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The Tokugawa Shoguns, Decline of the Shogunate

Townsend Harris, unequal treaties, Japanese ports, Choshu, Tokugawa shogunate

Internal social changes might eventually have brought about the downfall of the Tokugawa shogunate, but they were overtaken by new pressures from the outside. In the late 18th century Westerners began to challenge the Tokugawa policy of limiting trade and other contacts. The first to do so were Russians, who made probes into the northern island of Hokkaido (then called Ezo) in the 1790s hoping to open up trade. Further breaches of the seclusion policy soon followed, as British, French, and other foreign ships began to appear in Japanese harbors with increasing frequency. Although the shogunate issued orders to rebuff any attempt by the ships to land, Japanese defenders, with their outdated weapons and organization, could offer little resistance to modern warships.

The threat to the shogunate from foreign intrusion was twofold: On one hand, the central government’s power and authority had been maintained for more than two centuries through the policy of seclusion, and to abandon it now would place the shogun’s dominant position at risk. On the other hand, predatory Western powers presented a real danger to Japan’s sovereignty. Britain’s victory over China in the first Opium War in the early 1840s and the subsequent forced opening of Chinese trading ports provided an alarming example of what might happen to Japan. Many daimyo were not sympathetic to the shogunate’s predicament, however. They wanted to maintain the policy of seclusion at all costs.

The arrival of a United States gunboat expedition led by Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry in 1853 threw Japan’s leadership into turmoil. The United States had become interested in opening Japan to normal trading and diplomatic relationships in the 1840s, largely in order to secure good treatment for U.S. whalers plying the northwest Pacific and U.S. merchants involved in the China trade. Now Perry used the implied threat of his warships to pressure the shogunate to sign a treaty of friendship with the United States. Failing to achieve consensus after unprecedented consultations with the daimyo, the shogunate reluctantly agreed to sign the treaty in 1854.

Foreign demands for further concessions followed rapidly. In 1858 the United States, represented by Townsend Harris, successfully negotiated a second, commercial treaty that opened more Japanese ports to trade, fixed tariffs (government taxes on trade), and guaranteed Americans extraterritorial rights (which extended U.S. laws and jurisdiction to U.S. citizens in Japan). Other Western powers soon followed suit by demanding similar treaties, which came to be called “unequal treaties” because they placed Japan in a subordinate diplomatic position.

The opening of the country under foreign pressure undermined the authority and legitimacy of the Tokugawa shogunate. The Tokugawa leaders had shown themselves to be too weak to fend off the “Western barbarians,” and they had defied the wishes of the emperor at Kyoto, who opposed the 1858 trade treaty. In the late 1850s and early 1860s, antiforeign sentiments swept through the samurai class. Antiforeign activists sought to rally the country around the emperor under the slogan “Revere the emperor, expel the barbarians” (sonno joi). Foreign residents in the newly opened ports were attacked, and in 1863 the domain of Choshu fired on foreign vessels sailing through the Straits of Shimonseki. Although it was obvious that the Westerners could not be expelled by military force, this did not prevent the antiforeign movement from further eroding the position of the shogunate.

The antiforeign movement was particularly strong in the large domains of the tozama daimyo of western Japan, who as “outside lords” had always resented Tokugawa rule. During the 1860s many of these domains, including Satsuma, Choshu, Tosa, and Saga, began to build up their own military strength by importing Western weapons and ships, hiring Western military instructors, and training Western-style military units. The shogunate, which had sent an unsuccessful military expedition against Choshu to punish its antiforeign activities, began its own military modernization program as well.

Leaders of the western domains, however, feared that the shogunate’s main goal was not to protect the country but to preserve its own dynastic interests. Choshu and Satsuma, coming together through the mediation of Tosa, agreed to put an end to the shogunate and establish a new imperial government in its place. In late 1867 leaders from Tosa convinced the shogun to resign in order to assume a leading role in a restructured government. Before this government could be established, however, in January 1868 a palace coup in Kyoto, backed by the military forces of Satsuma and Choshu, brought to power the young emperor Meiji. The emperor abolished the office of shogun, ordered the Tokugawa family to surrender their ancestral lands, and announced the creation of a new imperial government. The following month, in a brief battle outside of Kyoto, the new imperial army rolled back the only serious military challenge made by Tokugawa forces. Sporadic fighting followed in isolated pockets of Japan. Known as the Boshin Civil War, the conflict ended with the surrender of pro-Tokugawa forces in Hokkaido in 1869.

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