Promulgation of the and

In order to consolidate centralized power in Japan, Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the Tokugawa shogunate, ordered Zen and Confucian scholars to compile the Buke shohatto and Kinchū narabini kuge shohatto, a pair of codes of conduct designed to control the actions of the great warrior houses and the court nobles in Kyōto.

Summary of Event

In the late sixteenth century, after nearly 150 years of civil war and disorder, a series of three military strongmen, known as the Three Unifiers Three Unifiers , consolidated central power in Japan. The first of the unifiers, Oda Nobunaga Oda Nobunaga , began from a small fiefdom in central Japan and eventually increased his sphere of influence to include most of the central island of Honshū. Nobunaga was assassinated in 1582 and succeeded by Toyotomi Hideyoshi Toyotomi Hideyoshi , his most able general. Hideyoshi completed the process of national unification by force of arms, and the entire country was loyal to him at the time of his death in 1598. Hideyoshi’s heir, Toyotomi Hideyori Toyotomi Hideyori , was supplanted by another powerful warlord, Tokugawa Ieyasu Tokugawa Ieyasu , who had served under both Nobunaga and Hideyoshi and, after defeating his rivals at the Battle of Sekigahara Sekigahara, Battle of (1600) in 1600, he was declared shogun of Japan by the emperor in 1603. In 1605, seeking to establish a lasting Tokugawa dynasty, Ieyasu turned over the title of shogun to his son, Tokugawa Hidetada Tokugawa Hidetada , just two years into his reign. Ieyasu continued to wield the real power from behind the scenes, however, until his death in 1616. [kw]Promulgation of the Buke shohatto and Kinchū narabini kuge shohatto (1615)
[kw]Kinchū narabini kuge shohatto, Promulgation of the Buke shohatto and (1615)
[kw]Buke shohatto and Kinchū narabini kuge shohatto, Promulgation of the (1615)
Government and politics;1615: Promulgation of the Buke shohatto and Kinchū narabini kuge shohatto[0690]
Laws, acts, and legal history;1615: Promulgation of the Buke shohatto and Kinchū narabini kuge shohatto[0690]
Literature;1615: Promulgation of the Buke shohatto and Kinchū narabini kuge shohatto[0690]
Japan;1615: Promulgation of the Buke shohatto and Kinchū narabini kuge shohatto[0690]
Kinchū narabini kuge shohatto[Kinchu narabini kuge shohatto]
Buke shohatto

Ieyasu was an able and ambitious administrator. He knew that Nobunaga and Hideyoshi, who had achieved national unification thought force of arms, had been unable to pass on power to their heirs. He wanted to ensure that the Tokugawa family would enjoy a perpetual reign, so, in addition to securing his son’s succession while he was still alive, he took legal measures to consolidate Tokugawa power and to ensure that it would remain consolidated. After the Battle of Sekigahara, he reorganized the nation’s feudal domains to his advantage. In 1615, Ieyasu defeated Toyotomi Hideyori, who he believed could serve as a rallying point against him, and he enacted a series of codes of conduct called the Buke shohatto and Kinchū narabini kuge shohatto, governing the warrior houses and the court nobility, respectively, in order to further entrench Tokugawa power.

Ieyasu had long been aware of the potential for Neo-Confucian thought, with its emphasis on rigid social structures and hierarchy, to support his vision of a new regime. Accordingly, in 1615, he recruited Neo-Confucian Neo-Confucianism[NeoConfucianism] scholar Hayashi Razan Hayashi Razan along with Zen Buddhism;Zen monks from the major Kyōto temples to go over existing Japanese and Chinese codes of law and behavior in order to formulate a new series of directives to support Tokugawa power. The Buke shohatto and the Kinchū narabini kuge shohatto were the result.

Promulgated in 1615, the Buke shohatto was a simple series of precepts designed to ensure the continued loyalty of regional lords to the Tokugawa family. It began by stating that members of the warrior class should cultivate both culture and literature (bun) and the military arts (bu). The bun/bu dichotomy was an important one during the Edo period (1603-1867), during which members of the samurai class evolved from hereditary fighters into a sort of new bureaucratic class. The inclusion of this provision at the start of the code, however, while recognizing the new role of the samurai in a time of peace, also continued to play up their role as warriors, an essential element of class identity for the whole of the period.

