Tokugawa Era Japan

The Tokugawa shogunate came to power in Japan in 1603 and brought more than two and a half centuries of uninterrupted peace to the island nation. The era was characterized by economic growth, strict social order, isolationist foreign policies, a stable population, "no more wars", and popular enjoyment of arts and culture. This era is also referred to as the Edo Period, after Edo, the former name of Tokyo. 


The Tokugawa regime, named for the Tokugawa family, was characterized by centralized feudalism. Appointed by the emperor, the first Tokugawa shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu, had direct control of one-fourth of Japan in strategically located parcels-lands he had acquired by skillfully surviving a turbulent era of civil warfare.

The remaining land was parceled out by the shogun to the daimyos, similar to feudal barons, who pledged their allegiance to the shogun in exchange for the right to rule in their own domains.

All the rice grown by farmers working on land ruled by the daimyos was considered a national crop and distributed by the shogun. At the time, a typical year's crop of 25 million kokuóa koku was approximately five bushels and would feed one person for one year. The shogun took 5 million koku for himself and distributed another 5 million to his 270 or so daimyo, leaving the farmers with about half of their crops. However, in a poor crop year, the shogun did not reduce his demands for himself or his daimyos, which resulted in great hardships for the farmers, who had little to no recourse.

Political Stability

The shogun ensured the loyalty of the daimyos by instituting a policy called the sankin kotai system. The daimyos were required to spend every other year in Edo, the shogun's capital city and present-day Tokyo. Maintaining two residences and traveling between them with such frequency, as well as being long-distance managers every other year, placed a huge financial burden on the daimyos and moderated their power at home. When they did travel home, they were required to leave family members, often their wives and eldest sons, in Edo as hostages to ensure their return and peaceful behavior.

Life throughout Tokugawa Japan was very structured. The population was divided into four distinct classes: samurai, farmers or peasants, craftspeople, and merchants or traders. The members of the four classes were not allowed to change their social status. The peasants, who made up 80% of the population, were forbidden to engage in non agricultural activities in order to ensure a stable and continuing source of income for the daimyos and the shogun. Strict codes of behavior imposed by the shogun affected every aspect of life: the clothes one wore, the person one married, and the activities one could or could not pursue.

Economic Growth

Since the shogun's primary source of income was a fixed stipend tied to agricultural production, the Tokugawa shogunate placed an emphasis on agricultural progress. Improved farming methods and the growing of cash crops stimulated agricultural productivity. Domestic trade and agricultural production continued to improve throughout the reign of the Tokugawa shogunate. Coins, weights, and measures were standardized. Road networks were improved to facilitate the transportation of goods.

Expansion of commerce and the manufacturing industry including the production of silk and cotton fabrics, the manufacture of paper and porcelains, and sake brewing was even greater than that of agriculture and stimulated the development of large urban centers in Edo, Osaka, and Kyoto, home of the emperor.

Japan continued to experience unprecedented prosperity, which made it one of the world's most sophisticated premodern commercial societies, until its resulting population boom began to outstrip its natural resources.

Cultural Growth

Centuries of peace and the emergence of a well-to-do merchant class generated new art forms. The Kabuki Theater and the licensed brothel quarters became very popular especially among the townspeople. And ukiyo- e paintings and woodblock prints of the world of the Kabuki Theater and the brothel district became a school of art in its own right.

Katsura Palace in Kyoto, perhaps the finest example ever of classic Japanese architecture, was built surrounded by beautiful Japanese gardens.

Since peace prevailed, the samurai warriors had time to educate themselves not only in the martial arts but also in literature, philosophy, and the arts. Literacy spread to almost half the male population.


Determined to maintain control through a restrictive and controlled society and fearing the colonial encroachment of Spain and Portugal, the shogun severely limited direct contact with foreigners. The shogun became convinced that Christian missionaries posed a threat to Japan's rigid social structure. In 1614, he took drastic steps to stop missionary activity and discourage the practice of Christianity. Within 20 years, Christianity was all but eradicated in Japan.

Travel was also closely regulated, and all foreign books were banned, a ban that for the most part would stay in place until 1720. Only token foreign trade survived, and that was only at the southern port of Nagasaki and only with a few Chinese and Dutch merchants. From 1633 onward, Japanese subjects were forbidden to travel abroad or to return from overseas. A policy of national seclusion was instituted in 1639. As a result of that policy of isolation, Japan's development fell substantially behind that of Europe, particularly in the areas of science, technology, and military power.


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