This important period of Japanese history came to be in 1615, following the battle of Osaka (Osaka no Eki) and lasted until power was restored to the Emperor (known as a Mikado) in 1868. While 267 years seems like a small fraction of time for a country with such a long history – especially compared to Japan’s neighbour China, where the period seems almost insignificant compared to those like the Zhou dynasty which lasted 810 years between 1066 and 256 BC – this was still a long and culturally significant time for Japanese history.
Also known as the Tokugawa period due to the rule of the Tokugawa shogunate, the Edo period followed the Sengoku period where warlords fought for control of Japan, and succeeded the Momogama period (1573-1615). During this time, three leaders aspired to unify Japan; one of these leaders was Oda Nobunaga (織田 信長). Nobunaga conquered the vast majority of both Central and Western Japan before being succeeded by his general, Toyotomi Hideyoshi (豊臣 秀吉) who was an outstanding figure during the Sengoku period as a daimyo; (大名) a powerful feudal lord. It was Hideyoshi who gained control of the rest of Japan through his military skill as a warrior. Before his death in 1598 during his second attempt of invading Korea, he left 5 guardians in control of Japan who would stand aside when his son was of age to take his place. Needless to say, it didn’t work out that way. His son was an infant and the “guardians”, despite their promises, all wanted control of Japan for themselves. In hindsight, an historian could argue that leaving 5 feudal lords in control could only result in arguments over land - at the very least.
Under the rule of the Tokugawa, Japanese culture evolved and developed; traditions were reborn and rekindled, and the arts flourished as Edo became the largest city on Earth.
An historian could also describe the Tokugawa period to be harshly controlled. After society was divided into the 5 classes in 1603, Tokugawa Ieyasu banned Christianity from Japan (1614). In 1633, around 15 years after the battle of Osaka, he banned foreign books and forbid Japanese citizens from travelling overseas, which was followed up by the ban on ship building in 1638. By the year 1641, all foreigners except for the Chinese and Dutch were banned from Japan. In this way, an historian could also describe the Edo period as an era of seclusion. It was agreed that the Dutch could remain in the harbour off the coast of Nagasaki, though interaction was limited. Through this, the only (small) stream of Western technologies and ideas interacted with Japan through the Dutch in this area. Of course, very limited and restricted trade occurred between Japan and the Dutch, and the Chinese. Confucianism was also promoted due to its ideas involving loyalty and obedience – aspects which the Tokugawa shogunate wanted civilians to take action in – until neo-Confucianism became the official state philosophy in 1790 (note that the introduction of Confucianism to Japan came through influence from China as early as the year 500, the term Shinto for Japan’s original religion being formed in 550 in order for people to differ between that, Confucianism, and Buddhism).
Literacy increased - even among Samurai literacy became more important as many developed to become bureaucrats – as education became more and more important. Arts flourished; during the time of seclusion old Japanese arts were revisited and revised, becoming new and popular. Kabuki (歌舞伎), the Japanese masked drama which is now considered as a traditional form of Japanese theatre, was formed during the Edo period and became popular among peasants as a form of entertainment.
The first main problem, ultimately aiding the fall of the Tokugawa shogunate, was the changes in social order. Due to Japan’s agricultural centre developing, resulting in towns with rice fields becoming business points, merchants began to make more money than samurai. This of course, due to the social order announced in 1603, led to problems because the merchants were not allowed to become wealthier than Samurai. Furthermore, as Samurai became more interested in arts and education their wealth decreased; this often resulted in Samurai falling into debt with merchants who they borrowed money from (this was not allowed, and was secretive because the merchants couldn’t be found out to have more wealth than those of higher social status to them).
A large amount of taxing occurred which targeted the peasants – the group almost completely composed of farmers – which resulted in many riots and rebellions. Even though the Edo period has described as a period of peace in Japan by historians, I would argue that those statements are more in comparison to the previous Sengoku period (warlords constantly fighting) because many food shortages and riots occurred, despite the strong economy and agricultural centres. So, although the self-imposed isolation of Japan appears to be supported by the vast majority of Japan, other decisions led to a general dislike for the Tokugawa shogunate.
Japan’s reintroduction to the world started 1720 when the ban on Western books was lifted, allowing scholars to begin translating Dutch books gained through trade at Nagasaki harbour.
By the 19th century, Japan was quite a contrast to the Western world. America and England now had technologies and sciences rapidly developing; the industrial revolution having occurred in England between 1760 to 1820. Aspects we recognise today like skyscrapers and subway/cable-car systems were built in these places, while Japan – despite the artistic growth of the Edo period – was notably un-modern in comparison. In 1853, American Commodore Matthew Perry sailed to Edo harbour (modern-day Tokyo harbour) along with 4 American Navy ships, although Japan was not exactly under attack. Perry demanded Japanese ports to open to America, and thus Japan’s isolation came to an end – and not exactly by Japan’s own choice. For the first time in 200 years, trade and interaction between Japan and the Western world resumed. The Americans succeeded in gaining relations with Japan through trade agreements involved in the Treaty of Kanagawa. Reasons for America’s interest in re-opening trade with Japan included benefits for American whaling, and creating an American port in the pacific to aid transport/trading with China; though Perry was not the first American to attempt this, he was the only one successful in landing ship in Japan. Though the opening of ports occurred reluctantly, Japan eventually took advantage of modern technology – primarily aiding in modernising the Japanese military. Though greatly aiding Japanese modernisation (which is a completely different story, and I shall avoid going into any further detail), opening the ports to the Western world affected the Tokugawa shogunate.
Japan felt threatened by the greater technologies available in the West, and Japanese civilians were disapproving of the government’s decision to interact with the West, which aided in further weakening the Tokugawa shogunate’s stanza in the public eye.
During the 1860’s there were rebellions against the government – many people were wishing for the Emperor to return to power. Please note that at no point was the Emperor removed – when the Edo period came to formation at the rise of Tokugawa Ieyasu, his power as Shogun was gifted to him by the Emperor. Emperors did still exist in Japan, but had no political power; it was the Shogun and government who were in control of the country.
The Emperors of the Tokugwa period were:
The Satsuma rebellion (西南戦争 Seinan Sensou or Southwestern War) occurred in 1877 between January and September as Satsuma Samurai acted against the imperial government, though the age known as the “fall of Edo” (江戸開城 Edo Kaijou) is dated between May to July 1868. This was the final, and what an historian could describe as the most intense and critical, of the rebellions and armed uprisings opposing the government and Tokugawa Shogunate. In the year 1868, Chousuu and Satsuma domains forced Shogun Yoshinobu (Ieyasu’s successor) to resign.
Here, the Tokugawa dynasty ended.
Mikado (Emperor) came to power. Edo was renamed “Tokyo” on September 3rd, 1868, but remained the capital city of Japan.
For nearly 250 years, Japan had been an almost untouchable aspect of the Pacific. It was after the Tokugawa shogunate was removed from power that Japan began modernisation; the Meiji period (明治時代 Meiji-jidai) began.