Thayer Watkins

Japanese History

The Origins of the Tokugawa Shogunate

In the 16th century the domain lords, the daimyo, were under pressure from the common people as well their own mutual competition for land and people. Some sought to resolve these pressures by gaining control of the capital of Kyoto and forcing some unification of the country. Oda Nobunaga of Owari Province (Aichi Prefecture) achieved this goal. He redrew the political map and shared his dominions with his commanders. He had land surveys carried out to strengthen land ownership and provide the basis for taxation.

Oda was born into the aristocracy, but his most powerful commander and the one who suceeded him was Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the son of a farmer. Hideyoshi rose to power on the basis of his extraordinary political and military abilities. Hideyoshi carried out the political unification and social reorganization of Japan started by his predecessor Oda. A major element of this reorganization was the clear separation of the warrior-land owner class and the farmer class. The rights to land were recognized by registration, but the farmers also had the duty to pay taxes in rice and not neglect the cultivation of their land. Farmers were forbidded to have weapons. In effect, the farmers were tied to the land as serfs.

Tokugawa Ieyasu came from a powerful family in the mountainous region of Aichi Prefecture. Ieyasu had been sent as a "hostage" to the Imagawa family, with whom his family had formed an alliance. While Ieyasu was traveling to the Imagawa family the armies of Oda attacked killing Ieyasu's father and capturing Ieyasu. He was eventually released and became an ally of Oda. He distinguished himself as a general.

When Oda died Ieyasu initially opposed Hideyoshi's leadership, but eventually supported him and rose to be Hideyoshi's most powerful commander. Upon Hideyoshi's death Ieyasu emerged as the leader. Ieyasu established the Tokugawa shogunate.

For material on the isolation of Japan from the outside world in the 17th century see Japan's Missed Opportunity.

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