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The Tokugawa Shoguns, The Bakuhan System

sankin kotai, feudal domains, Deshima, Battle of Sekigahara, bakufu

The Tokugawa shogunate consolidated its power during the reigns of Ieyasu (1603-1605), his son Hidetada (1605-1623), and his grandson Iemitsu (1623-1651). The Tokugawa shogunate was the most effective government that Japan had experienced so far in its history, but it was not a centralized monarchy like the old imperial government at Kyoto. The shogun shared power and authority with the local daimyo in a system known as bakuhan (a combination of the bakufu, which functioned as the central government, and the han, feudal domains under the control of the daimyo). The Tokugawa family had direct control over only about one quarter of the productive land in the country. The rest was dominated by the daimyo, who had their own governments, castle towns, warrior armies, tax and land systems, and courts. Altogether there were about 250 to 300 daimyo. The emperor continued to rule as the civil monarch in Kyoto, but he had little actual power.

Many daimyo had survived military unification with their existing domains intact, while other domains were newly created by Ieyasu and his heirs. In redistributing land, Ieyasu made a distinction between the daimyo who had fought with the Tokugawa at the Battle of Sekigahara (known as fudai, “hereditary vassals”), and those who had fought against them (known as tozama, “outside lords”). The tozama were assigned domains on the periphery of the islands and were generally excluded from positions in the central government. All daimyo, however, were required to pledge their personal feudal loyalty to the shogun in return for the right to rule their domains.

As a feudal ruler, the shogun imposed many duties on the daimyo to keep them in line. First, the daimyo were required to spend half their time in Edo and to keep their wives and children there all the time. This practice, known as the sankin kotai (“alternate attendance”) system, enabled the shogunate to keep the daimyo under constant surveillance. Second, the daimyo were required to provide materials, labor, and funds for the construction of large public works, such as the shogun’s castles and the mausoleum for Ieyasu at Nikko. Finally, the daimyo had to secure the shogun’s permission to build new castles, repair military fortifications, or contract marriages with other daimyo families. If a daimyo committed some infraction of bakufu laws or died without an heir, the shogun had the right to confiscate his land or reassign him to a new domain. Under the first three shoguns, such transfers and confiscations were quite common.

While consolidating their domestic position, the first three shoguns also restricted Japan’s contacts with the outside world. The Tokugawa welcomed foreign traders but were concerned about the spread of Christianity. They feared that the missionaries were simply a prelude to European conquest. Further, they regarded Christianity, which demanded that the highest loyalty be given to God, as a subversive religion that would undermine authority within society and the family. In 1614 Ieyasu, announcing that Christianity was a “pernicious doctrine,” ordered the expulsion of Christian missionaries, and in the 1620s Japanese converts to Christianity endured persecutions and massacres.

In the 1630s the shogunate issued a series of decrees forbidding imports of Christian books, prohibiting travel or trade outside the country, and forbidding the construction of ocean-going vessels. The only Westerners permitted to trade in Japan were the Dutch, who were confined to Deshima, an artificial island in the harbor of Nagasaki on Kyushu. But the Japanese continued to trade with their Asian neighbors. Chinese merchants were permitted to live in their own quarter in Nagasaki, and the Japanese carried on trade with the Ryukyu Islands and with Korea through the island of Tsushima in the Korean Strait.

The Tokugawa political system, bolstered by its policy of limited isolation from the outside world, successfully maintained domestic peace until the mid-19th century. Several major local rebellions occurred in the 17th century, but none threatened the existence of the regime.

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