Colin Barker


Origins and Significance of the Meiji Restoration


Tokugawa Japan

The Japanese imperial house is one of the most ancient ruling houses in the world, tracing its origins back to the first millennium AD. From the twelfth century, however, the emperor’s authority was symbolic rather than actual. Real national power rested with the leading “vassal” of the emperor, the Shogun. His full title, seiitaishogun, meant “great leader of the army for conflict with the barbarians”.

Japan, up to the sixteenth century, is probably best understood as a “feudal” system, bearing more resemblance to the system in medieval Europe than to that in China. Power in the countryside was exercised by a class of warrior nobles, the samurai, organized into bands of retainers owing loyalty to warlords, the daimyo. The shogun was the greatest of the warlords.

Hall (1970, pp.94-5) provides us with an account of the warrior class of this period.

The bushi, or samurai, stood out from among the types of leaders produced by East Asian societies as something quite distinct. Certainly the bushi had little in common with the scholar-officials of China and interestingly enough compared more closely in style of life and basic values to the European knights of roughly the same period. Products of a feudal environment, they contrasted also with the older court aristocracy which remained in control of the city of Kyoto. By the end of the twelfth century, the bushi had become a major element in Japan’s higher culture, not just in political and military affairs. And while the way of life represented by the bushi had not by any means become predominant in Japan by this time, the national cultural scene was increasingly affected by the tastes and values of this new class of leaders.

The bushi, although of the ruling class, lived a life which contrasted greatly with that of the court nobility. He was essentially a provincial aristocrat dedicated to the bearing of arms, and, by contrast to the kuge, was preoccupied with the problems of the sword and the land. Most bushi were directly involved in affairs of land management, living on or close to the land. The court nobility lived off the land in their own isolated world of the capital. The bushi therefore emphasized, in contrast to the genteel accomplishments of the kuge, such skills as horsemanship, archery, swordsmanship, and the leading of men. They exalted such personal qualities as loyalty, honor, fearlessness, and frugality. The two prime symbols of this class were the sword (the soul of the samurai) and the cherry blossom (whose petals drop at the first breath of wind, just as the samurai gives his life to his lord without regret). Between the requirements of serving his lord and reflecting honor on his family name, the bushi was constantly entwined in a network of strenuous obligations. The bushi was also obliged to live a life of physical hardship in the field (or else imposed upon himself by contrived conditions of discipline), enduring such rigors in the belief that he was thereby “building character.” Frugality was a major precept, not only because the bushi lived from the limited produce of the soil, but because luxury presumably led to weakness. He thus tended to scorn the easy life of the courtier as soft and lacking vigor. He even scorned an easy way of taking his own life. For the bushi brought back into vogue the resort to suicide as “the honorable way out” and as a means of showing “earnestness” or opposition to a superior. But the accepted method of taking one’s own life, by slashing the bowels (seppuku), imposed the most gruesome and lingering of deaths. Here to some extent was evidence of brutalization. The bushi lived a rigidly disciplined life under absolute demands of authority, with the constant threat of death about him. Roughness, directness, and above all action was demanded of him.

In time, as the bushi class absorbed more and more of the powers of government, they came to develop a mystique about themselves as the only competent leaders of Japanese society. Scorning the effete courtiers and the money-tainted merchants, they held to a pride in profession which, in theory at least, was dedicated to the general welfare. Such sentiments were not fully developed by the thirteenth century, but they were in the making. It was not until the seventeenth century that the idealized cult of the bushi (bushido) was expounded, by which time principles derived from Confucianism were introduced to provide more generalized ethical supports.

But if this class’s “ideal ethic” was to be given full elaboration in the seventeenth century, this was also the period when their whole social role was to undergo a significant transformation.

From the end of the sixteenth century, through a series of major battles, the supremacy of the Tokugawa family was established, through the reorganization of the Shogunate. The whole social system of Japan was significantly reorganized. Without gross over-simplification, we may describe the Tokugawa system as follows.

