The Twists and Turns of the Life of Shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu

Japan wasn’t always ruled by a democratic influence. From 1603 until 1868, it was under a special kind of militaristic dictatorship. During these 265 years, the descendants of one clan would continuously rule Japan. That clan was the Tokugawa clan.

Understanding the Tokugawa Period

While those 265 years are also referred to as the Edo period, it can also be called the Tokugawa period. The influential Tokugawa clan would grow to become an even more powerful family dynasty whose name would command respect, prestige, and fear. The following descendants of this line would lead the country as a Shogun.

Though many of the descendants of the Tokugawa clan today live like the rest of society, many of them do not hold their “Tokugawa” names anymore. Instead, many of them go by “Matsudaira”.

What is A Shogun?

A shogun is a hereditary dictator/commander-in-chief. Written as (将軍), this term was used even earlier than 1603, as there were Shoguns that ruled Japan as early as 1185. Though the Emperor (who is technically the supreme ruler of Japan) would elect them, the true power sat with whoever was the shogun. 

In Relation to the Grandfather

As for the peaceful and more centralized Tokugawa period, it all started with Tokugawa Ieyasu, who founded the rule, and is thus known as “The Great Unifier of Japan”. 

Ieyasu had several major militaristic accomplishments (particularly his win at the Battle of Sekigahara) and was propelled into power by 1603. Because of his wisdom in political affairs, careful insight, and strategic decisions, Tokugawa Ieyasu was able to form truces with his enemies, and have a firm-enough hold on the country which would open a gateway of control for the rest of his descendants. 

By 投稿者がファイル作成 (ブレイズマン (talk) 07:46, 18 November 2008 (UTC)) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Fast Facts About Tokugawa Iemitsu; His Wife, Family, and Biographical Data

As he was the direct grandson of Tokugawa Ieyasu, Tokugawa Iemitsu was the third shogun to rule during the Tokugawa period. He was preceded by his father, Tokugawa Hidetada, and succeeded by his son, Tokugawa Ietsuna. 

Iemitsu (his name used to be spelled “Iyemitsu”, but that has since been outdated) was born on August 12, 1604, in Tokyo Japan, to father Tokugawa Hidetada and mother Oeyo. He married Takatsukasa Takako, who would later be referred to as “Hoshin’in”. Though she was his official wife, he had many concubines - around 10 of them. He died on June 8, 1651, also in Tokyo. He had a crucial role in the Shimabara Rebellion. 

His children, among others, were Chiyohome, Tokugawa Ietsuna, Tokugawa Tsunayoshi, Tokugawa Tsunashige, and Tsurumatsu

Tokugawa Iemitsu in Japanese History

During his rule for 28 years, Tokugawa Iemitsu was known for many dramatic twists and turns both his personal life and political career. 

Tokugawa Iemitsu’s Early Life 

As he was Tokugawa Hidetada’s eldest son, Tokugawa Iemitsu had large shoes to fill. He was set to be the next Shogun to rule Japan, as per his grandfather Ieyasu’s orders. Growing up, he was not the apple of his parents’ eyes, as his father, Hidetada, favored his younger brother, Tadanaga. 

Aside from Tadanaga, Iemitsu had many other siblings. However, it is noted that Senhime and Masako are his sisters. 

As a child, he was given the name “Takechiyo”, which is written in Japanese as “竹千代”. Some don’t believe that he was Hidetada’s son – rumor has it that Iemitsu is another son of Ieyasu, with a woman named Kasuga no Tsubone.

At 14 years old, Iemitsu was considered to have come of age and changed his name from Takechiyo to Tokugawa Iemitsu. At that very same age, he was already set to become the next Tokugawa shogunate. The only person standing in his way to this immense power was Tokugawa Tadanaga, his younger brother. The bubbling rivalry and insecurity that Iemitsu faced, birthed from his parents’ favoritism for Tadanaga, would lead to bitter events in the coming years. 

