Tokugawa Ieyasu (1542-1616) was the founder and first shogun of the Tokugawa shogunate, or military government, which maintained effective rule over Japan from 1600 until 1867.
The period from 1477 until 1568 was a time of disorder and disunity in Japan. The traditional government of the country, the imperial court at Kyoto, had 1 1/2 centuries earlier delegated ruling authority to the shogunate of the warrior family of Ashikaga, which also had its offices in Kyoto. But, although the Ashikaga shoguns had managed to maintain a loose control over much of the land until about 1477, thereafter their central power virtually disappeared. For the remainder of the 15th century and during the first half of the 16th, warrior families everywhere were constantly at war.
By about the 1550s, however, a group of daimyos (regional barons) had succeeded in establishing stable territorial domains throughout much of the country. In 1568 one of these daimyos, Oda Nobunaga, entered Kyoto, where, with the approval of the imperial court, he established himself as the new de facto hegemon of the central provinces of the main island of Honshu.
One of the chief reasons for Nobunaga's early success was the alliance he made with Tokugawa Ieyasu, the young daimyo of a neighboring domain. When Nobunaga undertook his campaign westward to Kyoto, Ieyasu provided invaluable service by protecting him from attack by potential enemies to the east.
From 1568 until his death in 1582, Nobunaga destroyed or secured the allegiance of his enemies near Kyoto and gradually began to spread his control to other parts of the country. He was treacherously killed by one of his leading generals, Akechi Mitsuhide, who in turn was almost immediately attacked and killed by another of Nobunaga's generals, Toyotomi Hideyoshi.
Having avenged his lord's death, Hideyoshi undertook to complete the task of unification of Japan that Nobunaga had begun. By 1590 he had made himself the undisputed master of the country.
After unifying the country, Hideyoshi arranged to have Ieyasu move his domain from the region of the Nagoya Plain to the eastern provinces of the Kanto. His intent was presumably to remove Ieyasu as far as possible from his own base in the central provinces. Yet in so doing he allowed Ieyasu to establish himself in the most agriculturally wealthy part of the country, from which the Tokugawa leader was able to assert his power on the national level after Hideyoshi's death.
Hideyoshi's final years were darkened by two unsuccessful attempts to invade Korea—in 1592 and 1597. Moreover, when he died in 1598, his successor, Hideyori, was a mere child of 5. Hideyoshi extracted vows of allegiance to Hideyori from the various leading daimyos, including Ieyasu. Yet no sooner had Hideyoshi died than the daimyos began to contend for power among themselves. Before long they had divided into two major factions, one headed by Ieyasu and the other in opposition to him. In 1600 they clashed in a great battle at Sekigahara which brought victory to Ieyasu and determined the course of Japanese history for the next 2 1/2 centuries.
After the battle of Sekigahara all those daimyos who had not yet accepted Ieyasu's overlordship were obliged to do so. Although Ieyasu did not actually receive the title of shogun from the imperial court until 1603, for all practical purposes the rule of the Tokugawa shogunate, whose headquarters he established in Edo (present-day Tokyo) in the eastern provinces, began in 1600.
The establishment of the Tokugawa shogunate was in great measure a logical outcome of the institutional developments of the preceding century. Rather than seeking to pursue and completely humble his chief opponents after Sekigahara, Ieyasu settled for an overall national hegemony under which the daimyos retained virtually complete autonomy over their domains but in return paid allegiance to Edo and were under certain circumstances personally subject to its jurisdiction.
Three types of daimyos ruled the feudal domains that constituted Japan during the Tokugawa period: fudai, or hereditary daimyos, who had become the vassals of Ieyasu before the battle of Sekigahara; tozama, or outside daimyos, including both Ieyasu's allies and opponents at Sekigahara; and a small number of shimpan, or collateral daimyos, who were directly related to the Tokugawa family.