The emperor remained the purely nominal ruler of Japan. His court was settled at Kyoto, where he was surrounded by a retinue of equally powerless nobles, the kuge. They and the emperor were, to all effects, the dependent pensioners of the Shogun.

The Shogun’s Bakufu (“war camp”) was established at Edo (sometimes spelt Yedo, and later renamed Tokyo). Here the Shogun ruled through a council of clan elders drawn from the Tokugawa family and assisted by a bureaucracy made up of samurai, including a network of spies who kept watch on the rest of the aristocracy. Over time, the council and the bureaucracy came to exercise much of the power of the shogunate.

The shogunate reorganized the land of Japan into some 250 “fiefs”, each ruled by a daimyo, a great lord. The consolidation of the shogunate’s power involved the reorganization of the daimyo lands, to reward loyalty to the shogunate and to check the power of the nobles. The shogunate claimed the right to confiscate or reduce the domain of any daimyo for such reasons as failure to produce an heir, mis-management of his domain, or infringement on the prerogatives of the Shogun. A large part of the lands of the various daimyo were in fact redistributed during the seventeenth century, most daimyo losing their original holdings (Trimberger, 1978).

The daimyo themselves were organized into three broad groupings:

  1. The Tokugawa clan itself, holding the “home provinces” around the centre of Japan.
  2. The fudai daimyo (“house nobles”), those whose clans took the Tokugawa side in their struggle for ascendancy, holding their lands in the areas surrounding the centre.
  3. The tozama daimyo (“allied nobles”), those who submitted to the Tokugawa only after their military victory, holding the outer provinces.

Thus those whose loyalty to the shogunate was most suspect were placed furthest from the centre, where they could also least easily combine against the Bakufu.

The shogunate never created a completely centralized state. The daimyo retained final powers of taxation and judicial power over the populations of their domains. But the shoguns did impose a series of controls over the daimyo and their samurai retainers, depriving them of any independent bases of power:

First, as noted, they redistributed their land-holdings.

Second, the shogunate weakened the daimyos’ economic power by requiring them to provide men and materials for castle-building, fortification, road-building and maintenance, land reclamation and the like.

Third, the shogunate promulgated a whole series of regulations governing the conduct of the daimyo in their own domains. Each daimyo was required to pull down all castles and fortifications bar one in each domain, and to limit his military forces. He was required to cooperate with the shogunate’s inspectorate, who had the right to examine his internal administration and finances. Rules on dress and private conduct were imposed, and marriage alliances were controlled from the Bakufu in Edo.

Fourth, each daimyo, with an appropriate retinue of samurai, was required to spend a part of each year at the Bakufu, at the Shogun’s court. When he was at home in his domains (the han) he had to leave his wife and children with the Shogun as hostages. In this way his loyalty was maintained. The Baku-han system, as it was known, also required him to spend part of his resources on maintaining alternate residences for himself and his retinue and on making regular journeys from his domain to the Bakufu.

At Yedo ... the daimyo, though certainly surrounded with honours, was subjected to an authoritarian, thorough and in certain respects humiliating control. When he returned to his fief... he was separated from his family and tied down to the services he always owed the shogun. He collected the share of the harvests which was due to him and he carried out an economic policy to suit himself, often turning to a monopoly of trade in certain products, like porcelain and cotton at Nagoya, wood and mandarins at Wakayama, paper, wax, indigo and cloth imported from China by Nagasaki at Hagi, sugar and camphor at Kagoshima, etc. The daimyo administered his territory and had a government similar to the shogun’s but on a smaller scale; he had a proper seigniorial court. (Akamatsu, p.22)

