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When Tokugawa Ieyasu assumed the position of shogun in 1603, an era that carries his family name in Japanese history began. The period lasted until 1868 when Tokugawa Yoshinobu chose to relinquish his diminishing power and resigned from the post his family had occupied for centuries in favor of returning the control to the emperor. Various policies and restrictions characterize the time between these two events, the most significant of which was likely the isolationist policy that all but prohibited trade with other countries. This essay investigates the factors that helped or hindered the growth and cultural progress of Japan throughout the Tokugawa period.
The principal factor that benefited the growth and progress of the nation after the ascension of Tokugawa Ieyasu to power is the conclusion of the Sengoku period. The constant strife that characterized the 15th and 16th centuries heavily impeded the ability of the Japanese to create new ideas. The separation of the nation into numerous minor territories reduced the mobility of people and knowledge, preventing advancements from spreading. Furthermore, the wars took the lives of people, many of whom would otherwise be occupied in productive professions. When Ieyasu unified the nation, he allowed people and their ideas to travel freely and thus assisted cultural progress.
With the pacification of the land came the tightening of the laws, which now allowed significantly less violence than before. Walker provides the example of Asano Naganori, who failed to adapt to the new rules and behaved according to the samurai codes of honor (127). He ended up performing a fatal breach of the law and was forced to commit suicide and forfeit his lands. The forty-seven ronin who avenged their lord’s death was put to death in the same fashion, though Walker notes that they were permitted to retain their honor due to their shame and righteous behavior (128). The reduction in violence served to preserve lives and build a more peaceful community, thus promoting cultural advancement.
Despite the separation of Japan’s residents into various societal classes, the Tokugawa period was characterized by merit-based promotions and demotions as espoused by the dominant Confucian teachings, at least early on. Smith provides the example of the Matsue family, the vassals of which almost universally attained a higher or lower-income, with changes often occurring within a single generation (75).
However, Smith also notes that the tendency no longer held in the last two-thirds of the 18th and early 19th centuries, though it resumed near the end of the era (75). The trend allowed talented and skilled people to assume more influential and secure positions, enabling them to exercise their abilities to a greater degree, which facilitated growth.
Samurai were not the only social class that benefited from the new situation and were able to utilize their talents. Walker documents the emergence of Osaka as the financial center of Japan, where traders and artisans thrived and advanced the national culture (128). Walker adds that the merchant class, in particular, grew sufficiently wealthy to become able to send their children to Confucian academies, where they received educations similar to those of the samurai (128).
Many people still disliked traders as members of a low caste that chased after false values such as wealth, but they could not deny the power afforded to the businessmen by their money. That money circulated through Osaka and promoted all kinds of economic and cultural activities, moving the country forward.
While the system established by the Tokugawas permitted significant upward movement within the limitations of one’s caste, the fact that the Japanese society was segregated by nigh-impenetrable barriers remained. As Smith explains, while the government recognized that people of all social classes had talent, it assumed that only samurai would have the time necessary to cultivate it into skills and abilities, or “merit” (71-72). Thus, most essential postings were awarded to the members of the warrior caste, and people from other categories often went unrecognized for their achievements. As a result, sometimes the positions were granted to people who did not possess sufficient skills, leading to ineffective governance and harm to the people.
The government used other measures that, perhaps inadvertently, inhibited the development of Japanese culture. The suppression of religions such as Christianity is one such policy, as the shogunate refused to acknowledge the alternative ideas brought by the missionaries. Instead, as noted by Walker, the foreign priests were deported, and native followers of the religion were harshly persecuted (132).
Confucianism was endorsed by the state and reigned supreme, but some of its innate ideas, such as the removal of women into a subservient role (Walker 130-131), impeded progress. Ultimately, the bakufu valued control more than it did growth and advancement, leading to attempts to suppress explicit deviations from the norm.
The infamous isolationist policy of the Tokugawa government serves as another example of this tendency. The shogunate refused most contact with outside nations until Western ships forced their entry with their superior power. Trade continued in limited amounts, as several ports remained conditionally open to foreign vessels. However, the introduction of new foreign ideas and technologies halted, as can be seen from the treatment of Christianity by the shogunate. The stasis in which the bakufu held the nation reflected negatively on its overall progress and growth, leaving it behind contemporary countries in most aspects.
Lastly, the changes associated with the advent of the Tokugawas, such as the creation of large cities, reflected on nature along with more significant developments. Walker mentions various disasters such as deadly volcanic eruptions and the onset of the Little Ice Age, which severely impeded food production and led to famines (134-135). Thus, the nation had to expand geographically and adopt new means of production to continue surviving. In particular, Walker highlights the conquest of Ezo, which is now known as Hokkaido, which would later become a significant source of food and coal for the expanding post-Tokugawa industry (135). The expansion significantly increased the territory of Japan, creating more space for the population to live and work on the land.
Tokugawa Ieyasu ended a long period of strife and unified the Japanese nation into a single whole. The land became less violent due to the introduction of new laws, and the Confucian ideas of the government enabled significant social mobility within the bounds of one’s caste. Nevertheless, the segregation system impeded the progress of the nation, and the bakufu tried to remove other teachings by force. In addition, the isolationist policy of the Tokugawas hampered the adoption of new foreign ideas, leaving Japan behind in technology. Lastly, various natural disasters forced a geographical expansion, but the nation still sometimes struggled to secure enough food.
Smith, Thomas C. “’Merit’ as Ideology in the Tokugawa Period.” Aspects of Social Change in Modern Japan, edited by Ronald Philip Dore, Princeton University Press, 1967, pp. 71-90.
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Walker, Brett L. A Concise History of Japan. Cambridge University Press, 2015.