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Shogunate Japan: The role of the Tokugawa Shogunate

A resource guide for the Year 8 History Samurai assignment

Source: Chikanobu Toyohara 

The Tokugawa Shogunate defined modern Japanese history by centralizing the power of the nation's government and uniting its people. Before the Tokugawa took power in 1603, Japan suffered through the lawlessness and chaos of the Sengoku ("Warring States") period, which lasted from 1467 to 1573. Beginning in 1568, Japan's "Three Reunifiers"—Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu—worked to bring the warring daimyo back under central control. In 1603, Tokugawa Ieyasu completed the task and established the Tokugawa Shogunate, which would rule in the emperor's name until 1868. Read through the resources below to learn more about the Tokugawa Shogunate.

Edo (Tokugawa) Period (1603 - 1867) (Facts and Details, 2016, September)

The Tokugawa (or Edo) Period (1603-1867) began when Tokugawa Ieyasu became shogun in 1603 after a victory at Sekigahara in 1600 and brought 200 years of stability to Japan. This article gives a very detailed look into this period of Japan's history, and includes lots of links to further reading.

Japan - memoirs of a secret empire (PBS, 2003)

Commanding shoguns and fierce samurai warriors, exotic geisha and exquisite artisans—all were part of a Japanese renaissance between the 16th and 19th centuries when Japan went from chaos and violence to a land of ritual refinement and peace. But stability came at a price: for nearly 250 years, Japan was a land closed to the Western world, ruled by the shogun under his absolute power and control. Japan: Memoirs of a Secret Empire brings to life the unknown story of a mysterious empire, its relationship with the West, and the forging of a nation that would emerge as one of the most important countries in the world.

Shoguns rule Japan with an iron fist (ABC, n.d.)

Who were the shoguns and how did they rule Japan? In Japanese history, the time from about 1600 to 1868 is called the Edo period. In 1600, after centuries of wars, Japan came under the control of shoguns from the Tokugawa clan. They continued to rule until 1868, when they were overthrown. View this clip to discover how these shoguns maintained their power. This clip is first in a series of six.

Tokugawa period (University of Pittsburgh, n.d.)

This website gives a very brief overview of the Tokugawa period in Japan, including how it started and ended, and some of its cultural achievements.

Edo period timeline (University of Southern California, Pacific Asia Museum, n.d.)

A timeline of the major events during the Tokugawa Shogunate.

Art of the Edo period (1615 - 1868) (The Metropolitan Museum of Arts, 2003, October)

In the harshly controlled feudal society governed for over 250 years by the descendants of Tokugawa Ieyasu (1542–1616), creativity came not from its leaders, a conservative military class, but from the two lower classes in the Confucian social hierarchy, the artisans and merchants. Although officially denigrated, they were free to reap the economic and social benefits of this prosperous age. This article describes some of the art that flourished during this time period.

Tokugawa Shogunate (Khan Academy, n.d.)

Japan may just appear as a series of islands off the east coast of the Eurasian landmass, but these islands are really big and have been thickly populated for many centuries. If you took a snapshot of Japan in 1750, you would see a prosperous country unified under a stable, centralized government. This government, called the Tokugawa Shogunate (1600-1868)^11start superscript, 1, end superscript , was led by a military ruler, called a shogun, with the help of a class of military lords, called daimyō. True, Japan was led by military elite, yet it was still a time of relative peace and stability. This article from Khan Academy describes the Tokugawa Shogunate and includes reflection questions for you to check your learning against.

The edicts of Toyotomi Hideyoshi: Excerpts from 'Limitation on the propagation of Christianity, 1587' & Excerpts from 'Explusion of missionaries', 1587

The unification of Japan and the creation of a lasting national polity in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries required more than just military exploits. Japan’s “three unifiers,” especially Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536- 1598) and Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616), enacted a series of social, economic, and political reforms in order to pacify a population long accustomed to war and instability and create the institutions necessary for lasting central rule. Although Hideyoshi and Ieyasu placed first priority on domestic affairs — especially on establishing authority over domain lords, warriors, and agricultural villages — they also dictated sweeping changes in Japan’s international relations. The years from 1549 to 1639 are sometimes called the “Christian century” in Japan. In the latter half of the sixteenth century, Christian missionaries, especially from Spain and Portugal, were active in Japan and claimed many converts, including among the samurai elite and domain lords. The following edicts restricting the spread of Christianity and expelling European missionaries from Japan were issued by Hideyoshi in 1587.

Click on the link above to read the excerpts.

The Edicts of Toyotomi Hideyoshi: Excerpts from Collection of Swords, 1588

The unification of Japan and the creation of a lasting national polity in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries required more than just military exploits. Japan’s “three unifiers,” especially Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536- 1598) and Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616), enacted a series of social, economic, and political reforms in order to pacify a population long accustomed to war and instability and create the institutions necessary for lasting central rule. Although Hideyoshi and Ieyasu placed first priority on domestic affairs — especially on establishing authority over domain lords, warriors, and agricultural villages — they also dictated sweeping changes in Japan’s international relations. In 1588, in what has come to be known as the “sword hunt,” Hideyoshi decreed that farmers should be disarmed, essentially guaranteeing the samurai elite a monopoly on the instruments of violence.

