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The Fall of the Tokugawa Shogunate

Japan in the mid-19th century was characterized as being feudal. It was of course feudalistic but there were also some more primitive tribalistic elements to Japanese society.

In the four-tiered social hierarchy of Japan the military class was at the top, the common peasant farmers were next below them, and the artisans and craftsmen were below the peasant and the commercial class was at the bottom. This probably reflected a simpler social structure where there were only the peasants and the elite of warriors who defended them. The people who lived by trading rather than physical labor in the fields were an anomaly in such a society and socially suspect. Even the artisans did not quite fit into the simple peasant society.

The military class, the samurai, had little legitimate outlet for their militarism since the unification and pacification of Japan under the Tokugawa clan. The samurai lived on a stipend paid for through a tax on the farmers. This tax was a heavy burden on the farmers, taking close to half of their production.

Some samurai lived beyong their means; that is to say, their stipend; and went into debt to the socially despised merchants. The burden of debt on the samurai made the merchant class even more depised. It was not a healthy society, that Japan of the mid-19th century.

Contact with the outside world had be cut off in the mid-16th century. The story of that isolation is told elsewhere. That isolation cost Japan greatly. Its technology was static and backward. Socially it may have been stable, but then again it may only have been rigid and in fact brittle.

Japan in 1800

The Japan of 1800 was a feudal state. The military caste of the sumurai dominated the politics of Japan. The army of the state was a hierarchy of samurai with rank determined by heredity. The head of this structure was the Shogun. Since 1603 the Shogun had been the head of the Tokugawa family. Although nominally only a military deputy of the Emperor, in fact the Shogun was the all-powerful ruler of all Japan. The governor of the Emperor's capital, Kyoto, was appointed by the Shogun. For this crucial jurisdiction the Shogun usually chose a close, loyal member of his family. This made the Emperor himself virtually a prisoner under house arrest of the Shogun. The administrative capital of the Shogunate was Edo, later to be called Tokyo (eastern capital).

The hierarchy of the samurai was ranked in terms of closeness to the Tokugawa family:

The income of the samurai came from a stipend paid by the Shogunate from a rice tax of about 50 percent levied on the farmers. Some of the powerful samurai, including the Shogun, held extensive estates from which they also received income.

During the 19th century the trade routes from North America to Asia took the ships into the vicinity of Japan but the ships could not land there because the Shogun decreed that all foreigners, other than the sanctioned Dutch traders, would be killed. Even ship-wrecked sailors who washed up on Japanese shores were killed.

Over the years the prohibition of the Shogun against foreign ships landing on Japan became more and more intolerable. Commodore Perry was given the task of remedying the situation.

When Commodore Matthew Perry in 1853 forced the Shogun to permit Japanese merchants to trade with visiting foreign ships he did not intend to disrupt the Japanese social system, yet that is exactly what happened. The Shogun lost face in not being able to prevent foreign visitations. Intensely conservative and nationalistic Japanese, particularly in the provinces of Satsuma andChoshu, felt the Shogun should be punished and replaced. They were particularly incensed that the Shogun had entered into an agreement with the foreigners without first securing the Emperor's permission. This made the powerlessness of the Emperor obvious. For this social error the Shogun had to be replaced. This replacement was couched in terms of the restoration of the Emperor to be the head of state.

It was not obvious how the Shogun could be brought down. Some of the nationalistic Japanese, called Shi-Shi (men of high purpose), carried out assassinations of foreigners and those Japanese who worked with the foreigners. These acts of terror however would have little effect in themselves. In effect there were, as acts of terrorists usually are, merely vicious publicity stunts.

The Namamugi Incident

There was one case of samurai mayhem that was not an act of terrorism per se. A British group from Yokohama was riding through the village of Namamugi where they encountered a party of high level samurai traveling from Edo back to Kyoto. The British goup did not turn aside from the road to led the samurai pass first as Japanese protocol required. The samurai then killed one of the British party and wounded two others. This might be perhaps considered an example of road rage.