Of the two major types of daimyos, hereditary and outside, the former, as long-standing vassals, were allowed to hold posts in the Tokugawa shogunate, whereas the outside daimyos were theoretically barred from any participation whatever in the administrative affairs of the Edo government. However, all daimyos, with only a few exceptions based on special circumstances, were obliged to spend part of their time each year in attendance at the Shogun's court at Edo. This system of "alternate attendance," which was evolved during the first few decades of Tokugawa rule, was the chief means by which the Tokugawa exercised surveillance over the daimyos. When the daimyos were not in Edo, moreover, they were obliged to leave their wives and children there as hostages.
Ieyasu was immensely rich. By the time of the establishment of the shogunate he had acquired roughly one-quarter of the rice-producing land of the country as the private domain of the Tokugawa family. In addition, as shogun, he "nationalized" most of the important cities— including Kyoto (the seat of the imperial court), Osaka, and Nagasaki—as well as certain mining and other important sites. The additional revenues he was able to draw from these sources handsomely augmented his already preponderant income from agriculture.
In 1600, the year of the battle of Sekigahara, the first English and Dutch arrived in Japan. These newcomers were Protestants and were quite willing to trade without engaging also in missionary activities. Ieyasu even elevated one of them, an Englishman named Will Adams, to the rank of retainer and made him the shogunate's official adviser on foreign affairs.
Yet, even though Ieyasu (like Hideyoshi before him) was personally most anxious to develop trade with the Europeans, and the arrival of the Protestants seemed to present an opportunity to dispense with the Christianizing which the Catholics insisted upon, there remained the problem of how to deal with the Portuguese and Spanish who were still in Japan.
Ieyasu became increasingly convinced that Christianity must be banned, and in his final years he took steps to enforce and to expand the original injunctions of Hideyoshi against the foreign religion and its missionaries. He even executed some native Christians who did not comply with his will, but it was not until the time of the second shogun, Hidetada, that the persecution of both European and Japanese Christians was undertaken with ferocity.
The leaders of the Tokugawa shogunate had become inordinately fearful that Christianity was subversive to Japanese society and that Tokugawa rule might be threatened by a league of foreign Christians (especially Portuguese and Spanish) and daimyos of the western provinces. This fearfulness contributed importantly to the final decision made in the 1630s to institute a national seclusion policy. According to the seclusion policy, all Japanese were forbidden henceforth to leave the country, and only the Dutch and Chinese were allowed to engage in trade on a strictly limited basis at the single port of Nagasaki in Kyushu.
It would be difficult to overstress the importance of the national seclusion policy on the history of the Tokugawa period. Without question it was the chief reason for the longevity of Tokugawa rule: more than 2 1/2 centuries of almost unbroken peace. Yet the Japanese had to pay a price for this age of peace, which was based on withdrawal from the outside world. It was during this period that the West surged ahead into the scientific and industrial revolutions; and when Japan finally reentered the international community in the mid-19th century, it was forced to deal with the Westerners on radically different terms.
Ieyasu was by nature an exceedingly cautious man. Mindful that many prominent chieftains earlier in Japanese history (as well as his two immediate predecessors, Nobunaga and Hideyoshi) had failed to perpetuate the rule of their families, he sought by careful stages to consolidate the governing position of the Tokugawa after the battle of Sekigahara.
Despite Ieyasu's great military victory in 1600, there remained the widespread feeling that Hideyoshi's young son Hideyori should by right ultimately succeed his father as national hegemon. Accordingly, although he took the title of shogun in 1603, Ieyasu allowed the Toyotomi and their supporters to harbor at least the hope that power would be transferred to Hideyori after he reached adulthood. This hope was greatly reduced in 1605, however, when Ieyasu resigned the office of shogun in favor of his own son Hidetada. Clearly this move could be interpreted only as an effort to minimize disruption within the shogunate after Ieyasu's death and thus to perpetuate Tokugawa rule.
But it was not until 1614 that Ieyasu finally decided to settle the Toyotomi issue once and for all. By means of highly contrived charges of rebellious intent on the part of Hideyori, he forced the Toyotomi and their supporters to take up a position of armed opposition to the Tokugawa in the great castle at Osaka, which had originally been constructed by Hideyoshi. In 1614 Ieyasu personally laid siege to the castle with a great force. But, much to his chagrin, he was unable to force its defenders (numbering perhaps 90,000) to capitulate.
