Late Tokugawa Shogunate

Late Tokugawa Shogunate
Late Tokugawa Shogunate

The late Tokugawa Shogunate (1853–67) witnessed the end of the Edo period in Japan, when the country emerged from a period of self-imposed isolation and modernized from a feudal military society as a result of the Meiji Restoration.

The expedition of Commodore Matthew Perry and other dealings with Western governments helped to expose the rift in Tokugawa society and the bakuhan system between the fudai daimyo (feudal lords originally Tokugawa allies), who for nearly two centuries had been favored by the shoguns, and the tozama (later Tokugawa supporters), who had been largely excluded from the shogun’s favor.

It was the Choshu and Satsuma clans of the tozama daimyo that began a reaction in favor of the emperor and against the shogun Iesada. Two clans began to assert themselves against the shogunate: the Satsuma clan in southern Kyushu, and the Choshu in western Honshu. Their slogan “Revere the Emperor, Expel the Barbarians,” became the battle cry of the movement to overthrow the Tokugawa bakufu (military government).

Politically, the Choshu and Satsuma samurai became known as the Imperial Loyalists. In 1857 the emperor Komei got a secret message to the Satsuma and Choshu clans asking for their support against the shogun.

In a possible response to that message, in 1859, a Japanese scholar named Yoshida Shoin became involved in a plot to assassinate a representative of the shogun Iemochi. Because of this, he and an accomplice, Kusakabe, were taken by shogun authorities to Edo (now Tokyo), where they were beheaded for treason against the shogun in 1859.

Although the Choshu and Satsuma samurai competed for leadership of the Loyalist Cause, eventually they realized that by making common cause they stood a greater chance for success. In April 1863 Emperor Komei issued his “Order to expel barbarians,” and the Choshu samurai forced the shogun to agree to expel all foreigners by July 1863, something which the Choshu leaders knew the Tokugawa were now powerless to do.

Thus, they achieved their goal of making the Tokugawa appear even more politically irrelevant than before. At the same time, the Choshu and Satsuma clans, because of their wealth, were able to buy modern firearms from British traders, whose gun-running became a powerful force in what was to come.

Sakamoto Ryoma, a samurai from Tosa, was instrumental in brokering an alliance between the two competing clans in 1866. By this time, the Tokugawa Shogunate had been shown powerless a second—and fatal—time. In 1864 foreign ships had been able to blast a passage through the Shimonoseki Strait to open it to commerce, showing again that the shogun was a paper tiger.

Even when Shogun Iemochi created his Shinsengumi, a special samurai corps, in 1863 to keep his rule even by terror, little was accomplished. By 1866 the Choshu and Satsuma samurai were ripe for rebellion. A shogunal army was sent to restore order among the Choshu in the summer of 1866, but no other clans offered any assistance, and the Tokugawa army was forced to retreat.

In 1867 the two clans came out in open rebellion for the new Emperor Meiji, whose given name was Mutsuhito. In December 1867 the 15th, and last, Tokugawa shogun, Yoshinobu, was forced to surrender to the emperor. The Meiji Restoration of imperial power had taken place.

In January 1868 Yoshinobu decided to attempt a final stand at Fushimi, where his forces were crushed. He surrendered to the imperial forces and formally opened Edo to the imperial troops. Emperor Meji entered the city, and, thus, in January 1868 the Meiji Restoration of imperial power had taken place.