Reign of Tsunayoshi as Shogun Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The earliest years of Tsunayoshi’s reign were characterized by reform-minded administrative measures, but adviser Hotta Masatoshi’s death in 1684 facilitated Tsunayoshi’s assumption of total power, allowing the shogun and his favorites to debase coinage and to cause his people hardship through excessive and unrealistic edicts.

Summary of Event

Tokugawa Tsunayoshi Tokugawa Tsunayoshi was born in 1646, the fourth son of the shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu, who had already been in power for twenty-three years at that time. His mother was the daughter of an affluent Kyōto grocer, but she was subsequently adopted by the samurai Honjō Munemasa, steward of the aristocratic Nijō family in Kyōto. Having gained aristocratic status this way, she was later selected as one of Shogun Iemitsu’s concubines. When Iemitsu died in 1651, ten-year-old Ietsuna, Tsunayoshi’s older brother by a different mother, became shogun, and five-year-old Tsunayoshi was awarded a stipend and household of his own. He was treated well and looked after by the shogunate administration, and specialist physicians were sent to him whenever he felt ill. [kw]Reign of Tsunayoshi as Shogun (1680-1709) [kw]Shogun, Reign of Tsunayoshi as (1680-1709) [kw]Tsunayoshi as Shogun, Reign of (1680-1709) Government and politics;1680-1709: Reign of Tsunayoshi as Shogun[2710] Japan;1680-1709: Reign of Tsunayoshi as Shogun[2710] Tokugawa Tsunayoshi Tokugawa shogunate

After his mansion in the shogun’s Edo Castle complex burned down during the Meireki Fire in 1657, Tsunayoshi stayed in a villa in the Koishikawa district of Edo and subsequently moved to a larger estate by the Sumida River. In 1661, the adolescent Tsunayoshi was made a daimyo, or domain lord, in Ueno province, with his own staff and guard troops and a castle at Tatebayashi, in present-day Gunma prefecture. He was also awarded the national title of saishō, or state counselor, and continued to spend most of his time at the shogun’s court in Edo.

After Iemitsu’s death in 1651, Tsunayoshi’s mother was given the status of shogun’s widow, with the honorific title of Keishō-in Keishō-in . She continued to influence Tsunayoshi’s decisions until her death in 1705, often with benevolent goals in mind, although Tsunayoshi’s implementations of Keishō-in’s advice at times exceeded her intentions. She encouraged Tsunayoshi to study and follow Confucian ideals, so he promoted Confucian studies, even giving his own public lectures on Confucianism Confucianism, Japan to captive audiences. The devoutly Buddhist Keishō-in urged her son to take measures as shogun to prohibit cruelty to animals in Japan, but the result was his 1685 Shōrui-aware Shōrui-aware (1685)[Shorui aware (1685)] edict, prohibiting the killing of all living things, including fish, forcing the Japanese people to become total vegetarians for a quarter century.

After his reform-minded adviser Hotta Masatoshi Hotta Masatoshi was assassinated in 1684, Tsunayoshi took real power for himself, surrounding himself with sycophantic officials. Yanagisawa Yoshiyasu Yanagisawa Yoshiyasu , initially Tsunayoshi’s personal attendant, having ingratiated himself with both Tsunayoshi and Keishō-in, gained more and more personal authority. In 1688, Yanagisawa was made both sobayōnin, or chamberlain, to the shogun and daimyo of Kawagoe (modern Saitama prefecture). In 1701, Yanagisawa was granted the new surname Matsudaira, making him an honorary Tokugawa relative. In the same year Lord Asano Asano incident (1702-1703) was forced to commit suicide as the result of court intrigue by the shogun’s protocol chief Kira Yoishinaka Kira Yoishinaka , and Asano feudal land was confiscated as an additional punishment. These arbitrary actions provoked a famous revenge attack in Edo by Asano retainers in 1702, in which Kira was killed.

Yanagisawa, an ally of Kira, was popularly regarded as Kira’s protector and has been portrayed as a villain in popular dramas about the Asano incident ever since. The seizure of the Asano feudal lands by the shogunate was part of a larger pattern of confiscation of feudal lands, increasing peasant and samurai resentment. Such confiscation was designed to bring Tsunayoshi greater income and power. A year after Tsunayoshi forced the popular Asano samurai raiders to commit suicide, he promoted Yanagisawa to the position of daimyo of Kōfu (modern Yamanashi Prefecture), in 1704. This favoritism made Tsunayoshi even less popular, yet Yanagisawa remained one of his chief advisers until the end of Tsunayoshi’s reign.

