Tokugawa Shogunate Begins Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

After his victory at the Battle of Sekigahara, Tokugawa Ieyasu consolidated his power and was declared shogun of Japan by the emperor in 1603. By instituting political reforms designed to strengthen and preserve the centralized power of his shogunate and by passing nominal power to his son Hidetada while he himself was still alive and in control, Ieyasu forged a shogunal dynasty that lasted for 264 years.

Summary of Event

The early history of the Tokugawa government is directly tied to the actions of its first two shoguns, Tokugawa Ieyasu Tokugawa Ieyasu and his son Tokugawa Hidetada Tokugawa Hidetada . Ieyasu was born into a period of Japanese history that was just beginning to recover from many years of bloody civil conflict from roughly 1340. The era from 1477 to 1600 in particular is designated by scholars as the Japanese Warring States period. During this time, feudal barons fought savage wars of conquest as each attempted to establish his family as the premier power in the nation. [kw]Tokugawa Shogunate Begins (1603) [kw]Shogunate Begins, Tokugawa (1603) Government and politics;1603: Tokugawa Shogunate Begins[0290] Japan;1603: Tokugawa Shogunate Begins[0290] Tokugawa shogunate

As a young warrior, Ieyasu distinguished himself in a number of important battles that had a significant impact on the fortunes of two powerful daimyos, Oda Nobunaga Oda Nobunaga and his successor, Toyotomi Hideyoshi Toyotomi Hideyoshi . Together with Ieyasu himself, these daimyos are known as the Three Unifiers Three Unifiers , because they finally succeeded in conquering the other feudal lords and unifying the nation of Japan. Under the first two Unifiers, Ieyasu began to build an important base of power. They granted him extensive lands in eastern Japan that in turn became a great source of wealth to the Tokugawa clan. Ieyasu also took advantage of several governmental appointments, especially his place on the Council of Elders under Hideyoshi, to sharpen his political skills and to solidify important alliances with other powerful daimyos. The struggle for power after the death of Hideyoshi in 1598 eventually led to Ieyasu’s victory at the Battle of Sekigahara Sekigahara, Battle of (1600) (1600), after which Ieyasu effectively controlled the Japanese nation.

Tokugawa Ieyasu was officially appointed shogun of Japan by the emperor in 1603; he maintained that position until 1605, when he passed the title to his eldest son, Hidetada. He did this for essentially two reasons. Ieyasu was attempting to bring the entire nation for the first time into the modern era by centralizing national political power in the shogunate. To be successful, Ieyasu knew he had to concentrate on the political problems facing such a complete national transformation. He realized that Hidetada was competent enough to handle day-to-day military matters as shogun, so he felt confident enough to pass the title on to his eldest son. The second reason Ieyasu passed the shogunate to Hidetada was to establish the right of Tokugawan succession to this most powerful office. Until his death in 1616, Ieyasu was the real political force in Japan. He set into operation a system that transformed Japanese government and society.

Ieyasu’s major political goal was to create a centralized government centered on the shogun who would be strong enough to withstand any political or military challenges from Japan’s most powerful daimyos. Ieyasu placed these feudal barons into two distinct groups. The Fudai Fudai were the lords who were completely loyal to the Tokugawa clan, and the Tozama Tozama were the daimyos who had not proven their allegiance.

Ieyasu’s first two actions as shogun were designed to isolate the Tozama in order to stifle the formation of any dangerous military or political alliances. He first created a system of land distribution that located any suspect baron between two loyal daimyos. Ieyasu also instituted a system of unequal taxation that placed a permanent strain on the finances of the suspect barons. Each had to contribute to the construction and repair of fortifications that were deemed necessary to maintain the national defense. They also had to furnish labor and materials for the building of roads and defenses in areas considered of great strategic importance.

However, the most extensive measures taken by Ieyasu and Hidetada were the implementation of two loyalty oaths, one in 1611 and the other in 1615, the year before Ieyasu’s death, as well as the adoption of Neo-Confucian Neo-Confucianism[NeoConfucianism] philosophy. These steps were the two most important pillars in the foundation of the autocratic Tokugawan society, and together they regulated just about every aspect of social and political behavior. In particular, they were both concerned with four different aspects of the Japanese state: national security, law, social morals, and the actions of the samurai warriors.

From a national security standpoint, the Tokugawa government was most concerned with domestic tranquillity and the creation of a well-functioning bureaucracy. The oaths directed authority figures to take harsh action against anyone who was suspected of treasonous actions or who had committed violent crimes such as murder. Failure to take appropriate action would itself be considered treason, and the offending parties would be severely punished, ensuring that national security would be a top priority for everyone in the Tokugawa government.

