Tokugawa Yoshimune: One of the Greatest Rulers of Japan

The history of Japan saw a period of time when the country was ruled by a military government. This military government was primarily composed of members of a single clan. During this time, these clans fought against one another and forged alliances to a selected few in order to increase their power in politics. There were shogunates that ruled Japan before the military governance came to an end. The last shogunate was known as the Tokugawa shogunate. The Tokugawa clan produced several shoguns during its ruling, one of them being Tokugawa Yoshimune.

Information on Tokugawa Yoshimune: Lineage and Family

By 百楽兎 [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (], from Wikimedia Commons

Born on the 27th of November in the year 1684, Tokugawa Yoshimune served as the 8th shogun of the Tokugawa shogunate. His reign began in the year 1716 and ended in the year 1745. His father was Tokugawa Mitsusada while his grandfather was Tokugawa Yorinobu. He was the great-grandson of Tokugawa Ieyasu, who was the founder of the Tokugawa shogunate.

Initially, Yoshimune was not a hereditary shogun. His father was not a former shogun. In fact, Yoshimune was only a member of a cadet branch of the Tokugawa family. However, Tokugawa Ieyasu foresaw the possibility of extinction of the Tokugawa clan after seeing how the Minamoto clan died out in the year 1219.

Fearing that his direct descendants might eventually die out, he chose three other sons to create the gosanke even while his son Hidetada was still the 2nd shogun. The gosanke was composed of hereditary houses whose purpose was to provide an heir or shogun should the direct line run out of male heirs. These three hereditary houses were the Owari branch, the Kii branch, and the Mito branch.

Tokugawa Yoshimune came from the Kii branch of the Tokugawa clan. One of Ieyasu’s sons, Yorinobu, was the founder of the Kii house. Yorinobu served as the daimyo of the Kii branch. He was succeeded by his son Mitsusada after his passing. Mitsusada had four sons, two of which preceded Yoshimune in becoming daimyo of Kii. After both of them died, Yoshimune, the 4th son, finally became the daimyo of Kii in the year 1705.

Yoshimune had close relations with the previous shoguns of the Tokugawa shogunate. The second shogun Tokugawa Hidetada was his uncle through his grandfather, who was the shogun’s brother. Moreover, the third shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu was the first cousin of Yoshimune’s father.

As a result, Yoshimune was a second cousin of both the fourth shogun  Tokugawa Ietsuna and the fifth shogun Tokugawa Tsunayoshi. Ietsuna and Tsunayoshi were brothers from the direct line of the Tokugawa family. Yoshimune was also a second cousin of Tokugawa Tsunahige, the father of Tokugawa Ienobu, who eventually became a shogun as well.

While Yoshimune’s father is well-known, it is also important to know who gave birth to this great shogun. Yoshimune’s mother was Oyuri no Kata, who lived from the year 1655 to the year 1726. Yoshimune had several half-siblings including Tokugawa Tsunanori, Jirokichi, Tokugawa Yorimoto, Sakae-Hime, Norihime, Tsunahime, and Ikuhime. Tsunanori was the 4th daimyo of Kishu while Yorimoto was the 5th daimyo of Kishu.

Yoshimune was married to his wife Fushimi-no-Miya Masako. However, he also had several concubines including Osuma no Kata, Okon no Kata, Oume no Kata, Okume no Kata, and Osatsu no Kata. His children were Tokugawa Ieshige with Osuma no Kata, Tokugawa Munetake with Okon no Kata, Tokugawa Genjo and Tokugawa Munetada with Oume no Kata, and Yoshihime with Okume no Kata.

He also had two adopted daughters. The first one was Tonehime, who eventually married Date Munemura of the Sendai Domain. The second one was Takehime, who was the daughter of Hirosada Seikan-in.

Biography: The Early Life of Tokugawa Yoshimune

[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The early life of Tokugawa Yoshimune began in the rich region of Kii. This area was governed by his father Tokugawa Mitsusada. At a young age, Yoshimune went by his childhood name Tokugawa Genroku. When he was born, the ruling shogun in Edo was Tokugawa Tsunayoshi, who was Yoshimune’s second cousin.

The region of Kii was rich with more than 500,000 koku. Despite this, his beloved region was still in debt. In fact, even during the reign of his father, the region was also in deep debt. They had a lot more to pay back to the shogunate.

As Genroku grew up, he eventually had to undergo the rites of passage, which he did in the year 1697. After which, Genroku took the name of Tokugawa Shinnosuke. Sadly, at just the age of 21, Shinnosuke had to witness his father and his two older brothers die in the year 1705.

As a result, Shinnosuke was appointed by reigning shogun Tsunayoshi as the daimyo of Kii. He also took on the name Tokugawa Yorimasa. Even though he exerted many efforts to administer the province and make it prosper, the debt of the region still continued to proliferate. This was because of the debt accumulation from both his father’s and his grandfather’s time.

Tokugawa Ienobu, the reigning shogun during this period, passed away in the year 1712. He was succeeded by his son Tokugawa Ietsugu, who was still young at the time. During the same period, Yorimasa made the realization that conservative Confucianists such as Arai Hakuseki in Edo could not be depended on. Thus, Yorimasa decided to take on the reigns in trying to stabilize Kii.

