DOWNFALL Of the Tokugawa shogunate


The fall of the Japanese Tokugawa Shogunate in 1867 and the subsequent Meiji Restoration resulted from many different external and internal factors. Examples of external pressures included “gunboat diplomacy” from Great Britain and the United States, as well as a fear of invasion following the conclusion of the Opium War in China. Internal factors were also numerous, and included a changing economy, growing poverty, a long, debilitating peacetime, growing social activism from the highly literate and educated masses, as well as natural disasters. However, before this paper delves into specific analysis of these diverse topics, one must first understand precisely what the Tokugawa Shogunate or bakufu actually was, and how its political, social, and economic systems were constructed.

The First Shogun

The first Shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu, founded the bakufu system in 1603 to unify Japan after a long period of internal conflict. This new and highly effective system of governing resulted in a long span of peacetime, the implications of which are discussed later in this paper. The political structure of Japan during the reign of the bakufu consisted of three layers of authority: Daimyo, Shogun, and Emperor. First, the daimyo, of which there were usually around 200, were feudal lords that ruled over much of the Japanese landmass (Daimyo). One might think of the daimyo as the equivalent of state governors in the United States. The position of Shogun, seated in the capital city of Edo (modern day Tokyo), was analogous to the title of Prime Minister or President in many nations today. While performing the role of a president, the shogun was simultaneously the most powerful of the daimyo, and presided over the largest domain or han. Above the shogun was the Emperor, who while technically the highest power in Japan, had lost most of his political strength at this time in Japan’s history, and became reduced to little more than a figurehead (Kim 129, Ravina 1002). The emperor’s position at the time was very similar to that of the British monarchy today: highly revered, but with little actual power.

Tokugawa Ieyasu: "The First Shogun".


Socially, Tokugawa Japan was comprised of a rigid caste system. At the top of the hierarchy was the well-known samurai class, or bushi. The samurai, historically revered as talented warriors, were also nobles of the ruling class. Below the samurai in order of hierarchy were the farmers, artisans, merchants, and untouchables (Kim 127). Farmers were held in the highest regard of all the commoners, due to much of Japan’s economy at the time being based around rice production. Not only was rice a staple food for the Japanese population, but was also used as a form of currency in pre-modern Japan (Kim 128).

Classic samurai armor.

Aside from the rice economy, the most historically important facet of Japan’s economic system during the Tokugawa era was their trade policy (or lack thereof). In 1639, Japan closed its doors to most foreign trade and instituted a “four gates” system in which trade was conducted only with a handful of nations through four distinct channels (Matsukata and Clulow 101). These “gates” consisted of Satsuma domain to the Ryukyu Kingdom, Tsushima domain to Korea, Matsumae domain to the Ainu people in Ezochi, and most importantly, Nagasaki to the Chinese and Dutch (Matsukata and Clulow 101). The Shogunate adopted a "closed Japan" policy, as a response to the increasing spread of Christianity by missionaries after the first arrival of Europeans, as well as to avoid a negative trade imbalance for Japan (Japan).

External Factors

Gunboat Diplomacy

The eventual re-opening of Japan to international trade was a major factor contributing to the eventual downfall of the Tokugawa Shogunate. United States naval commander Matthew C. Perry’s two infamous visits to Japan in 1853 and 1854 are often credited for this dramatic shift in policy. Having concluded that diplomacy with Japan could only be established by a show of force, Perry conducted his visits to Japan with a fleet of top-of-the-line military vessels. However, true force was not ultimately necessary. The imposing presence and technological superiority of his fleet and its weaponry was enough to spark willingness for negotiation from the bakufu (Matthew C. Perry). Years later, Dutch writers went on to say, “Capitulation to gunboat diplomacy was a ‘national humiliation’ that ultimately led to the end of the Shogunate” (qtd. in Chaiklin 268). The Dutch certainly had every right to express their opinion of the situation, as they had been Japan’s exclusive trading partner with the West for over two centuries. Additionally, during the Japanese confrontation with Perry’s fleet, “Dutch efforts were successful in keeping war at bay and tempering treaty negotiations” (Chaiklin 269).

Japanese portrayal of one of Commodore Perry's "Black Ships".