The stipulations requiring that the samurai remain warrior-scholars were followed by a ban on lewd conduct for members of the warrior aristocracy and a number of directives designed to defeat the possibility of rebellion. Domains were instructed not to shelter criminals, a measure that gave primacy to Tokugawa interpretations of law over all of Japan and ensured that conspirators against the shogunate could not be sheltered in sympathetic regions without fear of reprisal. The measure also provided a means by which the central government could mobilize local forces to take care of these types of problems without becoming directly involved.

In order to emphasize the importance of the new directives, a further regulation stated that daimyos, the feudal lords of the various fiefs, had to turn over willingly anyone accused of murder or treason. Other regulations were issued to eliminate the possibility of rebellion. Plots against the shogunate were to be reported, and men from one domain were forbidden to interact with individuals from another region. In a similar vein, in order to prevent the formation of alliances between different feudal lords, the Tokugawa reserved the right to approve all marriages. During the period of civil war (the Sengoku Jidai, or Warring States period, 1477-1600) that led up to the consolidation of power under the Tokugawa, strategic alliances cemented by marriage were the norm among the daimyo families. Specific regulations in the Buke shohatto were designed to prevent this type of political maneuvering from continuing.

Just as strategic marriage was an important element of the landscape of power during the Warring States period, castle building was an important symbol of regional strength. The Tokugawa were weary of castles not under their direct control, and after the reduction of Hideyori’Ōsaka castle in 1615, a direct statement forbidding new castle construction and requiring lords to report all repairs to existing fortifications was included in the Buke shohatto. The document concluded with a number of more general stipulations, including a directive that the samurai should be frugal in both lifestyle and dress and that lords must follow proper rules of etiquette when calling on the shogun.

Ieyasu and the other Tokugawa shoguns theoretically received their mandate to rule from the emperors at Kyōto. The rulers of the ancient imperial court were largely powerless figureheads by the beginning of the seventeenth century, but Ieyasu was well aware of their ability to serve as a rallying point for those opposed to the shogun’s rule. For this reason the Kinchū narabini kuge shohatto was issued at the same time as the Buke shohatto, in the interests of placing similar restrictions on the court itself. The emperor was effectively told to occupy himself with scholarship and the arts and to ignore politics. In addition, the political role of the emperor and his court were limited to tasks explicitly outlined by the shogun.


The Tokugawa controlled Japan from 1603 until the Meiji Restoration (1868), which followed the renewal of contact between Japan and the Western powers after the end of the seclusion policy enacted by Ieyasu’s successors. While other elements of the Tokugawa polity, such as their policy of national seclusion, which effectively placed all foreign trade in the hands of the shogunate, had a lot to do with the longevity of the Tokugawa Dynasty, the provisions laid down in the Buke shohatto and Kinchū narabini kuge shohatto undoubtedly played a leading role as well.

The Buke shohatto was expanded in 1631 and again in 1635 under the auspices of the third Tokugawa shogun, Tokugawa Iemitsu Tokugawa Iemitsu , but its overall content remained largely unchanged from Ieyasu’s day. The provisions of the code limited the ability of individual daimyos to form alliances and made organized action against the shogunate next to impossible. Any violation of the provisions spelled out in the Buke shohatto could result in the confiscation of a lord’s domains or forced suicide. This was enough to keep the various domains in check until the entire system was shaken by the reappearance of the West in the 1850’. The nearly 250-year rule of the Tokugawa, long by Japanese and indeed world standards, was made possible, then, by the restrictions put forth in the Buke shohatto and Kinchū narabini kuge shohatto in 1615.

Further Reading

  • Sansom, George. A History of Japan, 1334-1615. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1961. Sansom’s three volume history of premodern Japan is still the most authoritative coverage of the subject in English. Details the early Tokugawa system and the enactment of the codes of conduct.
  • Sato, Hiroaki. Legends of the Samurai. New York: Overlook Press, 1995. A detailed work on the samurai tradition that contains early codes of conduct and coverage of the formation of a new social order under the Tokugawa.
  • Totman, Conrad. Early Modern Japan. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993. The most comprehensive single volume treatment of the Edo period of Japanese history in English. Includes a discussion of the intellectual climate that resulted in the formation of the Tokugawa codes of conduct.
  • Turnbull, Stephen. Samurai Warfare. London: Arms and Armour Press, 1996. Extensive coverage, not only of samurai warfare but also of the philosophy and codes of behavior of the samurai class from the Sengoku period until Edo.

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Buke shohatto