The shogunate’s stabilization of Japan, and its maintenance of internal peace, was achieved in part through the enforced isolation of the country from the outside world. In the latter part of the sixteenth century, European merchants had begun to establish trading relations with Japan: first the Portuguese, then the Spanish, then the Dutch and finally the English. The Iberian traders had been followed by Jesuit missionaries, who converted some thousands of Japanese, including some of the warrior caste, to Christianity. But early in the Tokugawa period, Japan was closed to foreigners. Ocean-going ships were forbidden to the Japanese. Any Japanese who left the country was forbidden to return, on pain of death. Christianity was likewise banned, and fiercely destroyed. Trade with Europeans was heavily restricted, being limited to a single trading post conceded to the Dutch alone on a small island in Nagasaki harbour, well away from Edo and Kyoto. Portuguese vessels were banned. The import of European books was strictly controlled, no work referring to Christianity being permitted. In this way, the Tokugawa protected Japan from formal or informal colonization by the West, and cut off the possibility of local daimyo combining with foreigners to attack their power. Japan thus remained a unique bastion of independence for two and a half centuries, until the mid-19th century.

The effective closure of Japan in the early seventeenth century was not simply a function of domestic Japanese politics, but also of the relative weakness of mercantile capital in Europe:

It is well to remember that the first phase of East-West contact involved a very different “West” from that of the nineteenth century. The Portuguese and Spanish who ventured to the Orient in the sixteenth century were stretching their capacities to the limit when they established their colonies in Malaya and the Philippines. Their manpower was limited and their staying power rested as much on the weakness of the people they conquered as on their special military superiority. The Dutch and English who entered Asian waters in the seventeenth century were not yet prepared to exert a major effort to penetrate the China and Japan trade. And so, after a century and a half, both China and Japan were able to “control” the Westerners. The Portuguese were expelled from Japan and restricted to the small colony of Macao in China. The Dutch accepted a small, controlled trade with Japan at one port of Nagasaki. Both China and Japan were able to return to their traditional policies of isolation. (Hall, 1970, p.135-6)

The Tokugawa period was characterized by internal peace among the nobility. In 1600, Japan had been less of a “nation” than a loose conglomeration of tiny, warring principalities with a total population of around twenty million. Over the next 250 years, it developed as a remarkably unified and peaceful polity whose population rose to nearly thirty million.

Beneath the shogunate, Japanese society as a whole was quite extensively reshaped, on the basis of a strict hierarchy of status-classes. At the top was the class of bushi, the nobility as a whole, consisting of the daimyo and samurai, and amounting to some six per cent of the total population; below them were the peasants, making up three quarters of the population; below them again were artisans; and at the bottom of the heap came the merchants. This last group, those who engaged in commerce, were allotted a social status rather like that of the Jews in Iberia: as pariahs.

The introduction of the shogunate’s central power involved a considerable re-shaping of the various social classes, their powers and their functions. Central to this were several processes. The first, the establishment of the Baku-han system of relations between shogunate and daimyo, we have already described. The second was the reorganization of agricultural relations.

From 1585, Hideyoshi, one of the figures centrally associated with the establishment of the Tokugawa system, began a careful national survey of the entire landholdings of Japan. All proprietary rights were reassessed and redefined, and vested solidly in the hands of the daimyo and their national overlord. This survey of Japanese land served as the basis, not only a for the redistribution of daimyo rights, but also for a new form of village organization. Village lands were assessed as a whole for tax purposes, and whole villages made responsible for tax assessments and for their own self-government.

The survey “had other profound consequences, for it became the legal basis upon which a new separation of status between the peasant and the warrior-aristocracy came to rest” (Hall, 1970, p.154). A complete and sometimes arbitrary division was made between the cultivators and the professional military class, on the basis of the kenchi (land survey):

For once the kenchi had passed over an area, simply by definition, a line was drawn within Japanese society between the farming and non-farming populace. Those listed in the cadastral registers along with the assessed epics of land, their families and other attached personnel, were the hyakusho (free cultivators). Those who were listed on the rolls of the daimyo as fief-holders or stipendiaries were bushi (military aristocracy, samurai). (Hall 1970, p.154)

Previously, there had been some interchange between peasantry and lower samurai. Peasants had borne arms, while samurai residing in their fiefs had farmed, or managed farming processes in the village. Now all that was ended. A man was either a peasant in a village community, or a samurai cut off from that community. Each status-class had its boundaries defined by law, and movement across those boundaries was forbidden. Each class had its place and its functions, together with its dress and residence patterns, fixed by national regulations.