Perry’s visits were however, not the first time a Western nation had exhibited a show of force toward Japan’s exclusionist policies. In 1808, the British warship Phaeton made an unexpected appearance at Japan’s main port of Nagasaki and set in motion a chain of events and discoveries that likely encouraged Perry to undertake his voyage decades later. At the time of the Phaeton’s arrival, the quality, and number of cannons allocated to the defense of the port by the Japanese authorities were insufficient to match those on the modern British vessel. Much like the encounter with Perry’s fleet decades later, it is fortunate for the Japanese that hostilities never escalated to the point of exchanging fire. Not only were the Japanese defenses antiquated, and too few in number, but the quantity of soldiers assigned to defending the port was severely lacking. The bakufu’s strategy for defending Nagasaki was not by way of a unified standing army under direct control of the Shogunate, but by that of a rotating force of soldiers supplied primarily by two of the Shogunate’s subordinate domains. Japan’s long peacetime had contributed to a relaxed attitude toward port defense, and the two domains charged with manning the defense gradually supplied fewer troops over the years. This was due to the expense of maintaining military forces that were almost never put to use (Wilson 1-5).

Contemporary rendition of the HMS Phaeton.

In addition to the apparent inferiority of Japanese forces and military structure during the Phaeton incident, Japan faced serious embarrassment regarding their inability to respond to the intrusion by the Phaeton. According to Japanese policy, any uninvited foreign vessels were to be driven out or be subject to destruction if they disobeyed orders to turn back. Due to the inferiority of Japanese forces at the Nagasaki port, no such attack was attempted on the Phaeton, as it clearly would have meant a crippling defeat for the Japanese defenders, as well as possibly sparking all-out war with the British. This inability to act not only shamed the Tokugawa government, but also caused the Japanese public at large to begin questioning the strength and integrity of their government. During the Phaeton’s three-day stay in port, the vessel sent ashore a small crew of men who then proceeded to capture at gunpoint two Dutch secretaries, brought them back to the Phaeton, and held them as hostages until their demands for provisions were met. This was a further shaming for the port authorities and the bakufu, as the Dutch were unarmed guests under the protection of the Japanese, whom ultimately were unable to fulfill their sworn duty to defend their guests (Wilson 19).

Opium War

The Opium War in China was yet another example of an external factor pressuring Japan to open trade in the late Tokugawa era. News of the Opium War, reaching Japan through Dutch sources, was of the utmost concern to the bakufu. It was becoming apparent that the Japanese were at risk of possible invasion to force the establishment of trade. Due to their concern, in 1842, the Japanese enacted the Order for the Provision of Firewood and Water (which would allow foreign vessels to in need to acquire necessary supplies from Japan), as a form of appeasement, hoping that it would be enough of a gesture to prevent possible invasion after the conclusion of the Opium War by the British. The Dutch King Willem II did not see this act as being sufficient to forestall invasion and sent a letter directly to the Shogunate, bypassing the usual channels, and advising the government that a more productive course of action would be to open its ports. This was possibly an act of kindness motivated by the two-hundred years of amicable relations between the Japanese and Dutch, but was at least partially motivated by the risk posed to the Dutch monopoly on trade with Japan should they eventually be invaded by the British (Matsukata 99-100).

Political cartoon portraying world powers during the Opium War.

Internal Factors


Internal factors contributing to the downfall of the Shogunate were even more numerous and complex than external pressures such as gunboat diplomacy or the threat of invasion. Throughout the Tokugawa era, Japan had enjoyed a long period of relative peace. While peace is generally a positive development for a nation, it was in fact detrimental to the continuation of the traditional Japanese social structure, and contributed to the discontent and restlessness of the samurai class. Without conflict, there is little purpose for a soldier, and of course, the members of the samurai class were just that. Many restless, mid-ranking samurai who had little opportunity for further military advancement, attempted to enter bureaucracy, as social customs prevented samurai from lowering themselves to most other professions. These samurai, however, faced a limited availability of positions in the field, as many bureaucratic positions were handed down through families (Moore 83). Lower ranking temporary soldiers had more room for advancement in the military system, but were similarly dissatisfied due to a meager stipend, and having no guarantee of being able to attain a permanent, hereditary hold on their samurai status (Moore 87).