Click on the link above to read the excerpts.

The Edicts of 1635 Ordering the Closing of Japan: Addressed to the Joint Bugyô of Nagasaki

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Click the link above to read the edict.

Armor (Gusoku)

This example comes from the armory of Date Yoshimura (1703–1746), daimyo (lord) of Sendai. The helmet bowl, signed Saotome Iye[tada?], dates from the sixteenth century; the remainder of the armor was constructed in the eighteenth century. The breastplate is inscribed inside with the armorer's name, Myōchin Munesuke (1688–1735). The embossed ornament on the solid iron plates is characteristic of the Myōchin school.

Ceremonial Arrowhead (Yanone)

Large arrowheads, pierced and elaborately chiseled with landscapes, birds, flowers, dragons, and Buddhist divinities, were created to be admired for the beauty of their metalwork and design rather than for use in archery. This arrowhead is dated 1645 and signed by Umetada Motoshige (died 1675), a member of the Umetada school of swordsmiths, tsuba makers, and iron chiselers. It belongs to a group of more than thirty similarly signed and dated pieces in the Metropolitan Museum's collection (including acc. nos. 32.75.318, .321, .327, .330, .334, .337, .340, .398–.399, .403, .406, .409) that may have been made for presentation or as a votive offering to a shrine.


Muneakira's masterpiece, this mask by Muneakira was already famous when it was first published in 1763. It represents Jikokuten, guardian of the East, one of the Four Kings of Heaven. The mask is also one of the few to retain its original silk head covering sewn to the upper edges.

Okimono in the Form of a Raven

This raven was fashioned by hammering and embossing steel––a most intractable medium––into a being of remarkable vitality. Though motionless, the bird is caught in a lifelike pose and full of expression. The conspicuously large size and shape of the beak distinguishes it from a crow. It was designed as an okimono, or ornament for display in the ceremonial alcove (tokonoma) of a Japanese reception room. Because of its large size and fine quality, we may imagine this work was commissioned for a wealthy daimyo patron.

The work is signed "Myōchin Shikibu Ki no Munesuke" on the underside of the body. This refers to the twenty-second master metalsmith to use this name (beginning in the twelfth century), who was active in Edo (present day Tokyo) in the early eighteenth century. This Munesuke, a noted maker of ornate helmets and armor, was known as one of the greatest masters of metal repoussé (hammered shapes).

Helmet (Hoshi Kabuto) in the 13th Century Style

During the Edo period (1615–1868), there was a conscious revival of medieval armor fashions, and this helmet is an instructive example. It was fashioned in the thirteenth-century style, and it certainly was made to accompany an armor of medieval yoroi fashion. The metal fittings on the helmet include the badge of the Hotta family, daimyo of Sakura.

Half Mask (Ho-ate) with Neck Guard

Masks have long played an important role in Japanese culture: in religious ceremonies, dance, Noh theater, and military costume. For samurai, masks served as a principal face defense and helped secure the helmet to the head more firmly.

The majority of masks were half-length (mempo), covering the nose and the face below the eyes. Their iron surfaces are either lacquered or a dark russet finish; the interiors are usually lacquered red. In addition to half masks, the Metropolitan Museum's collection is unusual in possessing numerous full masks (somen). The majority date from the peaceful Edo period. During that time, armorers like the Myōchin clan took pride in making ever more varied masks as a demonstration of their creativity and their famous metalworking skills.

Daimyo Procession to Edo

This deluxe handscroll painted on silk, captures the pageantry of a grand procession of a daimyo (feudal chieftain) and his entourage en route from their home province to Edo (present-day Tokyo), the military capital of the day. During the Edo period, on a biannual basis, daimyo were required to travel to Edo, where the Tokugawa shogunate had been based since the early seventeenth century, and take up residence there under the sankin kōtai (alternate attendance) system. Hundreds of retainers are shown transporting weapons, ceremonial accoutrements, and personal effects that bespeak the daimyo’s military and financial might. Some are mounted on horses; the daimyo and certain other members of his family are carried in palanquins.

In contrast to most depictions of daimyo processions, the scroll opens with a touching scene of a samurai family—a mother nursing a baby, an adult man, a young boy, and two teenage boys—perhaps meant to represent the members of the family that the daimyo must leave behind while he embarks on a trip to Edo. The style in which this genre vignette is handled suggests that the scroll was painted by an artist in the studio of Hishikawa Moronobu, renowned for his role in pioneering the category of painting and printmaking now known as ukiyo-e (“pictures of the floating world”). Another special aspect of this depiction, in the middle section of the scroll, is group of four wakashu (male youths) on elaborately saddled horses attended by grooms; we may assume that these were favorite attendants of the daimyo. Same-sex relationships between elite samurai and wakashu were well documented, but it is rare to see it alluded to in an official work such as this, which is another reason this work can be attributed to an artist in the lineage of Moronobu.

