Ietsuna Shogunate

After a dangerous beginning, when his councillors foiled two rebellions, the fourth Tokugawa shogun, Ietsuna, presided over a consolidation of Tokugawa rule of Japan. Ietsuna and his councillors continued politics and laws initiated by his three predecessors, with occasional changes toward a less aggressive position.

Summary of Event

When Shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu Tokugawa Iemitsu died in 1651, his eldest son, the ten-year-old Tokugawa Ietsuna Tokugawa Ietsuna , was appointed the next shogun for Japan. The official confirmation of this appointment by the emperor was a mere ceremonial formality. Because of Ietsuna’s young age, his uncle, Hoshina Masayuki Hoshina Masayuki , became his guardian, or hosa, as his father had planned. [kw]Ietsuna Shogunate (1651-1680)
[kw]Shogunate, Ietsuna (1651-1680)
Government and politics;1651-1680: Ietsuna Shogunate[1730]
Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;1651-1680: Ietsuna Shogunate[1730]
Japan;1651-1680: Ietsuna Shogunate[1730]
Tokugawa shogunate
Tokugawa Ietsuna

Upon Ietsuna’s succession, the Tokugawa shogunate faced a rebellion, the Keian incident Keian incident (1651) (so-called because it happened in the last year of Keian according to the traditional Japanese calendar). Two teachers of military science and martial arts, Yui Shōsetsu Yui Shōsetsu and Marubashi Chūya Marubashi Chūya , led the revolt. Both men proclaimed that they acted out of sympathy for the plight of the rōnin, those samurai who had been deprived of their masters and thus their livelihood by the policies of the first three Tokugawa shoguns

Since 1600, the Tokugawa had made ample use of their power to assign and reassign the land of Japan to the daimyos, or lords, who in turn employed samurai. To make room for daimyos loyal to the shogunate, by 1651 the Tokugawa had either removed 213 of the existing hostile daimyos or had significantly reduced their land. When a daimyo’s land holdings fell below the minimum of 2,500 acres (1,000 hectares) of arable land, he was required to dismiss his samurai. These dismissed warriors became ōnin
Rōnin[Ronin] , forbidden from performing labor and yet without military positions to support them either.

In 1651, Yui and Marubashi plotted to blow up the shogun’s arsenal and set fire to the shogun’s capital city of Edo (modern Tokyo), as well as the city of Sumpu (modern Shizuoka). Edo rebellions (1651-1652) In the chaos of this urban conflagration, the rebels planned to assassinate senior Tokugawa officials, seize Edo Castle, where Ietsuna resided with his councillors, and take over the shogun’s shrine at Kunōzan, outside of Sumpu.

Most likely, it was Marubashi’s boasting that led to premature discovery of the plot. At Edo, senior councillor, or rōjū, Matsudaira Nobutsuna Matsudaira Nobutsuna , who was called Clever Izu, immediately arrested, interrogated, and had executed Marubashi and thirty-three fellow plotters and male members of their families. They died on September 24, 1651. Yui Shōsetsu, who had moved with ten rōnin to Sumpu, committed suicide. In a note he claimed that he had not intended to overthrow the shogun. Instead, the foiled revolt was meant merely to call public attention to the plight of the rōnin. In 1652, Matsudaira had to suppress a second rebellion, called the Jōō incident Jōō incident (1652)[Joo incident (1652)] . After this, Tokugawa rule was no longer violently opposed by the rōnin. Their numbers also dwindled, as far fewer daimyos lost their land under Ietsuna’s reign

During the guardianship of Hoshina Masayuki, the Tokugawa shogunate continued the policies set by Ietsuna’s predecessors. The emperor remained virtually confined at his castle at Kyōto, ruling in name only, while the shogunate held all real power. The Tokugawa upheld the policy of national seclusion, or sakoku, strictly in place since 1639. This policy forbade most foreigners from entering Japan and prohibited almost all Japanese from leaving the country. Foreign trade was limited to a single artificial island at the port of Nagasaki, on the western end of Japan, on the island of Kyūshū. There, far away from Edo, the Chinese and the Dutch were allowed to trade with the country. Christianity remained forbidden in Japan under penalty of death

The lives of the samurai and their daimyos continued to be regulated in Ietsuna’s reign. Their conduct and position in society was subject to a series of important laws that were continuously enforced. The Buke shohatto
Buke shohatto (laws for military houses, passed 1615) and Shoshi hatto
Shoshi hatto (regulations for the vassals, passed 1633 and 1635) held samurai and their lords to the highest ethical standards and strict moral conduct.

To control the daimyo effectively and prevent them from rebelling, Ietsuna’s father had formally issued the law of sankin kōtai
Sankin kōtai (alternate attendance). Under this law, vigorously enforced in Ietsuna’s reign, the daimyos had to spend every other year outside their own domains and live in Edo, where their families had to reside, effectively becoming hostages of the shogun. Moderating previous Tokugawa law, Ietsuna allowed daimyos to adopt an heir shortly before their death. This increased stability for the daimyo’s family, because failure to produce an heir meant reassignment of his domain to another family when he died.