Another factor contributing to the discontent of the samurai class was increasing poverty. This poverty consisted of both an actual reduction in the rice stipends given by the daimyo to his samurai retainers, but also a more subjective feeling of poverty caused by an increasing cost of living, as well as “increasing want” due to the desire and pressure to attain many of the new goods and services available in Japan (Yamamura 393). Both the real reduction in wealth caused by daimyo often “borrowing” portions of his retainer’s stipends to cover their own debts, and the desire to partake in new luxury goods, often forced samurai to take out loans (Yamamura 401, 392). Individuals of the chonin, or middle-class supplied these loans, as the samurai were forbidden to engage in this sort of work. This new dependency of the samurai on the financial services of the chonin began to break down the rigid power structure of the Japanese caste system (Kim 129). It is therefore, not surprising that the samurai class had a growing sense of discontent with their place in society.

Man and woman in historical rice farmer attire.

Money Economy

The increasing power of the middle-class due to the dependence of the samurai on loans, accelerated due to the growth of a money economy during the mid-Tokugawa period (Kim 128). According to Young-Chin Kim in The Journal of Politics,

“…the development of a money economy around the middle of the Tokugawa period and the consequent contradiction between the land and money economies worked to weaken the economic base of the bushi class, as the latter continued to depend on the operation of the 'rice-economy'” (128).

One might wonder why these problems were not combated by the implementation a tax system to take advantage of this newfound chonin wealth. Taxation was attempted, but unfortunately, resulted in failure. Kozo Yamamura in The Journal of Economic History mentions that the chonin were not accustomed to such policy and were prone to revolting, which they often did (403). Yamamura goes on to conclude,

“To perpetuate itself, the Tokugawa Shogunate would have had to share in the increasing agricultural output, for only then would it have been able to withstand the increasing need for cash in the increasingly monetized and commercialized economy. To maintain itself, the bakufu would have required the loyal support of an economically well-rewarded samurai class. The Tokugawa Shogunate failed on both counts” (403).
Tokugawa era currency "Ryo"


The development of a money economy and the growing reliance of the samurai class on loans were not the only things contributing to rising influence amongst the middle class. During the Tokugawa era, Japan was one of the most literate and well-educated societies in the world (Griswold 235). This high level of education and literacy was not limited only to the ruling class, but extended through all tiers of society. Literacy is a major contributor to independent thought, and literature inevitably leads to satirization of one’s own government and social structure. This is precisely what happened in Japan during the late Tokugawa era. Japan’s literate middle class, due to their financial success began to feel confined within the limits of their particular place in society. This led to the large-scale proliferation and consumption of literature, much of which was based around satire, and ultimately, revolutionary ideals (Griswold 237). Susan Griswold in The Journal of Popular Culture asserts,

“Along with other forms of popular aesthetics in Edo, popular literature in the 18th century asserted its own existence and created a secessionist force in a realm that was not epistemologically dependent on the Tokugawa establishment… This, in turn, proved to be a critical factor that led to the ultimate demise of the Tokugawa government in 1868” (244).
Classic Japanese literature


During the mid-19th century, a growing force of anti-Tokugawa activism was forming, largely around the Imperial capital of Kyoto. The well-educated masses, as well as many daimyo throughout the realm, were part of an ideological movement referred to as sonno joi, which essentially translates to “revere the emperor, expel the barbarians” (Nenzi, “Portents” 1-2). The sonno joi movement was a reaction to the trade treaties agreed to between the Shogunate and the United States (against the wishes of the emperor). The resulting perception amongst the population was that the Shogunate was no longer loyal to the imperial throne, and that it was not fulfilling its role of protecting Japan against the outside world. The radical xenophobic sentiment sweeping across Japan eventually led to full-scale rebellion by samurai of the Choshu and Satsuma domains, against both the Shogunate, and their foreign guests. The last shogun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, after failing to receive military assistance from the French to combat the rebellion, eventually resigned his post to avoid all-out war against the belligerent domains. Not long afterwards, Imperial loyalists marched on Edo, which fell with little resistance. Edo was adopted as the new seat of the Imperial government and was subsequently renamed Tokyo (Japan).

