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Essay: The Tokugawa Shogunate in Japanese History

The Tokugawa shogunate or the Edo bakufu was the last Japanese samurai government characterized with the authoritarian model of politics. The shogunate was headed by the shoguns who belonged to the Tokugawa family. The center of the country was in Edo (the old name of Tokyo).

The Edo bakufu existed for more than two centuries (1603-1867); therefore, its influence on the history of Japan was enormous. When we look at the entire history of samurai, we will notice that the Tokugawa shogunate was the most powerful and effective government due to its logical and well-organized internal structure.

How did the shogunate occur? It is possible to say that the first shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu captured the power in Japan after the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600. He possessed quite a serious army and could keep other samurais under his control. Hereupon, Tokugawa Ieyasu obtained the title of shogun from the Emperor and became an informal leader of the whole country. When he gained his title, he founded his shogunate in Edo and became the head of all samurais of Japan.

Tokugawa Ieyasu developed a new system of rights and duties between the central government in Edo and provincial leaders in their hans or domains ruled by daimyo. In 1615, Tokugawa Ieyasu ordered all daimyos to provide him with the detailed reports about their local economy, infrastructure and army. Furthermore, they provided their shogun with the detailed maps of their domains. Thus, one can say that Japan received its first high-quality and practical maps during the rule of Tokugawa Ieyasu. The shogunate generated very strict laws, which limited the power of daimyos. They became dependent on the central government. Daimyos had the right to possess only one castle in their domains. In addition, they could not improve the defense of their castles and were not permitted to establish political alliances with their neighbors without the permission of the shogun. Tokugawa Ieyasu divided daimyos into three categories according to their importance and status. The first group was represented by the daimyos who belonged to the Tokugawa clan. The hereditary vassals of Ieyasu represented the second group. The third class of daimyos was called ‘outsiders’. They were the daimyos who became vassals after the Battle of Sekigahara. Tokugawa Ieyasu made the title of shogun hereditary. He made his son Hidetata the second shogun though he was still alive and ruled the country shadily.

Shoguns managed to keep their vassals under the strict control with the help of numerous methods. The most important one is associated with the exhaustion of the economy of every domain. Every two years every daimyo had to go to Edo and spend a year at the palace of the shogun. This practice of alternate attendance was harmful for the economy of every domain inasmuch as they had to waste much money on the support of their leader in Edo. Thus, the local vassals did not have enough resources to make a powerful army that could organize a rebellion. Then, it is curious that the domains of the first two categories of daimyos located as close to the center of the country as possible. The ‘outsiders’ lived on the periphery of the country, especially in the western part of Japan. This decision is reasonable forasmuch these close relatives and hereditary vassals received privileges while the ‘outsiders’ lived too far to cause any impact on the life of the country.

Although Japan was ruled by the Emperor, the informal power belonged to the shogunate. This institution began to interfere with the life of the court in order to impose its own ideas concerning the policy of the country. For that reason, the majority of the laws and official orders were generated by the shoguns. They could manipulate the Emperor easily making him just a symbol of Japan. He did not have any solid powers.

The shogunate conducted the controversial and disputable policy of isolationism. The shoguns were afraid of the influence of Western Civilization into the life and culture of Japan. They prevented the development of trade and international relations in order to preserve the authentic and uncommon culture and lifestyle of Japan. As a result, the culture of Japan remained in its genuine and native condition by the 19th century. Only after the collapse of the shogunate and restoration of the Emperor’s power in 1867, the country officially entered the international political and economic arena.