Development and Historical Context of Tokugawa Shogunate of Japan

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Words: 1591 |

Pages: 3|

8 min read

Published: Jan 29, 2019

Words: 1591|Pages: 3|8 min read

Published: Jan 29, 2019

Before international contact and trade was established between Asia and Europe; specifically Japan, the Tokugawa Shogunate employed an incredibly rigid social order. Initially, Japanese subjects were trapped into the status that they were born into with no mobility, but as the Tokugawa period drew to an end, the social classes became blurred and more mobile. Given this movement of subjects, the conclusion stands that the hierarchy and social classes of Tokugawa Japan were maintained in name and convention; but not always in actual practice. People acted out of the confines of their classes, but faced judgment from those who still upheld the traditional values of Shogunate. In addition, the backwards nature of Japan during this time period affected their status internationally, as they were view as inferior by the Europeans, and the Chinese. This was due to the rigidity of society and the weaknesses that the rigidity contributed to in government; especially foreign policy. This perceived weakness of Japan would not be corrected until the Meiji Restoration.

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Socially, with the influence of abroad, more people began acting out of what would be considered the traditional social order, although they would often be rebuked for such actions. It was a strange time in the development of Japan-a schism between the old values and the new international influence. During much of the Tokugawa period, a ban on international trade (mainly for importing as Japan strived to be self-sufficient) but the economic promise of international trade was a major factor in the deterioration of social hierarchy. Basically, the Tokugawa Shogunate put the Japanese people in a precarious position by attempting to enforce an incredibly strict social order as well as a period of selective isolationism. This precariousness led to the social classes being maintained in name; but not always in the practice; especially in the lower hierarchical social classes of Japan.

The shoguns of the Tokugawa age valued order and stability, and thus was born the hierarchy that was the social classes of the time. As defined, the system was specific, rigid, and complex.

“…no man or woman was to change jobs or even residences. The shoguns placed the military as the ruling class at the top of a ranked ordering of occupations. Comprising 6.4 percent of the population, the military included both daimyo, the rulers of domains, and their vassals, the samurai who guarded them and staffed administrative offices…some 85 percent of the population, officially valued because they produced food, but also exploited because they were immobile and unarmed…. Then came the artisans, also useful because they made tools for the peasants and swords for the samurai. At the bottom were the merchants, officially despised because they produced nothing.”

From this Walthall quotation, the specific nature of the social classes becomes evident. They were strict and regulated; multiple laws existed to dispel the idea of the integration of social classes. The circumvention of the hierarchy though was not completely unheard of. It is in this transcendence of class that illustrates the disintegration of the system as a whole; as well as the obvious failure of the shoguns to maintain it in any more than name and appearance. This deviance is further evidenced in Musui’s Story: The Autobiography of a Tokugawa Samurai as Katsu Kokichi claims to be a social class higher than he actually is, as well as acting inappropriately in a variety of ways; ranging from fighting, begging, stealing, to disrespect, lying, and depravity. In the narrative, he describes stealing 200 ryō to use at a whore house. Obviously, his friends and family are not thrilled about his indiscretion, and he is punished for it, as it goes against the values and social classes of the time period. Interestingly, despite a lifetime of refusing to follow the oppressive social norms of the Shogunate, at the end of his life, Katsu said that he was happy now following the traditional social norms of the time period in his class.

“Supposing my children had turned out to be worthless like me-such comfort and ease as I now enjoy would have been impossible. This, too, is truly wondrous and leads me to believe I have yet to be abandoned by the gods….Venerate your ancestors and take care that no sacrilege is committed. Arrive at your place of work one hour early. Study the literary and military arts as though you were cultivating a field…. Above all, abstain from greed. Do no entertain it even in your dreams. I was guilty of this and look what’s become of me….Do not give yourself up to carnal pleasures. Watch out for women-a moment’s incaution can wreck family and home.”

