The overthrow of the Shogun 1867

Text and Web-site by James Bowen, Convener, Pacific War Historical Society. Web-site established May 2002 and last updated 14 May 2010.

Pressures for change in Japan

The social straitjacket imposed on Japanese society for two centuries by the Tokugawa shoguns was already breaking down from a combination of serious political, economic and social pressures when Commodore Perry arrived in 1853. His arrival would be the catalyst for four revolutionary changes: Japan was fully opened to communication with Western nations; the system of dual government by shogun and emperor was replaced by a unified national government under the emperor; feudalism, the clan system and the samurai class were abolished; and Japan rapidly changed from a largely agricultural society to a modern industrialised nation.

Questioning of rule by the Shogun

Before Perry's arrival, some Japanese scholars were already beginning to question the legitimacy of the shogun's authority, and to view him as a usurper of the emperor's supreme authority. These views were eagerly adopted by powerful western samurai clans, such as the Satsuma and Choshu, which were envious of Tokugawa power. These western clans had acquired influence at the emperor's court at Kyoto, and were determined to use that influence to undermine the shogun and restore the supremacy of the emperor.

This bridge leads to the Imperial Palace in Tokyo (formerly called Edo.) The Imperial Palace was formerly the great castle of the Tokugawa Shoguns. After the restoration of the emperor as supreme ruler of Japan in 1867, he took possession of the Tokugawa castle as his residence.

The samurai were disgruntled for a number of reasons. Their incomes were measured in quantities of rice levied as taxes from Japan's rice farmers. During the Tokugawa era, Japan's population increased dramatically, and this population growth produced rice shortages from time to time, and sharp rises and fluctuations in its price. This situation was sharply exacerbated at times of crop failure, because rice was Japan's only food crop and very limited foreign trade did not include import of food in times of scarcity.

The shoguns encouraged the provincial daimyo and their high-ranking retainers to live with their families in the city chosen by the shogun as his capital, and a vibrant urban culture developed in these cities. When they lived in cities, the daimyo and lesser samurai either converted their rice incomes into cash, or arranged credit to enable them to buy goods and services appropriate to their rank. This money and credit economy was managed by the merchants who controlled the rice markets and storehouses, and many merchants grew wealthy. Since most samurai lived on fixed rice incomes, it was not difficult for higher-ranking samurai living in cities and towns to find themselves financially embarrassed and in debt to their social inferior the merchant, whom they viewed as a person of low and vulgar taste. By the end of the eighteenth century, many samurai were experiencing serious financial hardship.

After two centuries of comparative peace under the Tokugawa shoguns, samurai warriors were underemployed, poorly paid, and restless. Although still entitled to wear the two swords emblematic of their class, many samurai were forced to find work in the city and provincial bureaucracies that developed under Tokugawa rule. Samurai were not permitted to engage in manual labour.

The rice farmers, who had for centuries carried the heavy burden of supporting the samurai class, were ready to revolt. The farmers were always disgruntled, but in the Tokugawa era their uprisings increased in number and became more violent.

Merchants prospered financially during the Tokugawa era, and some great merchant families, such as Mitsui and Sumitomo, grew very rich as a money and credit economy replaced the old rice economy. The merchants resented the lowly social status allotted to them by the samurai in a Japan ruled by shoguns. They were ready to use their wealth to finance the overthrow of the shoguns and the restoration of the emperor.

To make matters worse for the Tokugawa shogun, even powerful leaders of branch families of his own clan were turning against him on the controversial issue of Japan opening ports for trade with foreign powers, and supporting restoration of the emperor's supreme authority.

Internal conflict over contact with foreign nations

The signing by the shogun of the Townsend Harris commercial treaty with the United States in 1858 was unpopular in Japan. Powerful opponents of contact with foreign countries and the shogun's rule, including the powerful western Satsuma and Choshu clans, decided to exploit this situation to undermine the shogun and reassert the authority of the emperor. They arranged the assassination of the shogun's chief councillor in 1860, and publicly questioned the shogun's loyalty to the emperor and his commitment to keeping Japan free from barbarian, i.e. foreign influences. Anti-foreign sentiment reached a high level, and several innocent foreigners, including an Englishman, were murdered by fanatical, ultra-nationalist samurai from western clans.

When the British demanded reparations and punishment of samurai assassins from the Satsuma clan, this demand was rejected. The anti-foreign, anti-shogun clans, which had acquired influence at the emperor's court, persuaded him to order the shogun to close Japanese ports to foreign ships in breach of commercial treaties signed by the shogun. The daimyo lord of the western Choshu clan even took it upon himself to order his forts to fire on foreign ships entering Japan's inland sea.

The foreign powers respond to treaty breaches with naval power

The foreign powers responded to these hostile actions by assembling naval squadrons and bombarding the Satsuma capital Kagoshima in 1863 and the Choshu forts at Shimonoseki in 1864.