On the other hand, Yanagisawa was the patron of the famous Confucian scholars Ogyū Sorai Ogyū Sorai and Hosoi Kōtaku Hosoi Kōtaku , pandering to Keishō-in’s promotion of Confucianism. Tsunayoshi had a great respect for learning and studied literature Literature;Japan and art under the guidance of some of the most outstanding scholars and artists of his time. His literature and poetry mentor was Kitamura Kigin Kitamura Kigin , the leading authority on Murasaki Shikibu’s Genji monogatari (c. 1004; The Tale of Genji, 1925-1933) and the teacher of the haiku master Matsuo Bashō Matsuo Bashō . Kigin and his son Koshun Kitamura Koshun were both given lifetime posts as scholars in residence at Edo Castle by Tsunayoshi. Art patronage;Japan Poetry;Japan

On the other hand, the shogun’s famous painting tutor, Hanabusa Itchō Hanabusa Itchō , himself a follower of Bashō in poetry and of the ukiyo-e pioneer Hishikawa Moronobu Hishikawa Moronobu in contemporary art, incurred Tsunayoshi’s personal displeasure. He was banished to Miyakejima, a volcanic island in the ocean south of Edo. Itchō spent ten years in exile there and was allowed to return to Edo only after Tsunayoshi’s death.

In the field of Confucian learning, and in matters affecting education in general, Tsunayoshi took the advice of Hayashi Hōkō Hayashi Hōkō , the third-generation heir of a family of leading Confucian scholars. Hayashi was nearly the same age as Tsunayoshi and had become the head of his family in 1680, the same year Tsunayoshi became shogun. In 1690, Tsunayoshi ordered the construction of a Confucian school and temple complex at Shōheizaka in the Kanda district of Edo, appointing Hayashi as its director. The school flourished as a center of classical Confucian learning and later became the first official center for the study of Western learning in Edo as well

In 1695, Tsunayoshi was told by astrology-minded courtiers that, being born in the Year of the Dog, things would go better for him if he treated dogs well. As a result, he ordered special treatment for all dogs. It became a crime to mistreat any dog, and numerous shelters for stray dogs were also established at the expense of local taxpayers. These measures incensed a populace that had seen meat-eating effectively criminalized for a decade already. Popular resentment resulted in the epithet inu kubō, the “Dog Shogun,” used behind his back when he was alive, which has become the epithet by which Tsunayoshi is popularly known in Japanese history


After Tokugawa Ieyasu created the Tokugawa shogunate and made himself the first shogun in 1603, his son Tokugawa Hidetada and grandson Tokugawa Iemitsu consolidated Tokugawa power. Iemitsu’s son, Tokugawa Ietsuna, was only ten years old when he became shogun in 1651, so older advisers held the real power, and they remained very influential until Ietsuna died in 1680. Ietsuna’s younger brother Tsunayoshi, in his mid-thirties when he became shogun, had already been a daimyo and therefore had firsthand experience wielding feudal power. At first, Tsunayoshi had to defer to his powerful adviser Hotta Masatoshi, but after Hotta’s death he took full authority himself

Tsunayoshi used his power to do some good things, such as establishing a national Confucian academy and promoting education. Some other measures, however, such as criminalization of cruelty to animals, were carried to extremes that created enormous resentment among the common people. Tsunayoshi also confiscated the estates of many feudal vassals on various pretexts, increasing shogunal territory and income but alienating many domain lords and samurai. He also surrounded himself with sycophantic courtiers who were highly unpopular, and his government spent extravagantly while debasing the coinage for its own profit

As the result of such measures, Tsunayoshi became unpopular among the people and the aristocracy and came to be viewed as a national villain by succeeding generations. Tsunayoshi’s traditional image as a tyrannical and villainous shogun contributed to long-lasting popular disdain for the shogunate itself and facilitated the ultimate overthrow of the shogunate a century and a half later

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bodart-Bailey, Beatrice, ed. Kaempfer’s Japan: Tokugawa Culture Observed. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1999. Firsthand description of Tsunayoshi’s Japan by Engelbert Kaempfer (1651-1716), a German physician and natural scientist stationed at the Dutch enclave in Nagasaki from 1690 to 1692 who visited Edo.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Growden, Haydn D. Tsunayoshi Tokugawa: The Dog Shogun. Tokyo: Shingumi Resources, 1999. Entry-level, illustrated account of Tsunayoshi’s life.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mass, Jeffrey, and William Hauser. The Bakufu in Japanese History. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1985. An analysis of Tokugawa feudalism, regional government, and the status of samurai.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Toby, Ronald P. State and Diplomacy in Early Modern Japan: Asia in the Development of the Tokugawa Bakufu. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1991. A history of Tokugawa Japan’s relations with other East Asian countries.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Totman, Conrad D. Politics in the Tokugawa Bakufu, 1600-1843. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1967. The authoritative history in English of Tokugawa politics and government, up to the beginnings of Western penetration.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tsukahira, Toshio George. Federal Control in Tokugawa Japan: The Sankin Kotai System. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1966. A study of modes of control of domain lords, viewed as a sort of federalist system.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Turnbull, Stephen R. Samurai Warlords: The Book of the Daimyō. London: Blandford, 1989. Popular account of rule by domain lords under the Tokugawa shogunate.
Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Seventeenth Century</i>

Hishikawa Moronobu; Matsuo Bashō; Tokugawa Ieyasu; Tokugawa Tsunayoshi. Tokugawa Tsunayoshi Tokugawa shogunate

Categories: History