To avoid further embarrassment, Ieyasu offered peace if Hideyori would agree to having the castle's outer defenses leveled. Yet no sooner had this been done than Ieyasu renewed his attack on the castle and slaughtered nearly all of its occupants, including Hideyori. Ieyasu had acted treacherously, but very efficiently, in eliminating the last major threat to the superiority of the Tokugawa.
Although Ieyasu had resigned the office of shogun in 1605 and had even "retired" to the town of Sumpu to the west of Edo, he had in no sense relinquished his rulership of the shogunate. Until his death in 1616, one year after victory at the battle of Osaka Castle, he remained the guiding influence in shogunate affairs.
The Tokugawa shogunate, even though it was based on a hegemony which allowed extensive autonomy to the various daimyo domains, was the first government in Japanese history (apart from Hideyoshi's, which had lasted only a few years) that was in a position to rule on a truly national scale. It had been founded by professional warriors, and many of its offices were organized along military lines. Nevertheless, it became the government of a country securely at peace, and the attitude of its officials was inevitably transformed more and more into that of civilian administrators.
The philosophy of rule and maintenance of social order that came to appeal most to the leaders of Tokugawa Japan was Confucianism or, more precisely, Neo-Confucianism, which had long been established as the orthodox sociopolitical creed of China. Neo-Confucian ideas had been introduced to Japan several centuries earlier from China, but they were of little practical value to the warring chieftains of the medieval age. The Tokugawa, however, found in this philosophy an eminently appropriate set of precepts for their exercise of national rule.
Neo-Confucianism "legitimized" the division of Japanese society into four major classes—samurai, peasants, artisans, and merchants—and the enforcement of strictly hierarchical personal relations as embodied particularly in the virtues of filial piety and loyalty. Neo-Confucian doctrine also endorsed the essentially anticommercial bias of a state whose chief form of economic wealth was agriculture. Commerce did, in fact, advance greatly during the Tokugawa period, but the shogunate always maintained the official attitude that artisans and merchants were less socially respectable than either samurai or peasants.
When Ieyasu died in 1616, his son Hidetada had already been shogun for 11 years. Hidetada and his son, the third shogun, lemitsu, continued the general policies of the shogunate's founder. By the time of Iemitsu's death in 1651, the Tokugawa regime was firmly set in the form that it was to retain for 2 more centuries.
Whereas Nobunaga undertook unification and Hideyoshi completed it, Ieyasu made it enduring. The magnitude of Ieyasu's achievement as a dynastic founder is unchallengeable; yet his capacity as a military commander has perhaps been underrated because of unfortunate comparison with the superb generalship of Hideyoshi. Nevertheless, Ieyasu was without doubt one of the greatest field commanders and one of the greatest governmental administrators in Japanese history.
Following Japan's defeat in World War II there was a distinct emotional reaction against the historical memory of the Tokugawa period. It was felt that this age, with its stern "feudal" polity and, in particular, its unnatural policy of national seclusion, had somehow "perverted" Japan and had caused it to pursue the course that led ultimately to disaster in war. Since Japan's remarkable economic recovery in the 1950s and 1960s, however, there has been a mellowing of feeling and a greater willingness to note the praiseworthy features of the Tokugawa period and its rulers. One result of this has been a particular revival of interest in Ieyasu. He now enjoys a historical popularity commensurate with his distinguished role in the evolution of Japan.
A biography of Tokugawa Ieyasu in English, although dated, is Arthur L. Sadler, The Maker of Modern Japan: The Life of Tokugawa Ieyasu (1937). George Sansom, A History of Japan, 1334-1615 (1961), and John W. Hall, Government and Local Power in Japan, 500 to 1700 (1966), contain excellent accounts of the process of unification in the late 16th century. Another good source for information about the founding of the Tokugawa shogunate by Ieyasu is Conrad Totman, Politics in the Tokugawa Bakufu, 1600-1843 (1967). Two important books that deal with the Western presence in Japan during the late 16th and early 17th centuries are Charles R. Boxer, The Christian Century in Japan (1951), and Michael Cooper, They Came to Japan (1965).