Tureen with Landscape

This large tureen is a piece of export porcelain made for the European trade that was conducted by the Dutch during the Edo period (1615–1868). It is decorated in the Transitional style, in which a stylized landscape scene is executed in underglaze blue on a white surface. This style originated in Chinese export porcelain and was popular in Europe in the first half of the seventeenth century. When, toward the middle of that century, the Dutch porcelain trade was carried out primarily with Japan, Chinese styles were used as models. This large tureen shape was not widespread in Japan, but rather was created specifically to meet the demand of European buyers.

Palindromic Poems (Kaibunka): Edo

In the center panel of this triptych, the actor Segawa Kikunojō stands with a pipe in his hand and a smoking set and a surimono print at his feet. Through the window, wisteria and pine are visible in the background. The palindrome goes:

Nagaki yo no
too no nefuri no
mina me same
nami nori fune no
oto no yo kikana

Through the long night
on the distant shore
those sleeping
are all awakened, perhaps
by the sound of the boat
carried across the waves.

Genji in Exile at Suma, from the series Genji in Fashionable Modern Guise (Fūryū yatsushi Genji: Suma)

Two women and a girl play with a kitten. The beach at Suma, with boats sailing in Osaka Bay, is visible beyond the open shōji, the veranda, and a stand of pines. A design of fishnets adorns the kimono of the central figure. This left-hand sheet from a print triptych recasts the episode of Genji’s exile in Suma with stylish ladies in Edo-period clothing in place of the male companions who accompanied the protagonist in the tale. The artist, Chōbunsai Eishi, born into a high-ranking samurai family, would have been familiar with such up-to-date fashions worn by Edo’s social elite.

Osen of the Kagiya Teahouse at Kasamori Shrine with a View of Nippori in Yanaka

The Kagiya teahouse, located in the precinct of the Kasamori Inari Shrine in the capital, Edo, is depicted in the foreground. The landscape of Higurashinosato (Nippori) is seen in the background, including a popular spot for the recreational activity of throwing dishes over a cliff to watch their trajectory, which is depicted at top right.

Tea shops, commonly found near the entrance to Shinto shrines, became popular meeting places during the Edo period, as much the object of the excursion as the actual visit to the shrine. Osen, a young tea maid at the Kagiya shop, located in front of the torii entrance to Kasamori Shrine, was made famous by Harunobu's several depictions of her and was perhaps the real object of his visits there during the late 1760s. Here, she turns coyly from an importunate admirer. Another tea maid, near a bench at the left, tries to ward off a bold customer's advance. The arriving party of four might be participating in a pilgrimage to the shrine. The lighthearted, hedonistic nature of these popular pilgrimages is amply evident in Harunobu's depiction of this scene, which includes one of his few landscape depictions.

Summer Robe (Katabira) with Seasonal Landscapes and Scenes from The Tale of Genji

This robe exemplifies the exquisitely embroidered and dyed robes made in the late Edo period for high-ranking samurai ladies, especially in daimyo households. They came to be referred to as “imperial court style” garments, as the landscapes and seasonal plants combine with motifs referencing Noh plays, poems, or classical literature such as The Tale of Genji to evoke aristocratic life in the Heian period. The motifs consist of pines, plum and cherry blossoms, chrysanthemums, maple leaves, reeds, clouds, rocks, and streams. The stylized landscapes include spring patterns, a half-moon, and autumn flowers. The scene showing the Nonomiya shrine on the back of the right sleeve is from Chapter 10, “A Branch of Sacred Evergreens.” On the right of the lower section, the depiction of the koto refers to the best-known scene of Chapter 2, “Broom Cypress”—the so-called “appraisal of women on a rainy night” episode.

Festive Dancing at a Samurai Residence (Fūryū odori zu byōbu)

In the garden of a grand samurai residence, guests dance to the music of small hand drums (tsutsumi), a larger shime-daiko drum held by a girl and played by a young man, a bamboo transverse flute (shinobue), and a three-stringed shamisen played by a minstrel, seen from behind. Several of the wakashu, male youths who often served as companions to older samurai patrons, are dressed in garments more appropriate for young women, but can be identified by their shaven pates and swords. The dancers wave their arms and tap sticks in time to the music, performing furyū-odori, fashionable, modern dances popular at festivals in the early to mid-seventeenth century and also enjoyed at private gatherings, as depicted here.

The unknown artist was very likely a machi-eshi, or town-based painter with no close affiliation to any particular school of painting. Bright colors and detailed textile patterns such as those seen here were frequently used in genre paintings depicting the various classes of Edo-period society and the celebration of various festivals. Such images are precursors of ukiyo-e (“pictures of the floating world”) scenes of the pleasures of urban life that began to flourish in the later years of the 17th century and grew in popularity and sophistication over the next two hundred years.

Tokugawa Ieyasu on Military Government and the Social Order

Creating the Tokugawa system of rule required a variety of sweeping political and social reforms, none perhaps with a more profound impact than the division of society into four hereditary status groups (often called classes) based on occupation, known in Japanese as the shinōkōshō (samurai, peasants, artisans, merchants). In this short document, written by an unidentified retainer in the early seventeenth century, Ieyasu’s conception of the Tokugawa social hierarchy is recorded.

Click on the link above to read the document.