Tokugawa Iemitsu and the Shudo Custom

The Shudo custom is an aspect of Japanese culture (and sometimes in the military) where members of the same sex would engage in a homosexual relationship. This relationship would be comprised of the older, more learned “Nenja”, and the younger, “Wakashu”, who would study martial arts and other ways of the samurai under him. Tokugawa Iemitsu subscribed to this tradition, and although it may or may not have an influence on his sexuality, it was rumored that Iemitsu preferred men more. 

Iemitsu was in love with a man named Sakabe Gozaemon, Sakabe Gozaemon and Tokugawa Iemitsu where childhood friends - but in the year 1620, they had a falling out. While they were in a bathtub, Tokugawa Iemitsu – at 15 years old - murdered Sakabe Gozaemon, who was 21. Iemitsu went on 3 years later to marry Takatsukasa Nobufusa’s daughter, Takatsuka Takako. Although their union was peaceful, Takako suffered 3 miscarriages.

[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A Shogun at Nineteen

It was the year 1623 when Iemitsu’s father, Hidetada, decided to leave his post and let his son take over. As Iemitsu stepped in as the new formal head, Hidetada would become a retired shogun, which is known as “Ogosho”. 

One day, Shogun Iemitsu and his father decided to pay a visit to Shogun Iemitsu’s sister, Empress Masako, who was married to Emperor Go-Mizunoo, all the way in Kyoto. Emperor Go-Mizunoo and Empress Masako had a daughter, the Imperial Princess Meisho. Shogun Iemitsu made a great impression, bringing fortune and gold and giving it away to the court, and court nobles.

A Falling Out with the Emperor

As the Shogun and Emperor are closely linked in terms of power, Shogun Iemitsu did not let Emperor Go-Mizunoo get away with giving away important purple robes to several priests, even if he was not supposed to. Shogun Iemitsu proclaimed that each article of cloth of that edition would not have any significance, thus causing a rift with Emperor Go-Mizunoo. 

That rift wouldn’t matter for long, though, because he would soon abdicate after feeling ashamed over the fact that Masako and Iemitsu’s wet nurse went as a commoner to pay a visit to the imperial court. Their daughter, Empress Meisho, ended up taking the post, which gave Shogun Iemitsu, even more, power, as he had direct blood ties to the supreme ruler of Japan.

Life After the Death of His Father, Hidetada

Ogosho Hidetada died on March 14, 1632. Because his father always overlooked the operations when he was alive, it was only now that Iemitsu had full control over the country. As history has it, Tokugawa Iemitsu was very competitive with his younger brother, and now that their father was dead, Iemitsu saw it possible that his younger brother would have him assassinated to gain his post as Shogun – but he would not have it.

Iemitsu immediately started throwing accusations at his brother, claiming he was insane. He was put under house arrest in their abode in Kofu. At the order of his older brother, all Tadanaga’s possessions – as well as his job/positions in politics – were removed from him. In his misery and shame, Tokugawa Tadanaga committed suicide on January 5, 1634.

With nothing in his way, Iemitsu then dismissed all the advisors that his father had left behind to guide him, such as the likes of Doi Toshikatsu. Instead, he gave their positions to friends he’d had since he was a child. One of his childhood friends was Inaba Masakatsu.

Loyalty was very important in Japanese culture; the captain of Iemitsu’s team of bodyguards, Makino Chikashige, had grown up serving the clan since he was a little boy. 

With their combined forces, they strengthened the centralization of the administration. Because Japan was a feudal state with other daimyos in power, this did not please them – but this was not of any concern to Shogun Iemitsu. 

The Sankin-Kotai System

One way that Iemitsu kept power-hungry daimyos (feudal warlords) at bay was with this system. The application of Sankini-Kota called for the different warlords all around Japan to come to Edo and alternate with other Daimyos for designated periods. Because it was costly to move around during that time, the daimyo would be forced to spend their amassed wealth on this necessity commanded by the Shogun, keeping their wealth and powers to an amount that can’t lead to a rebellion. 