In defiance of the commercial treaties signed by the Tokugawa Shogun with foreign powers, the daimyo of the western Choshu clan ordered his forts at Shimonoseki to fire on foreign ships entering Japan's inland sea. The foreign powers responded to this breach of their commercial treaties by assembling a naval squadron and bombarding the Choshu forts. This photograph shows the surrender of the Choshu forts in 1864.

The Satsuma and Choshu clans quickly agreed to cease hostile acts against foreigners and foreign ships, and conscious of their military weakness when faced with the guns of Western navies, both clans sought to acquire modern military technology and weapons from foreign powers. The daimyo of the Choshu clan was ordered to acknowledge his submission to the Tokugawa shogun's authority, and despite the objections of many of his samurai, he agreed to do so. In 1864, younger Choshu samurai, who had opposed acknowledgment of submission by their daimyo to the shogun, rebelled and forcibly replaced their daimyo's senior counsellors. This coup would have great significance for the future direction of government in Japan. Some of the able young samurai rebels who organised this coup would later play leading roles in overthrowing the shogun and restoring the emperor as sole ruler of Japan.

In a demonstration of support for the shogun, who had signed commercial treaties with them, the foreign powers assembled their naval squadrons at Osaka in 1864 and demanded that the emperor honour these commercial treaties. Since the emperor was dependent on support from western samurai clans in his power struggle with the shogun, including the Satsuma and Choshu clans, the earlier capitulation of those clans to foreign naval power forced him to do the same. He agreed to honour Japan's commercial treaties with foreign powers. This act of the emperor signalled the end of organised Japanese hostility to foreigners, and acceptance by contending clan factions of full diplomatic and commercial contact with foreign nations.

The deep dislike of foreigners, evidenced by this episode of Japanese history, did not simply disappear when the emperor confirmed the commercial treaties with foreign powers. While some Japanese took up Western ways with enthusiasm, extreme nationalists tended to resent what they saw as a defiling of the purity of Japanese culture. The extreme nationalists would remain a significant and destabilising element of Japanese society until the end of World War II.

The Choshu clan vision for a unified and powerful Japan

The young rebel samurai of the Choshu clan, who had forcibly replaced their daimyo's senior counsellors in 1864, appreciated that Japan could not take its place as a great power and defend itself from foreign intrusion unless fundamental changes were made. They were convinced that Japan needed to be a unified country with a national government under the supreme authority of the emperor to achieve military and material equality with Western nations. They enlisted the support of court nobles who were close to the emperor, and they planned to use their influence with the impressionable young Emperor Mutsuhito to engineer with his authority a political, social and economic revolution. They intended that this revolution would destroy rule by shogun, restore the emperor as supreme ruler, abolish feudalism, and provide Japan with a centralised government carried on in the name of the emperor.

These young Choshu rebel counsellors were able, ambitious, and nationalistic, but they were not democrats. They did not intend to create a democratic system of government for Japan, but one headed by a nominally all-powerful emperor who would actually be controlled by them as advisers to the throne. The financial cost of this revolution would be borne by great merchant families, such as Mitsui and Sumitomo, who resented the lowly status accorded to them under the shogun's military rule. These great merchant families would be well rewarded after the restoration of the emperor.

The end of the Shoguns and restoration of the emperor's power

With the issue of foreign contact settled, the Choshu, Satsuma and other western clan enemies of the shogun were able to focus all their energies on removing him from power and restoring the supremacy of the emperor. Choshu became a focal point of opposition to the shogun. Some of the young Choshu rebel samurai who staged the coup in 1864 had been leaders of the radical anti-foreign movement, but after secretly visiting England, they were able to set aside their prejudice against foreigners and foreign knowledge. They believed that only a united Japan could defend itself against demands by foreign powers, and they were determined to destroy the shogun and achieve a powerful and united Japan under the sole rule of the emperor. They organised a militia that included both samurai warriors and common people, and they trained and armed their troops in the manner of Western armies. They encouraged other opponents of the shogun to join them. In 1866, Choshu allied itself with its powerful Satsuma clan neighbour against the shogun. The shogun responded to this defiance by sending an army to Choshu in 1866. The defeat of the shogun's army dealt a fatal blow to his prestige.

The first step in the overthrow of the shogun came in 1867 when the western clans demanded his resignation and restoration of all power to the emperor. The shogun resigned to avoid a full-scale military confrontation with the armies of Choshu and Satsuma, and in the mistaken belief that the emperor would appoint him to high office under the throne. When ordered by the emperor to give up his lands, the former shogun refused and moved his army against Kyoto. In a brief civil war that followed, the power of the Tokugawa clan was destroyed, and an imperial army, that included Choshu and Satsuma troops, occupied the former shogun's capital Yedo. In January 1868, the leading daimyo of Japan were summoned to Kyoto where they were informed that the emperor had been restored as sole ruler of Japan. In that same year, the young Emperor Mutsuhito moved his court to the great Tokugawa castle in Yedo, and the city was renamed Tokyo. The building of a modern united Japan could now begin.

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