This process of class separation was made final and irreversible by still another policy adopted locally by individual daimyo and eventually on a national basis by Hideyoshi, namely the effort to restrict the bearing of arms by any of the bushi class. “Sword-hunts” ..., meant to disarm the rural and urban populace, occurred sporadically during the 1580s. Hideyoshi ordered a nationwide sword-hunt in 1588. Two years later, when defeat of the Hojo gave him authority over all Japan, he issued the famous three-clause edict which froze the social structure and prohibited further class mobility or change of status. Bushi were prevented from returning to the villages, peasants were tied to their occupation and restricted from entering the trades or commerce, bushi were prohibited from leaving one master for another. Thus the basis for laid for the eventual perfection of a four-class social system wherein samurai, peasants, artisans, and merchants were given separate legal identities. (Hall, 1970, p.154-5)

Tokugawa Japan was organized around a process of exploitation of the peasants by the nobility, the class of samurai:

Fundamentally, they viewed (the rural world) in its function of food-supplier to the cultured world entrusted with administering, educating and preserving the peace – in other words, the civil and military nobility and the ministers of religion. They practiced the maxim that the peasants should be governed in such a way “that they do not die and that they do not enjoy life”. To offer the fruits of the land to the nobles and to their officials – this was the aim of the peasants’ existence. Even if it is true that the Bakufu was careful to prevent extortion, at least half the harvest went to the noble. (Akamatsu, pp.25-6)

But the introduction of the Baku-han system involved a considerable shift in the role of the samurai class, and in the situation of the village peasantry.

Just as the Shogun reduced the domainal powers of the daimyo, so too the samurai lost their previous powers. They were removed from their former fiefs, the villages, to the castle towns of the various daimyo. Instead of receiving tribute from the peasantry directly on their own fiefs, they received stipends in the form of rice from the granary of the daimyo. They were cut off from the direct ownership of land, their stipends now being dependent on office. The size of these stipends was determined by their place in the service and favour of their lord. The samurai, a former class of warrior-peasants, were effectively de-peasantized by the Tokugawa regulations. As a result of the shogunate’s limits on armies, a good half of the samurai became local civil officials in the administration of the daimyo. The Shogun’s own samurai were drawn into the city of Edo, to the Bakufu, where they too lived on stipends. Some 2,500 of the Shogun’s samurai were granted small domains, with the requirement attached that they – like the daimyo – engage in alternative residence; but their autonomy was still more restricted, for the collection of taxes and administration of justice on their lands fell under the Bakufu’s direct control.

Overall, the situation of the samurai as a class was greatly transformed:

Though as class they nostalgically clung to the concept that they were a landed aristocracy, they had been converted, in reality, to little more than salaried officials of the daimyo. As their bureaucratic functions multiplied, their security became increasingly identified, not with the land, but with government service. Separated from the duties of actual management, they became a thoroughly urbanized group living increasingly in sedentary style (Hall, 1955, p.52)

The samurai, numbering some two million, formed a very large noble class. Among themselves they were in practice stratified into three broad groups:

As a class, the whole of the samurai retained the right to carry arms, in particular the two swords of tradition – a long sword, with which they were empowered to behead any member of the lower classes who failed to show the proper respect, and a short sword for ritual self-disemboweling in case of dishonour.

Within the noble hierarchies, both of the Bakufu and of the various han, the exercise of power did not in practice rest with those in whose names it was held. Just as the power of the Japanese emperor was largely symbolic, so to at the level of the Shogun and the daimyo. The fact that each daimyo must spend half his time in his mansion at Edo meant that he must leave the administration of his han in the hands of his local samurai, who were able to develop their own rule and government with relatively little interference. But the Shogunate and daimyo offices were filled on a hereditary basis, a system little designed to search out talent, and a good part of the administrative work and actual policy-making was undertaken by samurai bureaucrats.