Tokugawa Ieyasu, by stepping down from the shogunal throne and handing over formal power to his heir while still alive, ensured the beginning of a dynasty that was to last until 1867.

(Library of Congress)

The impact of Neo-Confucian thought is evident in the other major area dealing with national security, the importance of a highly efficient national bureaucracy. Ieyasu and Hidetada both believed in the Confucian principle of staffing government agencies with men of great ability and honor. Neo-Confucianism also had a significant impact on the Tokugawa legal system. The Confucian social model of superior and subordinate was reflected in the expectation that all decrees issuing from the capital at Edo were to be obeyed without question. As in China, the Tokugawa government also followed Confucian economic principles. Iesayu and Hidetada both emphasized agricultural production as the basis of Japan’s economy. In turn, like their Chinese counterparts, they devalued the merchant class and took strict measures to control their economic and political power.

Tokugawan culture also reflected the conservative autocratic philosophy based upon a strict moral code and traditional values. The Loyalty Oath of 1615 Loyalty Oath of 1615 , in particular, emphasized the importance of traditional marriage in the operation of a well-functioning society. The oath also stressed that marriage brought a basic harmony to society and that anyone entering into this important institution should do so in a mature manner. The Tokugawa shogunate placed such great importance on this institution that the government had to approve all marriage contracts among the aristocratic class. The shogunate’s regulation of marriage was also used to ensure that marriage between powerful families was not used to form political alliances against the Tokugawa government.

In addition, the Tokugawa government created strict guidelines for its warrior class, the samurai. It designed a tightly controlled Neo-Confucian system for the training and use of this warrior elite. First and foremost, the central government wanted a warrior who had both a powerful mind and a strong body. To this end, the shogunate ordered each samurai to read Japanese literature extensively. This mandate would ensure a deep respect for Japanese history and culture, as well as promoting the development of skills at reasoning that would pay enormous dividends on the battlefield. The samurai Samurai were also given extensive training in the martial arts, which made them potentially the most dangerous class in Japan; the Tokugawa government expected these elite warriors always to conduct themselves with honor, style, and grace. Any violation of their code of conduct, Bushidō Bushidō[Bushido] , would be dealt with in a very harsh manner.

Early Tokugawa foreign policy began with an attempt to recover from the strained relations with China that had resulted from the Japanese invasion of Korea in 1592. Japan’s navy had suffered an embarrassing defeat, and China had subsequently cut off trade relations with the island nation China;relations with Japan . This not only placed Japan in a precarious position with regard to East Asia’s most powerful nation, but it also prevented the importation of silk and other trade goods that were extremely important to the Japanese aristocracy.

By the time the Tokugawa clan was securely in power, the Portuguese had expanded into East Asia and had developed an extensive trading relationship with China, which enabled them to supply Japan with much-needed goods in spite of China’s embargo. Portugal was also the first European nation to introduce Japan to the power of Western technology. However, Ieyasu and his son became frustrated with the Portuguese, because the merchants refused to share their marine technology with the Tokugawa government. The shoguns also believed that Portugal was gaining too much political and economic influence in the region. Trade;Portuguese in Asia

The shogunate reached out to Portugal’s Iberian competitor, Spain, which had recently established a colonial presence in the Philippines. Unfortunately, the Tokugawas were unsuccessful in gaining access to Spain’s technology and also faced the added burden of a great influx of Christian missionaries into Japan. In time, Roman Catholicism would pose such a challenge to Japan’s neo-Confucian culture that Ieyasu would ban its practice. This suppression of Christianity Christianity;Japan in turn would strain relations with the West and would ultimately lead to the implementation of an isolationist policy.


Ieyasu and his son Hidetada created a unified Japanese state after almost two centuries of bloody conflict, and they instituted a shogunal dynasty that lasted until 1867, when the emperor rather than the shogun again became the supreme ruler of Japan. The first Tokugawa shoguns initiated an operational paradigm that enabled the shogunate to govern 250 semi-independent feudal manors. They accomplished this by severely reducing the power of the feudal daimyos, thereby keeping Japan at peace for more than two centuries. This allowed Japan to grow and prosper politically, economically, and culturally. In addition, it set the stage for Japan’s dominance of East Asia during the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jansen, Marius B. The Making of Modern Japan. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000. An excellent one-volume history of Japan from the Tokugawa shogunate to Japan’s economic dominance in the 1970’. Maps, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sansom, George. A History of Japan, 1333-1615. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1961. An excellent overview of feudal Japan by one of its most respected scholars. Maps, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Totman, Conrad. Early Modern Japan. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993. The best single-volume account of early modern Japan. Charts, index.
Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Seventeenth Century</i>

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Categories: History