Tokugawa Yoshinobu: "The Last Shogun"

The Comet

Of course, a few other internal disturbances contributed to the upheaval during the late Tokugawa era. In an eerily timely manner, the end for the Shogunate was signaled by the appearance of the comet, commonly known as Donati, in the night skies of 1858 (Nenzi, “Caught” 2). Despite a prevalence of rational, scientific thought, the Japanese people could not help but see the comet (or broom-star as they referred to it) as a sign of things to come. Indeed, during the time of the comet, Japan saw earthquakes, floods that resulted in a compromised rice crop (and resulting riots), outbreaks of cholera, a terrible fire in Kyoto, the death of a shogun, and of course the upheaval brought about by the treaties with the United States (Nenzi, “Caught” 3).

Donati's Comet by William Turner, 1858


The fall of the Tokugawa Shogunate, and the subsequent Meiji Restoration were truly the result of the myriad of differing external pressures and internal strain. It seems that pre-modern Japan valiantly held onto its traditional principles as long as could safely do so. Globalization and modernization were inevitable, and fortunately were accomplished without the Japanese people being subject to invasion or foreign rule. This would have likely done serious damage to Japan’s vibrant, fascinating, and ancient culture. Though the imperial loyalists never managed to “expel the barbarians”, and ultimately found themselves fighting against the same rebelling samurai that supported the sonno joi movement originally, Japan to this day remains a distinct and unique culture.

Works Cited

Chaiklin, Martha. "Monopolists to Middlemen: Dutch Liberalism and American Imperialism in the Opening of Japan." Journal of World History 21.2 (2010): 249-269. Academic Search Complete. Web. 3 Sept. 2012.

"Daimyo." Encyclopædia Britannica Online Academic Edition. Encyclopædia Britannica, 2012. Web. 22 Sep. 2012.

Griswold, Susan. "The Triumph of Materialism: The Popular Fiction of 18th-Century Japan." Journal of Popular Culture 29.1 (1995): 235-245. Academic Search Complete. Web. 3 Sept. 2012.

"Japan." Encyclopædia Britannica Online Academic Edition. Encyclopædia Britannica, 2012. Web. 7 Sep. 2012.

Kim, Young-Chin. “On Political Thought in Tokugawa Japan.” The Journal of Politics 23.1 (1961): 127-145. JSTOR. Web. 3 Sept. 2012.

Matsukata, Fuyuko, and Adam Clulow. “King Willem II's 1844 Letter to the Shogun: ‘Recommendation to Open the Country’.” Monumenta Nipponica 66.1 (2011): 99-122. Project MUSE. Web. 3 Sept. 2012.

"Matthew C. Perry." Encyclopædia Britannica Online Academic Edition. Encyclopædia Britannica, 2012. Web. 18 Sep. 2012.

Moore, Ray A. “Samurai Discontent and Social Mobility in the Late Tokugawa Period.” Monumenta Nipponica 24.1/2 (1969): 79-91. JSTOR. Web. 3 Sept. 2012.

Nenzi, Laura. "Caught In The Spotlight: The 1858 Comet And Late Tokugawa Japan." Japan Forum 23.1 (2011): 1-23. Academic Search Complete. Web. 3 Sept. 2012.

Nenzi, Laura. "Portents and Politics: Two Women Activists on the Verge of the Meiji Restoration." Journal of Japanese Studies 38.1 (2012): 1-23. Academic Search Complete. Web. 3 Sept. 2012.

Ravina, Mark. "State-Building and Political Economy in Early-Modern Japan." Journal of Asian Studies 54.4 (1995): 997. Academic Search Complete. Web. 3 Sept. 2012.

Wilson, Noell. "Tokugawa Defense Redux: Organizational Failure in the Phaeton Incident of 1808." Journal of Japanese Studies 36.1 (2010): 1-32. Academic Search Complete. Web. 3 Sept. 2012.

Yamamura, Kozo. "The Increasing Poverty of the Samurai in Tokugawa Japan, 1600-1868." Journal of Economic History 31.2 (1971): 378. Academic Search Complete. Web. 3 Sept. 2012.

Created By
Lee Scholl


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