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Shogunate Japan: Decline of Shogunate Japan

A resource guide for the Year 8 History Samurai assignment

Matthew C. Perry | United States naval officer | Britannica

Source: Library of Congress

In the nineteenth century, after the world’s great powers successfully industrialized, they began expanding their influence to Asia in search of new markets. Foreign ships appeared in the seas around Japan, occasionally coming to shore with the aim of establishing trade ties. The Tokugawa shogunate, in power since the beginning of the seventeenth century, refused all these requests. In 1853, however, Commodore Matthew Perry of the US Navy, the commander of the East India squadron, arrived with a fleet of “black ships” and demanded the opening of the country. Seeing no other option, in 1854 the shogunate’s leaders agreed to the Japan-US Treaty of Peace and Amity, which opened the ports of Shimoda and Hakodate to US ships. Similar deals soon followed with Britain, Russia, and the Netherlands. These outside influences destabilised the shogunate and brought about what is called the Meiji Restoration, the end of the shogunate and a return to imperial rule. Read through these resources to learn more about the end of shogunate Japan.

Perry, black ships and Japan opens up (Facts and Details, 2016, September)

In 1852, Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry (1794-1858) of the United States Navy was dispatched to Japan by U.S. President Millard Fillmore (1800-1874). On July 8, 1853, Perry, commanding a squadron of two steamers and two sailing vessels, arrived in Uraga harbor, near the Tokugawa capital of Edo (Tokyo) aboard the frigate Susquehanna and forced Japan to enter into trade with the United States. Upon seeing Perry's fleet sailing into their harbor, the Japanese called them the "black ships of evil mien (appearance)." The arrival of these ships would mark the beginning of the end for the Tokugawa shogunate. Read through this detailed article to learn more. The article also includes numerous links to extra resources for further reading.

Commodore Perry and Japan (1853 - 1854) (Asia for Educators, Columbia University, n.d.)

This article provides a very brief overview of Commodore Perry's arrival in Japan, how this was received by the Japanese people of the time and how it changed the course of history for Japan.

The Meiji Restoration era, 1868 - 1889 (About Japan, 2003)

Change was the currency of the Meiji era (1868–1912). From the day the teen-aged Mutsuhito claimed power on January 3, 1868 in a relatively tranquil coup called the “Meiji Restoration” (after his reign name) until his death forty-five years later, Japan experienced an evolution so rapid that one Tokyo expatriate said he felt as if he had been alive for 400 years. An isolated, feudalistic island state in 1850, Japan had become a powerful colonial power with the most modern of institutions when Meiji’s son, the Taisho emperor, took the throne in 1912. Both the sources of these changes and the way in which they made Japan “modern” provide the material for one of human history’s more dramatic stories. They also laid the groundwork for the turbulence of Japan’s twentieth century. This article tells the story of the Meiji Restoration and how it ended the shogunate period of Japan.

The Meiji Restoration and modernisation (Asia for Educators, Columbia University, n.d.)

In 1868 the Tokugawa shôgun ("great general"), who ruled Japan in the feudal period, lost his power and the emperor was restored to the supreme position. The emperor took the name Meiji ("enlightened rule") as his reign name; this event was known as the Meiji Restoration. This article provides a summary of this period, as well as discussion questions for you to check your understanding.

Tokugawa period and Meiji Restoration (History Channel, 2021, April 13)

Japan’s Tokugawa (or Edo) period, which lasted from 1603 to 1867, would be the final era of traditional Japanese government, culture and society before the Meiji Restoration of 1868 toppled the long-reigning Tokugawa shoguns and propelled the country into the modern era. This article includes a brief summary of the Tokugawa shogunate before discussing the events that led up to the decline and fall of the shogunate.

Letters from U.S. President Millard Fillmore and U.S. Navy Commodore Matthew C. Perry to the Emperor of Japan (1852-1853)

In 1852, Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry (1794-1858) was dispatched to Japan by U.S. President Millard Fillmore (1800-1874) in command of four warships, including two steam frigates. The squadron arrived in Uraga harbor, near the Tokugawa capital of Edo, on July 8, 1853. As expressed in the following letter from President Fillmore to the Japanese Emperor, delivered by Perry to the worried Tokugawa officials who greeted him, the United States was eager to break Japan’s “seclusion policy,” sign diplomatic and commercial treaties, and thus “open” the nation to the Western world. For the Japanese, who had carefully regulated overseas contacts since the seventeenth century and whose technology could not compare to that displayed by the American squadron, Perry’s arrival and President Fillmore’s letter were unwelcome and ominous, even if not entirely unexpected. Commodore Perry stayed in Uraga for fewer than ten days in 1853, withdrawing to the China coast with his ships. As he promised in his letter of July 14, 1853, however, he returned to Japan about six months later with a much larger and more intimidating fleet, comprising six ships with more than 100 mounted cannon. In March of 1854, the Tokugawa shogunate capitulated to all the American demands, signing the Treaty of Kanagawa with Perry.

Click the link above to read the letters.

