Collapse of Tokugawa Shogunate

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 16 December, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 16 December, 1998, 12:00am

The downfall of the Tokugawa Shogunate in 19th century Japan was brought about by both internal and external factors.

Under the Tokugawa rule, the government was a feudal military dictatorship called bakufu, with the shogun at the top. The emperor reigned but did not rule; he was only a symbol to be worshipped.

It was the shogun who actually ruled Japan. He ruled directly over a quarter of the country; the rest was divided among the daimyo or feudal lords. Under the shogun and the daimyo were the samurai (military followers or soldiers).

Tokugawa society placed great importance on obedience to authority. The individual was controlled by the state, the community and the family.

The forced opening of Japan following US Commodore Matthew Perry's arrival in 1853 undoubtedly contributed to the collapse of the Tokugawa rule.

Firstly, it created socio-economic problems in the country. The speculation in the gold and silver exchange by foreigners after the signing of the treaties upset the domestic price structure. This led to extraordinary fluctuations in the prices of local goods and brought economic hardships to the Japanese people.

The import of cheap foreign products wiped out local cottage industries, causing unemployment and despair. The economic distress resulting from the opening of Japan soon spread throughout the country. The Japanese were very discontented so they turned to support the anti-bakufu movement.

By inviting some of the daimyo to be representatives at the Council of State, the shogun provided a golden opportunity for them to form a political movement against the Tokugawa Shogunate.

The Sonno Joi (revere the emperor and expel the foreigners) movement was then set up. It was supported by the peasants, samurai, court nobles and daimyo. In this way, the treaties with the West not only made the downfall of the Shogunate inevitable but speeded up its collapse.

There were anti-foreign outbursts. The bombardments of Kagoshima and Shimonoseki in Satsuma and Choshu in June and August of 1863 were two such events.

Consequently, the two clans realised the importance of military might and began to carry out military reforms. At the same time, they gave up the policy of Joi. This weakening of the shogun's power speeded up the downfall of the Shogunate.

As the shogun faced a two- fold challenge from the internal and external forces, he decided to relax the sankin kotai system in order to gain support from the daimyo.

Ever since the 18th century, most of the shoguns were weak and the bakufu was corrupt. This resulted in power struggles. The luxurious life of the shoguns also led to inflation and widespread discontent as they were located far from the major urban centres in southwestern Japan. The growing power of Satsuma and Choshu changed the balance of power within the Tokugawa administration.

The growth of money economy led to the rise of the merchant class, but as their social and political status remained low, they wanted to overthrow the government. The new economy also lowered the position of the daimyo and samurai because they became poor and could not solve their financial problems. They therefore wanted to overthrow the Tokugawa rule as well.

The peasants were hit by the fluctuating rice price and natural disasters as heavier taxes were imposed on them by the daimyo. Eventually, they rose up in riots.

The rise of Shintoism placed the emperor in a more important political position and many Japanese wanted to restore the rule of the emperor.

The Dutch learning encouraged the Japanese scholars to criticise the Shogunate for the shortcomings of the closed door policy. This weakened the government.

The final collapse of the Shogunate was brought about by the alliance of Satsuma and Choshu. These two antagonistic western clans formed an alliance as a result of the Shogunate's expedition against Choshu in 1866. The alliance worked out a proposal for a complete overthrow of the Shogunate.

In January 1868, they attempted a coup d'etat to overthrow the newly throned Shogun Tokugawa Keiki. After a short period of fighting, Emperor Meiji took supreme control of the country. During his reign from 1867 to 1912, Japan was completely transformed and it became a world power.