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Tokugawa Period: Religion as a Political Tool for Population Control

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Table of contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Conclusion
  3. References


The renaissance, golden ages and enlightenment period are examples of when and how European culture and traditions were created, of which a lot are still visible today. For Japan this defining moment of cultural traditions is probably the Tokugawa period, also known as the Edo era. A time where militaristic samurai and shogun were among the hierarchic top of feudal Japan, while also being known as the poets and most literate of the time. Reigning from 1600 to 1868, the Tokugawa period is known as a time of peace. The Tokugawa family and their followers aimed for class immobility, ensuring a balance in Japan. The shogunate employed several mechanisms to ensure this, ranging from propaganda, arranged marriages among the elite (i.e. daimyo) and religion (Spackman, 2005). What this essay will address is how the Tokugawa family kept the people of Japan at peace through religion as political tool.

Within the essay first some pre-Tokugawa context is provided following how their shogunate unified Japan. Then the essays goes on to elaborate on the various significant religions where perceived by the Tokugawa family. Following, the various policies and social hierarchies installed related to religion. Finally, some points of concern are posed regarding the validity of the sources as well any insights this analysis could provide.


Regarding historical context to Japan, before the Tokugawa period, Japan was in a state of continuous war and rebellion versus the elite and in between landlords and provinces. Within this time every noble still swore loyalty to the emperor, however the emperor had little control on the people and conflicts and had served mainly as a ceremonial symbol of Japan. Furthermore, religious extremist sects and leaders provoked the farmers to take arms against their daimyo and other rebellious action against any form of government. From this chaos three warlords took it upon themselves to unify Japan once again. Tokugawa Ieyasu was among these warlords and as the eastern army he conquered control over Japan after the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600 where he defeated the strongest western opposition. Hence, the shogunate was installed in 1603 but the success and peace is often claimed to have been settled after the siege of Osaka in 1615.

From this moment on the shogunate initiated the Japanese social and economic lockdown, known as Sakoku. This isolation restricted any foreign country to enter nor trade with Japan. Except for the Dutch traders, who were allowed to come into a single trading post stationed in Nagasaki. This was also the only source of western thought and science during the period. The demise of Tokugawa’s isolation and reign originates from the demand of Commander Perry and the USA’s black gunboats to open the borders. Surrendering to the American fleet made the nation doubt the elite status of the shogunate, this sparked civil war that lead to the Meiji restoration and industrial Japan. In the scope of religion, the Meiji government emphasized Shinto over Buddhism, which was favored by Tokugawa shogunate.

The Tokugawa family used the buddhism on political level to diminish militant uprising from extremist religious leaders. They regulated who entered the temple hierarchy, made every civilian register at a buddhist temple and utilized munks as government officials and spies. Two other religions the shogunate made use of were shintoism and neo-confucianism. The purpose of these were mostly to impose social values on the civilians through moral teachings such as the social hierarchy system of feudal lords. All with the purpose to prevent resistance and opposing views to the Tokugawa regime. In the following piece the essence of each religion and in what way the shogunate implemented this in society to justify their rule is elaborated on.

Given the background of religious sects uprising to rebel against governmental regimes, the Tokugawa family desired ways to maintain class control and inter-class harmony. This goes together with the obtained school of thought neo-confucianism. In short, the confucianism is a worldview that emphasises values such as obligation, obedience, discipline and duty. Imposing values like this upon the population could ensure obedience of farmers to their daimyo and with that prevent uprisings to Tokugawa’s regime. However, confucianism has no behaviour reinforcing elements such as rituals and habits and therefore the shogunate turned to Shintoism. With a low presence in the Tokugawa period, the Shinto was concentrated mostly in the imperial palace. By connecting confucianism to Shinto made for the teachings to be rooted within Japanese culture and history. Furthermore, Shinto could also benefit from confucianism to add deeper meaning to religious elements.

The perception of Tokugawa shogunate on Buddhism was a threat as well as opportunity. Would religious leaders oppose too much moral teaching, there would again, like the pre-tokugawa era, be risks of uprisings. The reason for the fear was that Buddhist thought would take oppose the emperor as god and thus loyalty to the Japanese government. However, buddhist temples and rituals were a tool to create a desired obedient community as well as monitor and control the population. Therefore the Shogunate established a system where the temples served the population control and the teachings of Shintoism and confucianism were more dominant. Lastly, in the time of warring states Christianity also tried to gain ground within Japan. Tokugawa perceived the foreign influences as a threat to Shintoist belief as Christianity demanded devotion to the pope and a different god, both located away from Japan and their Emperor.