Eventually, Ietsugu died in the year 1716 before he could even make any significant changes during his rule. Because he was only 7 years old at the time, he was not able to leave an heir. Hence, the next shogun was selected from one of the cadet lines of the Tokugawa clan.

Yoshimune’s Accession to the Throne

By 日本語: 狩野忠信English: Kanō Tadanobu [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The accession of Yoshimune to the throne was composed of several ritual protocols and procedures. These procedures are considered as a great example of shogunal ritual and shogunal proclamations known as senge in Japanese. The senge is one of the most essential types of rituals in the Tokugawa Book of Rites, which is known as Tokugawa reiten roku in Japanese.

At the time of Tokugawa Ietsugu’s passing, Yoshimune was serving as the head of the Kishu Tokugawa clan as well as the daimyo of Wakayama han. Because he was being prepared as the next shogun of the Tokugawa shogunate, his rank was also elevated. From Junior 3rd rank Chunagon, Yoshimune’s position was elevated to Senior 2nd rank Dainagon.

Prior to giving the proclamation, Yoshimune first received formal greetings from not just the members of the hereditary houses known as the gosanke but also the lord of the tamari-no-ma in the shiroshoin of Edo castle. After which, he moved to the upper dan, known as jodan in Japanese, of the Ohiroma, where he would be giving the proclamation. Everyone attending this ritual was dressed in aristocratic court costumes known as sokutai in Japanese.

The imperial proclamation was first read out to the crowd by two Imperial messengers. Then, formal greetings were offered to Yoshimune by an envoy from the Retired Emperor and another from the Empress. After which, an announcing messenger turned to Yoshimune and said the words “goshoshin, goshoshin” aloud, which translated to “a promotion, a promotion.”

Typically, this announcement would be done from the garden. However, during the proclamation of Yoshimune, it was raining. As a result, they decided to give the proclamation from the corridor or veranda, known as engawa in Japanese. This was located just outside the audience hall.

The special box known as goranbako contained the Imperial proclamation. It was taken by one of the Imperial envoys over to the corridor and handed it to the Mibukanmu. Mibukanmu then handed the box over to koke, who were protocol chiefs. The koke then handed it over to Yoshimune.

Upon receiving the special box, Yoshimune opened it and removed the order placed inside. He read the proclamation aloud and bowed to it. After which, it was passed to the wakadoshiyori. This was the moment when Yoshimune was officially installed as Seii Taishogun, General of the Imperial Guard or ukon’e no daisho in Japanese, and head of the Minamoto clan, also known as Genji choja in Japanese.

Two packets of gold dust were then put inside the special box before it was returned to the Imperial envoys. The whole procedure was repeated once for the appointment of Yoshimune as Naidaijin or Minister of the Center in Japanese.

Yoshimune as One of the Greatest Tokugawa Shoguns

By Kawamura Kiyoo (1852-1934) ( [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Tokugawa Yoshimune ruled over Japan in a span of 30 years. He is recognized as one of the best shoguns installed in the Tokugawa shogunate. The gosanke was improved by the gosankyo, as founded and established by Yoshimune. Three of Yoshimune’s descendants, who were two of his sons and a grandson from his successor Ieshige, served as the founders of the lines in the gosanke.

These three lines were the Tayasu line, the Hitotsubashi line, and the Shimizu line. In contrast to the gosanke, the gosankyo did not govern domains. Nonetheless, the gosankyo was still prominent even until the conclusion of the Tokugawa shogunate. In fact, some of the later shoguns were actually selected from the Hitotsubashi line of the gosankyo.

One of the major achievements that Yoshimune was known for was his financial reform. Instead of following the advice of conservative Confucianist Arai Hakuseki, he started the financial reforms now known as the Kyoho Reforms. This program was what he initially used to alleviate the financial problems of Kii.

The first step in this reform was to cut the number of hereditary government retainers. These retainers were generally getting paid with fixed stipends from the government. Yoshimune’s method was to reduce the increase of the retainers by not allowing inheritances to go past the first generation. Furthermore, he set his court as a good example by removing luxuries and basing their lifestyle to that of the founder of the Tokugawa shogunate.

Yoshimune also made efforts in cultivating the quality of the administration as well as to increase national morale. He did this by incorporating an educational program for all the members of the government. This program was designed to enhance their literacy skills as well as teach them the old warrior values of leadership and discipline. He also incorporated ways that would fight against corruption.

Yoshimune also recognized the importance of agriculture produce, as its tax served as the primary source of revenue. With this in mind, he made efforts in terms of the development of new land and popularization of new crops in order to increase crop yields. The new crops included sugarcane and sweet potatoes, which could be grown in soil that was not utilized for the cultivation of rice.

He was considered by many as one of the best Japanese reformers in history. However, some people still questioned his reputation. This was because while his rule alleviated some of the issues faced by society at the time, corruption and inefficiency were resurrected after his reign. Hence, many said that his efforts were only but temporary.

Nonetheless, he had many achievements during his reign as shogun. For one, he was instrumental in the revival of the Japanese swordsmith tradition. Having seen the decline of people that had proper skills in swordsmith due to lack of funds, Yoshimune made great efforts in order to resurrect and improve this skill among his people.

Last but certainly not the least, Yoshimune also made it possible for foreign books and their translations to enter Japan, which instigated the development and improvement of Western studies in the country. Furthermore, he also played a role in the development of the first law code of the Tokugawa period.