The British authorities called upon the Shogun to punish the samurai and pay compensation. The Shogun issued the orders for the offending samurai to be put under arrest but the local authorities chose not to comply with those orders. The Japanese saw the incident as evidence that foreigners should not be allowed to live in Japan because they obey the Japanese rules, either from ignorance or obstinance.

The situation spiraled out of control with some local authorities calling for the expulsion of all foreigners and the attack of their shipping. When Satsuma and Chosun tried to interfe with foreign shipping the foreign force carried out bombardments of those sites.

Eventually the Shogun paid an idemnity to the British and ordered the samurai responsible for the Namamugi incident to be punished. However, the punishment was not carried out.

Rebellion Against the Shogun

The anti-foreign sentiment began to be directed against the Shogun as well as the foreigners.

The real key to the overthrow of the Shogun was discovered by a Shi-Shi in Choshu, called Yoshida. He realized that the Japanese using their archaic military technology would ultimately be defeated. When Shi-Shi fired upon foreign ships passing by Choshu in the early 1860's the foreign ships carried out a devastating bombardment of Choshu. Clearly such confrontations would only result in the defeat of the Japanese. The solution was to learn from the foreigners their military technology.

Yoshida Shoin of Yamaguchi (Choshu)

Yoshida was of samurai rank but he chose to be a teacher and as such proved to be a critical influence on leaders of the Meiji Revolution/Restoration. In 1854 at age 24 Yoshida attempted to stow away on one of Perry's ships. He wanted to get a foreign land where he could study the foreign technology he felt was needed to force foreigners out of Japan. However he was discovered and turned over to the Shogun authorities which forbade any such contacts. He was imprisoned and then sent back to Choshu where he was allowed to be a school teacher. He taught the doctrine that the Shogun and the provincial lords had forfeited their right to rule by accepting the presence of foreighers in Japan. In Yoshida's view they were corrupt and incompetent. As a teacher Yoshida convinced his students that they must go to the foreigners and learn what they needed to know to make Japan strong. As a result of Yoshida's teaching a group of young Japanese journeyed abroad to see the foreign lands.

Yoshida Shoin
Yoshida later decided to take an active role in the overthrow of the Shogunate. He planned the assassination of a Shogunate leader who was contemptuous of the Emperor's court. However before the assassination could be carried out it was discovered and Yoshida was arrested and executed for his role in its planning. Other samurai however did carry out the assassination of another important Shogun official, Ii Naosuke.

There followed a period in which Shi-Shi attempted assassination and Shogunate leaders surrounded themselves with body guards. When the Shi-Shi could not get to the top leaders they tried to intimidate them by killing their subordinates and sending the head or ears of the victims to the top leaders.

When these young Japanese who had journeyed to the outside world returned they armed themselves not with swords, the weapon of the samurai, but guns, the weapon of the foreigners. The actual downfall of the Shogunate came about relatively easily. The old shogun, Iemochi, died in 1866 and the new shogun, Yoshinobu, decided it was better to resign voluntarily and perhaps play a role in the new government than to fight to the bitter end. However there was to be no role for Yoshinobu in the new government and he was faced with the loss of his territories.

The new leaders created a new imperial army of Japanese commoners armed with rifles. They had control of the imperial seals and therefore could issue orders in the Emperor's name. They then set about carrying out a social revolution. One dramatic element of this revolution is that they took away the stipend that was paid to members of the samurai class, thus forcing the samurai to find socially productive roles in Japanese society. Some of the samurai such as Saigo Takamori of Satsuma who had suported the overthrow of the Shogun rebelled against the Meiji leaders.

Saigo Takamori
However Saigo and his followers armed with swords were no match for the Meiji army of commoners armed with rifles and trained for modern army manuevers. Saigo's rebellion failed and he returned to Satsuma to commit ritual suicide. The Meiji Revoltion/Restoration was complete.







(To be continued.)

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