The first wave of political reforms were concerning with gaining control over who is allowed power and enforce class-immobility. The purple robe incident in 1627, is a prime example of this. Purple robes stands for buddhist leaders of temples and other titles which could only be received from the emperor and the imperial palace. It was this incident where Tokugawa stripped about 150 highest ranking monks of their titles as well as the emperor’s ability to award titles. This policy shows the tight control the shogunate took to censor and oppress religious teachings in a way to emphasize hierarchic values.

A second layer of control of buddhist sects was established known as the Hommastu. It connected temples across Japan in a hierarchic system, one in which the temple’s heads have to inspect and report on temples of the same branch. In essence this created a self-regulating and controlling system, where temples would ensure each others’ practises were in line with Tokugawa rule to prevent personal punishment.

Having established governmental control over Buddhist sects and temples, Tokugawa utilized temples as municipalities and assigned monks as government officials. It was made law to be registered with your local temple and a centre to deliver and govern your contribution of rice-tax. Monks held population registries reporting the actions and potential shortcomings in rice contribution. Another effect registering to buddhist shrines was to prevent opposing religious strife, by being forced into buddhist environments. During the yearly registrations, every person was asked for their religious belief. It was illegal to be christian and when monks doubted one’s sincerity they were asked to stomp on christian depictions proving their despise of it.

The combination of the above policies and hierarchies had led to the eradication of christianity as well as control over moral teachings through religion. All changes were made to support class-immobility and obedience to the feudal daimyo. They turned monks into government officials contributing to the nation’s prosperity and safety, as well as spies on the lookout for opposing thought. These population registries were also useful to the Tokugawa to monitor and manage various other purposes of the people.

Whether this social hierarchy, true isolation or the perception of these rigid classes were as much of reality as implied earlier remains debatable according to various sources (Vaporis, 2012). There is ample evidence pointing towards foreign interactions and trade with foreign nations in the form of trade, medical or scientific agreements and interaction e.g. Sweden, Germany, Koreans and Chinese. The policy was greatly designed for Portuguese christian influencers whose mission was to spread the religion and financially sustain christian practises.

What is proposed earlier is the hierarchic construct the Tokugawa desired for their nation. However the impact on people’s moral values might not have been influenced like they intended, or at least not for everyone. It was thought the people’s perception of the class system was different from the ideological model of the shogunate. The people were thought to not distinguish between merchants and artisans and consider them ‘townsfolk’ (Vaporis, 2012), where the Tokugawa considered merchants to be on the lowest tier, since they might seek unjust profit (Labbe, 2017).

Taking the reliability for granted for a moment, what concepts and insights does the analysis of late-feudal Japan provide? The Tokugawa shogunate was strict to ensure peace and stability after a long period of war and chaos. They employed means of propaganda in religious control and the abolishment of Christianity. A theme of the Tokugawa period could be unify and purify. In a way, this is in complete parallel with European history. From the feudal warring of lords and kings to the imposing of christianity and aspects of the spanish inquisition.


Given the reign of over 250 years and the commonly perceived time of peace, one can argue the policies and mechanisms have been successful. However, many of the practises used are no longer in line with present day moral values such as freedom of speech and freedom of thought. People would protest to having forced a religion upon them. Also by not allowing people to climb the social ladders of society a nation limits the potential of talent and innovation. For instance, various farmers could do well in higher class positions, being granted the opportunities like education.


  • Labbe, S. A. (2017). Religion and the State: The Influence of the Tokugawa on Religious Life, Thought, and Institutions. Student publication, Gettysburg College
  • Encyclopaedia Britannica (2018). Tokugawa period Japanese history, derived on 19th Jan 2019 from
  • Jansen, M. B. (2002). The making of modern Japan. Harvard University Press.
  • Vaporis, C. N. (2012). Voices of Early Modern Japan: Contemporary Accounts of Daily Life During the Age of the Shoguns: Contemporary Accounts of Daily Life during the Age of the Shoguns. ABC-CLIO.
  • Spackman, C. (2005), An Encyclopedia of Japanese History, retrieved on 19th Jan 2019 from

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