security of both the Zeng and the Japanese state.

Subsequently, the shogunate increased its political and economic support of the Zeng maritime organization and allowed periodic raids on Dutch shipping in the East China Sea. Koxinga's defeat at the hands of the Dutch-Qing-Corea alliance in the 1658 Battle of Namging led to the exodus of many Ming loyalists to Japan, particularly the port city of Nagasaki, reputed for its large Chinese community. Along with them came Zu Sugwey, Prince of Ningzing, one of the last remaining Ming princes and ancestor of the Ye dynasty emperors. The Zeng mercantile dynasty remained in good graces with the shogunate for decades due to their function as a counterweight to the VOC.
Hayashi Razan (1583–1659), a Neo-Confucian scholar and government advisor with close ties to the Sakai clan.

Manzi era: 1658–1663

In the late 1650s, some in Japan endorsed the normalization of relations with the Dutch due to their relative patience and irreligiousity compared to their Spanish and Portuguese counterparts. However, others postulated the declining profits of the Zeng organization and the ever-successful Dutch colonization of Formosa as reason to find new counterweights to the VOC. The latter view prevailed, with a small base near Kagoxima being given to a group of Portuguese Macanese merchants with instructions to throttle Dutch trade.

Soon after, the VOC, Neo-Confucian scholars, and others strongly voiced their opposition to this decision. This in turn led to a revival of anti-Christian persecution, with many lords and stewards opening regional investigations in order to eliminate secret Catholic communities that had survived the Shimabara Rebellion of 1638. In 1661, the Oomura Bay Revolt erupted in southwestern Kyushu. Numerous confraria (underground Catholic brotherhoods), disgruntled peasants, Portuguese merchants, Ming loyalists, and other disaffected communities rose up against the shogunate.

Despite being a heterogenous rebellion, it was widely viewed by the government as a Christian one. Confucian scholars described the evil of the 'wicked religion' (zahoo 邪法) which sought to dupe Japanese peasants (genin 下人) with the promise of riches (ri 利). Eventually, the Revolt was suppressed in Manzi 4 (1662) with 2,000 casualties, soon followed by the establishment of local offices of religious inquisition.

Kanbun era: 1663–1675

Emperor Reigen declared the new Kanbun era (寛文) in early 1663 in order to mark the disasters of the past five years. Under new Grand Councillor Sakai Tadakijo, the government issued new kaikin edicts cutting the Zeng family's profit margins and reasserting central government control over foreign trade and foreign residents. International commerce was limited to one million taels annually in 1671. Additionally, stricter passport controls were created throughout the nation, limiting non-Japanese merchants to the ports of Desjima, Nagasaki, Hirado, and Çuxima.

The VOC, frustrated by Japan's embargoes on Dutch commerce, petitioned for the Kingdom of Scotland to be granted a small trading outpost in Hirado. In 1669, the Royal Company of Scotland successfully received permission to construct said outpost on Hirado Island with the same terms and conditions as the Dutch were operating under in Desjima. This settlement would eventually be dissolved in the mid-1710s due to lack of profit and diplomatic pressure from the shogunate to do so.

Pax Tokugawa: 1675–1754

Later Edo period

The last eighty years of Tokugawa hegemony over Japan is often referred to as the Later Edo period. It is characterized by the development of an indigenous Japanese nationalism driven by the kokugaku (國學) movement, which in turn informed a growing sense of distrust in the shogunate's institutions as the country was forced to face foreign threats, economic instability, and internal social discord.

Despite this timeframe being known for its relative peace ('Pax Tokugawa' 徳川 治世) and blossoming urban culture (ukijo 浮世), domestic processes such as the decay of the social hierarchy and the centralization of government at the expense of local lords and the samurai class ultimately led to the disintegration of the feudal system and the untimely collapse of the Edo government in the 1750s.

The Benevolent Autocrats: 1675–1726

Tokugawa Çunajoxi rose to the position of shogun after the sad yet predictable death of his sickly brother Çunaxige. He made efforts to diminish the power of the Senior Council by exercising authority through other government officials such as the Grand Chamberlain and dismissing key rivals such as Sakai Tadakijo, replacing them with close allies such as Hotta Masatoxi. Çunajoxi ultimately aimed to sideline the military-based feudal system of his predecessors, replacing it with a centralized Confucian patrimonial state. His son Tokugawa Ienaga, who succeeded him upon his death in 1718, largely continued his father's vision until his own premature demise in 1726.

Spanning three decades (1691–1720), the Genzi & Genroku eras represent the nadir of Tokugawa ukijo culture, which was characterized by heightened individualism, cultural expression, and population growth. Commerce and profit-making, traditionally shunned in Confucian thought, became more acceptable, leading to the genesis of prominent merchant houses such as the Hamazaki (浜崎), the Miçui (三井), and the Furukawa (古河). In response, Çunajoxi's frugal-minded Confucian government instituted a number of sumputuary laws in order to regulate largess and maintain class distinctions — an effort which had largely failed by the middle of the 18th century.

Detailed portrait of the shogun Tokugawa Çunajoxi (1646–1718) in his old age.

The shogun-led revival of Neo-Confucianism, with its emphasis on leadership, led many in Japan to question the nature and authority of their rulers. The increasingly educated bourgeois were conscious of the role of China's emperor, Corea's king, and the Netherlands' prince compared to their own monarch, powerless. This made it so the shogun could effectively be seen as a usurper, a primus inter pares ruler who could be replaced at a moment's notice.

Economically, the governments of the two shoguns repeatedly issued currency debasements and fixed exchange rates for gold and silver in pursuit of a centrally directed financial policy. Additionally based on crop yields and land valuation, was established across the country in the 1710s. These new fiscal policies eroded the autarky and autonomy of Japan's feudal lords. Even before the Benevolent Autocrats, Tojotomi Hidejoxi's land surveys of the late 16th century aimed to decrease the power of feudal landlords by establishing a direct link between the central authority and the individual peasant cultivator.

The governments of Çunajoxi and his son Ienaga can definitively be said to have solidified a trend towards centralization and civil administration, away from the established military feudalism. Over the course of half a century, over sixty fiefs were escheated to or transferred by the shogunate, the highest rate since the 1623–1651 reign of Tokugawa Iemiçu. Ultimately, the father and son's unpopular and eccentric policies ostracized the traditional ruling class, causing their immediate successor, the shogun Naritaka, to relapse back into a more widely acceptable style of governance.

Rule of the Owari house: 1726–1748

Ienaga's failure to produce a suitable male heir led to the Lord of Owari (a cadet branch of the Tokugawa clan), Tokugawa Naritaka, to assume the position of shogun in 1726, beating all other claimants. His 18-year term in office, a period of supposed consolidation and political stagnation, is marked with the appearance of the Russians in northern Japan, a rise in civil strife, and economic instability.

Disintegration of the shogunate

The collapse of the bakufuhan feudal system is usually attributed to three overarching factors: the inability of the government to properly regulate its commerce and its borders, internal conflicts between the country's various classes, as well as an economic downturn brought on by the depletion of silver.

Maruoka-Odawara period: 1754–1809

Kumohama period: 1809–1895

Sempei Restoration: 1895–1951