If ever a rebellion does take place, the Sankin-Kotai also indicates that the Daimyos’ partners and children cannot come with them in their travels back and forth to Edo, which means they can be used as ransom in case any daimyo were to start a revolution. 

The Battle of Shimabara

Despite all these rules, a revolution would still take its course, starting December 17, 1637, until April 15, 1638. While the Tokugawa period was known for being one of Japan’s more peaceful eras, this battle is a large gash in the era’s otherwise pristine reputation. 

The Shimabara rebellion was held to take a stance against Iemitsu’s violence against Christianity/Catholicism, and because of the suffering that the peasants around the part of Shimabara endured, paying absurdly high tax rates. This rebellion occurred in Minamishimabara, Nagasaki, and was led by Roman Catholics and Ronin rebels. Their rebel leader was Amakusa Shiro. Tokugawa Iemitsu did not hesitate, sending a 125,000-member army to defeat the rebels, who only numbered up to 37,000.

After many months of battle and resistance at the Hara Castle, the Tokugawa shogunate finally won the siege after the outer defenses of the castle were reduced. Iemitsu had the head of Amakusa Shiro decapitated. That head was put on public display in Nagasaki, while Hara Castle’s complex was obliterated, along with those who died inside it. The rest of the 37,000 living sympathizers and/or rebels had their heads decapitated as well.

Closed To The Outside World; A Dark Legacy

After (and as a result) of their win in the Shimabara rebellion, the shogunate drove the Christian religion underground, and Iemitsu would restrict most means of development in globalization – whether that was through traveling or trade. Before such edicts were put in place, the Japanese were free to travel wherever they wanted to – but now, no one could leave. 

By 狩野派の人物 (徳川記念財団) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

One of Iemitsu’s Quotes That Summarized It All

“If any Japanese returns from overseas after residing there, he must be put to death.”

―Tokugawa Iemitsu

Death was used as a lesson to those who didn’t want to follow Tokugawa Ieyasu, who didn’t only stop people from traveling, but also the free entrances and exits of ship fleets.

Even foreigners who were living in Japan were kicked out, except for members of the Dutch East India Company (Under Commissioner Inoue Masahige). However, rules were placed as to where they could go, and they could not leave Nagasaki harbor’s Dejima island. There were four domains/areas that were responsible for dealing with communication from other parts of the world; Nagasaki held a post as the center of trade, Satsuma Domain dealt with the Ryukyu Kingdom, Tsushima Domain dealt with its Korean neighbors, and Matsumae Domain was responsible for dealing with the Ainu folk.

The Last Ten Years of Tokugawa Iemitsu’s Career

After having a reputation for hating Europeans and restricting Japan’s deals with the outside world (he set up the Sakoku Edict of 1635), Iemitsu was not very much liked by the new emperor, who was Emperor Go-Komyo. Empress Meisho would abdicate during 1643, leaving the post to her half-brother Emperor Go-Komyo. He did not like the entire idea of the shogunate because of its violence and hatred (especially with the bloodshed of the recent rebellion fresh in their minds) and threw insults at both the reigning shogun and his son, Ietsuna. 

By KimonBerlin ( [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Shogun Iemitsu would pass away in 1651, at 47 years old. He was the first Tokugawa shogun who did not abdicate and died as a shogun. “Taiyuin/Daiyuin” is the name that was granted to him after his death. He is buried in a temple in Nikko, which is named after him. His son, Tokugawa Ietsuna, took his place as Shogun quickly after. 

Tokugawa Iemitsu in Popular Culture; and the TV Show “Legends of Tomorrow”

It’s common for historical figures to be depicted in or reimagined in television shows, and that’s exactly what happened in Legends of Tomorrow. Tokugawa Iemitsu appears as the show’s character Nate finds himself in Japan during the 1600’s and comes face to face with Shogun Iemitsu.