Excerpts from Shinron (New Theses): "The Barbarians' Nature"

Aizawa Seishisai (1781-1863) was an important Confucian scholar and tutor to the lords of Mito, a branch of the Tokugawa family. Aizawa’s greatest work, Shinron (“New Theses”), was written in 1825, in the wake of a string of incidents of Western ships entering Japanese waters. Now considered a seminal contribution to Japanese nationalist thought, Shinron tapped into rising sentiments in Japan supporting a more active political role for the emperor and a firm stand against the intrusions of Western “barbarians.” Aizawa’s writings, as well as the work of other scholars in what was known as the Mito School, would later prove an inspiration to the detractors of the Tokugawa shogunate who rallied around the slogan sonnō jōi (“revere the Emperor and expel the barbarians”).

Click the link above to read the excerpts.

The Charter Oath (of the Meiji Restoration), 1868

The Charter Oath was a short but very important public document issued in April 1868, just months after the Meiji Restoration brought an end to the Tokugawa shogunate and installed a new Japanese government. Issued in the name of the Emperor Meiji (who was only 15 years old at the time), the text was written by a group of the young samurai, mainly from domains in southwestern Japan, who had led the overthrow of the Tokugawa and the “restoration” of imperial rule. The Charter Oath appeared at a time of considerable uncertainty in Japanese society, as people throughout the country were unsure of the intentions and priorities of the new regime governing Japan.

Click the link above to read the Charter Oath.

The Meiji Constitution of 1889 [PDF]

Promulgated on February 11, 1889, the Meiji Constitution was a major landmark in the making of the modern Japanese state and in Japan’s drive to become one of the world’s advanced, “civilized” powers. Drafted by Itō Hirobumi, a group of other government leaders, and several Western legal scholars, the document was bestowed on the Japanese people by the Emperor Meiji and established Japan as a constitutional monarchy with a parliament (called the Diet), the lower house of which was elected. Itō and his associates drew heavily on Western models, and especially the conservative traditions of Prussia, in creating a constitution that reserved almost unrestricted power for the Emperor while still permitting the creation of democratic institutions.

Click on the link above to read an excerpt.

Mutsuhito, The Meiji Emperor

The Imperial Household Agency chose Uchida, one of the most renowned photographers in Japan at the time, as the only artist permitted to photograph the Meiji Emperor in 1872 and again in 1873. Up to this point, no emperor had ever been photographed. Uchida established his reputation making portraits of samurai loyal to the ruling Tokugawa shogunate.

Act II, Scene 5: At the Opera in Paris” (Dai ni-banme itsu-makume, Parifu engeki no ba), from the series “The Strange Tale of the Castaways: A Western Kabuki” (Hyōryū kidan seiyō kabuki)

In 1879, when this print by the ukiyo-e print artist Adachi Ginkō was published, Japan was awash with recently imported foreign ideas and images. Ginkō depicts a scene from Hyōryukidan seiyō kabuki (The Strange Tale of the Castaways: A Western Kabuki), a contemporary play conceived as a flamboyant showcase of all things Western, by the celebrated playwright Kawatake Mokuami (1816–1893). Near the end of the story, all of the major characters—having endured shipwrecks and train robberies on three continents—watch a show at the Paris Opera House. The cast of this “play within a play” was a touring troupe of European and American entertainers.

Ginkō condenses three separate acts into one image and playfully includes the proscenium within his composition. The figure in the foreground is a blackface minstrel. (He would not have been the first one to appear in Japan: Commodore Matthew Perry presented a minstrel troupe on his diplomatic voyage in 1854.) At center, one “Davidson” is dressed as a Scottish Highlander, possibly to dance a jig. Behind him stand Mr. and Mme. Hirlemann, who performed selections from operettas. Mme. Hirlemann’s operatic singing was so unfamiliar to Japanese audiences that it doomed the production.

Concert of European Music (Ōshū kangengaku gassō no zu)

During the modernization of Japan in the Meiji Period, recitals of European music were among the newly imported customs. The two female violinists are set apart from the singers by their distinctive corsage bodices, gathered at the waist to fan out over part of the apron, a style that appeared frequently in La mode illustrée between 1885 and 1887.

Splendor of the Procession of General Grant from America (Beikoku Guranto-shi go tsūkō no han'ei)

This print was commissioned to commemorate the former American president's visit to Tokyo (Edo was renamed Tokyo when the emperor made it his residence in 1868) and his attendance at a Kabuki performance. Like many prints executed during the Meiji era, this one acted as a type of Japanese photojournalism. As such, the speed with which it was executed and the number of copies made are partly responsible for the general decline in quality most noticeable in the color registration and uneven paint application. The setting of the print can be identified as Tokyo's new Western-style Main Street located in the Ginza district and designed by the English architect Thomas Waters. In their choice of setting, Kunichika and Kunisada III consciously celebrate the advent of modernism in Japan. Likewise, the artists made a bold statement of the Meiji era's strong nationalistic sentiment by the repetition of Japan's newly adopted flag and by the rhythms created by the pattern of the flags' brilliant red centers. The bold silhouettes of the seven Kabuki actors, one of whom wears a Western bowler hat, dominate the print as they watch Grant's silhouetted procession. According to Julia Meech, the dramatic emphasis of the actors' silhouettes recalls the tradition of Japanese shadow theater, a premise strengthened by the hand gestures made by four group members.