In 1657, a major fire devastated Edo Edo . The increased aristocratic population used the sad opportunity to rebuild their palaces and residences in an even more ornate style, typical for the new Edo period. In addition to these architectural innovations, the large number of educated, sophisticated, powerful, and rich people in the shogun’s capital also led to a flourishing of literature, philosophy, arts, and religious study.

Of fragile health, the adult Ietsuna continued to rely on his trusted rōjū to guide the affairs of Japan. One of them, Sakai Tadakiyo Sakai Tadakiyo , was appointed tairō, or great elder, a position that previous shoguns had not always filled. Because of his great power, Sakai Tadakiyo was known as “Geba Shogun” (dismount shogun). His nickname came from the position of his residence right at the gate to Edo Castle, where a sign admonished all who entered to dismount. Most of Ietsuna’s advisers had strong family ties to the Tokugawa clan.

Another sign of humanization under Ietsuna was the abolition of junshi
Junshi, abolition of in 1663. This was the practice of ritual suicide by the followers of a nobleman upon his death. Since the tenth century, samurai had committed hara-kiri (disembowelment) if their daimyos were killed in battle. By the early seventeenth century, the custom had spread to instances where the lord died of natural causes. The Tokugawa shoguns found this practice distasteful, especially when it became expected rather than offered voluntarily. Upon the advice of his former guardian Hoshina Masayuki, Ietsuna forbade junshi. To enforce the rule, the successors of daimyos were made responsible for ensuring that no samurai followed junshi. When this occurred in Utsunomiya domain in 1668, the land of the new daimyo was cut by 5,000 acres (2,000 hectares) as punishment, twice the minimum size of a daimyo’s domain.

In 1669, an Ainu rebellion Ainu rebellion (1669) occurred on the northernmost island of Hokkaidō because of the sufferings of Japan’s ancient native ethnic minority. The shogunate showed little sympathy for the Ainu, however, who had been pushed to the remote North.

The year 1670 saw the publication of a major historical work, Honchō tsūgan
Honchō tsūgan (Hayashi)[Honcho tsugan (Hayashi)] (historical survey of Japan), which sought to use history to legitimize Tokugawa rule. It was the work of the combative Neo-Confucian Neo-Confucianism[NeoConfucianism] scholar Hayashi Razan Hayashi Razan and, after his death, his son Hayashi Gahō Hayashi Gahō . The elder Hayashi had fiercely fought for the acceptance of the Zhu Xi branch of Neo-Confucianism, and attacked both Christianity and Buddhism. His incorporation of Japanese Shintoism made his philosophy very popular during Ietsuna’s reign

Tokugawa Ietsuna died childless in 1680. His tairō, Sakai Tadakiyo, had tried to persuade Ietsuna to adopt an imperial prince, but the shogun had refused. Instead, Ietsuna’s younger brother, Tokugawa Tsunayoshi Tokugawa Tsunayoshi , succeeded him, and Sakai resigned. He died in 1681.


After a challenging start, the reign of Tokugawa Ietsuna became one of consolidation and some moderation of Tokugawa rule. During the first years, Ietsuna’s guardian and senior councillors governed in his name, and they continued to follow the policies and laws of the preceding three shoguns, which formed the basis of much public life in Japan.

Perhaps in response to the Keian incident of 1651, Ietsuna’s reign saw a drastic reduction in the practice of reassigning daimyos. It is also possible that the councillors felt that the practice had achieved its desired effect, and loyal men and their families were already ruling the Japanese domains, making continued reassignment unnecessary and undesirable. The Ainu rebellion of 1669 did not shatter the general sense of domestic peace during Ietsuna’s reign.

Ietsuna’s continuous reliance on his senior councillors created a climate of government by consensus. Ietsuna did not leave a powerful personal imprint on his reign. Nevertheless, moderation prevailed, and political consensus gave his reign great stability. Ietsuna’s final insistence upon keeping the office of the shogun in the Tokugawa family bestowed a flamboyant next ruler on Japan, and continued Tokugawa rule would not end until 1868. His support for Neo-Confucianism—collective subordination to ideals of peace, harmony, and a warrior spirit taught if not tested in battle—quietly reinforced Tokugawa power. Due to the active and far-ranging work of his predecessors, Ietsuna did not need to rule aggressively, and he steered a tranquil course.

Further Reading

  • Gerhart, Karen. The Eyes of Power: Art and Early Tokugawa Authority. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1999. Focus on the art commissioned for two castles and the Tokugawa mausoleum by Ietsuna’s father; useful discussion of how the early Tokugawa used art to strengthen their power. Notes, bibliography, index.
  • Jansen, Marius. The Making of Modern Japan. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000. Begins with comprehensive look at the Tokugawa shogunate that includes an analysis of the Tokugawa state, foreign relations, social groups, education, thought and religion, and a section on rulers and ruled in the first ten chapters. Illustrated, notes, index, bibliography.
  • McClain, James. Japan: A Modern History. New York: Norton, 2001. First three chapters deal with the Tokugawa period and provide an excellent overview of politics, lifestyle, culture and samurai ethics of the time. Illustrated, maps, index.
  • Nishiyama, Matsunosuke. Edo Culture. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1997. Focus on daily city life in the Tokugawa era, emphasis on the common city dweller. Illustrations, index.

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Tokugawa Ietsuna