Just as the shogun’s chief administrators were drawn from the ranks of the “hereditary” daimyo, so the chief administrators under each daimyo were drawn from his major hereditary vassals, usually called “family elders” (karo). But most of the daimyo, like the shoguns, were little more than figureheads, and only rarely did their chief officers take political initiative. Lower officers, often of humble origin inside the samurai class, were not infrequently the chief formulators of policy, which they carried into effect by winning formal approval from the daimyo and “family elders”. Han bureaucracies at times became divided into rival factions clustering around statesmen of this type, and “reform” and “conservative” parties might alternate in power. (Fairbank, Reischauer and Craig, p.185)

Village life was regulated through the land-surveys and a variety of national laws. On the basis of the surveys, the average value of every piece of land was assessed as a basis for determining taxes. Taxes were paid in rice, measured in koku – a koku equaling something over five bushels, and representing the amount reckoned necessary to feed a man for a year. Taxes were paid, not by individual households, but by villages who were held collectively responsible for their payment.

The effect and intention of the laws was to minimize peasant spending and consumption and to maximize yields. Thus fields were never to be left fallow, rice fields were never allowed to be dry fields. Silk clothes were forbidden to members of the peasant class, and the size of peasant houses and the materials of their construction were minutely regulated. The pursuit of occupations other than farming was carefully limited. Peasants were forbidden to sell land to townsmen, to exchange their holdings, or to leave the land. Possession and bearing of arms was strictly forbidden them, as were the study of the Confucian classics or engagement in novel religious practices (especially Christianity).

The peasants were organized by the daimyo’s servants to build castles, to develop and maintain roads and irrigation facilities. They were also called on to work on land reclamation, though the fruits of this labour – additional farming land – were then given to the villages.

Village life was highly conformist. The village headman, the hereditary agent of the daimyo and his samurai officers, sought to establish and maintain village consensus. It was his responsibility to ensure that the village’s taxes were paid, and that the lords’ laws were kept. The Tokugawa rulers revived the ancient Chinese administrative system, the pao, by which village households were divided into groups of five men, each of whom was held responsible for the conduct of the others. These groups were bound by oath to the lord. Each household was placed under the control of the village, a control which extended to such matters as marriage, adoption, inheritance, and succession.

The village, as a collective body, held the land, both ploughland and common. Agriculture was centred on rice production, and took a semi-cooperative form, being dependent on careful irrigation on terraced hillsides. Kinship and pseudo-kinship ties were used to mobilize cooperative labour, especially at planting times.

The village was – thanks to the withdrawal of the samurai to the castle-towns of the daimyo – a partially autonomous association of peasants, and was treated as such at law. It could, as a collective body, sue, make contracts, and borrow money. In criminal law the whole village was held collectively responsible for the activities of its members. It maintained its own police, its own roads, its own irrigation.

Among the peasantry in the village, there was quite wide differentiation. Farm units were of different sizes. Unlike the Russian mir, the Japanese village did not engage in periodic land redistribution, so that inequalities in land holdings were perpetuated over time. But the organization of village life represented not so much a cluster of autonomous farming units as a set of mutually dependent units of different sizes. They were bound together, by real and fictive kinship ties, in a series of exchanges of services: animals, seeds, fertilizers and the like were regularly exchanged in return for labour services. Among the differentially wealthy peasant groupings in the village there was little development of conflict, since the form of village organization was such as to provide a whole series of linkages of clientship and the like between the propertied and propertyless. Barrington Moore comments:

The pre-modern Japanese village community gives every sign of having been a powerful mechanism for incorporating and controlling individuals with real and potential grievances. (Moore, p.266)


Last updated on 28.2.2002