It is interesting, the way that Katsu supports the social norms and discipline later in his life, even though his actions earlier were completely against them. He even goes as far as to berate himself for his actions in the past; explaining how happiness and comfort can be achieved though responsibility and disciple-which are traits Katsu lacked for the majority of his life. His actions throughout his life emphasize the changeability and fluctuation of the social classes of Japan during the Edo Period.

Unsurprisingly, the adherence to social classes during the Tokugawa period relied heavily on the social class to which one belonged. Generally speaking, the lower the social class, the more distorted ideals and norms became. This is understandable, logically, however because the ruling class benefits tremendously from upholding the hierarchy. One such account of this rigidity is that of Princess Shinanomiya.

“As a young mother Sinanomiya kept records of the children’s rites of passage, such as changing infants’ clothes to colored printed kimonos, snipping hair to indicate the growth of a child, or the boys’ coming-of-age ceremony at seven….These accounts reflect her interest in old customs as well as her own way of following in the wake of Gomizunoo in his lifelong effort to preserve cultural traditions. However, after the description of an event for the first child, she had a tendency to wire ‘Same as before.’”

This is an interesting account for two major reasons. Firstly, it shows how strict the social standards of the era were maintained during this time period. The ruling class was determined to perpetuate the hierarchy. Secondly, however, the princess seems to be infected with a flippancy that is quintessentially American in nature. It is more evidence of the deterioration of hierarchy being replaced by the customs from abroad; more evidence that the Tokugawa social classes were crumbling and there were many factors at play in their destruction.

Despite the depth and validity of Musui’s Story when it regards the state of domestic affairs in Tokugawa Japan, it fails to acknowledge the in-depth forces that worked to unseat Shogunate power, as it is an autobiography of a man’s life, rather than a historical political account. Due to technological advances as well as the drive for conquest and exploration, Asia experienced increased contact with Europe and even America during the Tokugawa, which was problematic in many realms of Japanese life. In the analysis of Japan, it is important to note the impression that other countries had of Japan.

“Japan has sometimes been described as a reactive country. In this view, it simply responds to events in its external environment-such as the arrival of the U.S. Commodore Matthew Perry, who demanded Japan end its seclusion, or the onset of the Great Depression, or the outbreak of world war in Europe, and so on. Japanese government policy in the 1980s was often seen as reactive to outside pressure (gaiatsu), as when the United States used the leverage of its market access or security guarantee to bring about a change in Japanese policy.”

During the Tokugawa period, Japan was perceived as weaker, mainly due to its attachment to the hierarchical social classes that it forced its subjects into. Due to this perception, whether true or not, it led to the manipulation of Japan by outside forces. This manipulation led to strife within the country, and began the Meiji Restoration which abolished the social classes in order to right Japan’s place in the international order.

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During the Tokugawa period, the Tokugawa Shogunate of Japan maintained a rigid social class system tied with a policy of isolationism. The imposed system was so strict that subjects could not even change jobs, however, when the period began drawing to a close, more mobility occurred. Obviously, the ruling classes were more determined to uphold the social classes, as they had more to gain from it than the peasantry. Social mobility (albeit under the judgment that was occasionally faced for it) draws the conclusion the hierarchy was upheld in name, but not always in actuality. Those who acted out of traditional social values, traditions and classes were often rebuked for their actions, but not overly so; a strange amalgam. Japan was considered a backwards nation abroad during this time, and such views led to a conception of inferiority surrounding the Shogunate. This further led to the manipulation of Japan economically, politically, and militarily. All the pressure placed on Japan weakened the Shoguns as well as the country as a whole, and began deteriorating the social structure in all its rigidity and traditional standards. Eventually, this led to the Meiji Restoration and also the restoration of Japan and its claim to international respect and a higher rank among the countries with which it had interactions.

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Dr. Charlotte Jacobson

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Development and Historical Context of Tokugawa Shogunate of Japan. (2019, January 28). GradesFixer. Retrieved May 22, 2024, from
“Development and Historical Context of Tokugawa Shogunate of Japan.” GradesFixer, 28 Jan. 2019,
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