The Life and Works of Tokugawa Ieyoshi

Early Life and Family of Tokugawa Ieyoshi

Tokugawa Ieyoshi was not born at the top of the shogunate hierarchy. He was the second son of the 11th shogun and grew up being trained as a swordsman, and a warrior. Upon the death of the 11th shogun’s eldest son, Ieyoshi’s fate rapidly changed as he was now trained to become the heir to the shogunate leadership.

His father, Tokugawa Ienari, was the 11th Shogun of Tokugawa Japan. He is known to be the longest-serving shogun in the period which is why Ieyoshi was already 45 when he sat on the shogunate throne. Just Ieyoshi’s successor, he is the son of the shogun’s concubine as the first wife failed to produce an heir.

The Tokugawa clan branched out from a more powerful family known as the Matsudaira clan. It is known that their ancestors came from these powerful daimyo warlords. Ieyoshi, just like any noble birth, has a notable marriage as well. The marriage was a way to ensure stability in their reign. It was also a means of garnering support from other powerful clans and families. Impressively, Ieyoshi was married to Princess Takako who was the daughter of Prince Orihito. She had been trained to become his wife at the young age of 10. It will take another six-year before they get officially married.  

By 日本語: 不明(狩野派の絵師)English: Unknown (A painter of the Kanō school) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The marriage was blessed with three children, one son, and two daughters. Unfortunately, none of the three children lived past the age of one. But there was no cause for worry because he had 24 other children via his concubines – an heir to the shogunate leadership was not an issue.

Just like his father before him, Ieyoshi was known to enjoy pleasure and excessiveness. He alone had eight concubines that produced 11 daughters and 13 sons. The sad thing, however, was that most of these children did not survive past the age of one. He had a daughter who would live up to the age of 14, Teruhime who married Tokugawa Yoshiyori. He also had a son that lived to the age of 13, Tokugawa Yoshimasa. Only one son, Tokugawa Iesada, who would later become the 13th shogun of Japan, lived beyond the age of 20.

The Reign of Tokugawa Ieyoshi

The retirement of the Eleventh Shogun of Tokugawa

The 11th Shogun of the Tokugawa period was Tokugawa Ienari. He is known to be the longest-serving shogun of the Tokugawa shogunate who held office almost half a century before he retired in 1837. This decision might have been due to his old age and ailing body, leading the shogunate is too much tiring work for the old shogun. Because of this, he had his son, Tokugawa Ieyoshi, trained to become his heir apparent.

Ieyoshi was trained by Chief Adviser Tadakuni while Ienari still continued to control the shogunate in the background. Three years later, the 11th Shogun Tokugawa Ienari died in 1841. This was the time when Ieyoshi was officially declared as the 12th Shogun of Tokugawa, Japan. Tokugawa Ieyoshi will reign in Japan from 1837 to 1853. This was the time when Japan was trying to resist influences from the west and they have officially closed their doors to international trade. It was a time of economic struggle which could not be helped by more unrest from the public.

Mizuno Tadakuni, The Chief Adviser of the Shogun

This man was a daimyo warlord who served as the chief adviser to the Tokugawa shogunate. In his lifetime, he was able to serve Tokugawa Ienari and his son Tokugawa Ieyoshi, the 11th and 12th shoguns of Tokugawa Japan. Through his help, Japan was able to become one of the largest independent superpowers in East Asia rivalry with nearby Empires of China and Korea.

Many historians say that both Ienari and Ieyoshi relied too strongly on the aid of Tadakuni that it seemed as if the man took hold of the shogunate for two different shotguns. He was able to hold the reins of power and make all selective decisions for the shoguns while they enjoy pleasures and excessiveness. It is difficult to say, however, whether or not Tadakuni used the shogunate power for his personal motives.

By 椿 椿山 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Among his work includes the Tenpo reforms which have pushed Japan into a period of austerity. He claims that this was a way to survive through the Great Tempo Famine of the late 1830s without any help from neighboring countries. This reform has made him quite influential and powerful. He has also pushed forward the Agechi-rei reform which forced daimyos from Edo and Osaka to surrender their lands in exchange for lands in other parts of Japan. This acquisition of land will provide control over strategic areas all over the region, thereby cementing the power and influence of the Tokugawa clan. Other men who were instrumental in the rule of Tokugawa Ieyoshi included Abe Masahiro, Makino Tadamasa (relative of Toda Tadamasa) and more.

His powerful position has gained him a number of political enemies among other popular daimyos and warlords. He was greatly envied and unfavored. Because of many complications in his role and increasing number of political rivals, he was relieved from his position and was sent into exile until his death in 1851.

Important Events in Ieyoshi’s Reign

The Tempo Reforms

This particular reform was a means for the Tokugawa shogunate to make up for its losses and ensure that the Great Tempo Famine from the Tokugawa Ienari will never happen again.

Based on historical records, this Tempo reform is a series of fiscal and economic policies which plunged the Japanese society towards extreme austerity. On the surface, the goal of this particular reform is to lessen the people’s excessiveness on certain luxuries which include restrictions on entertainment. Its hopes are to revert the Japanese society back to discipline, simplicity, and frugality.

However, despite its flowery content proved the reform to be unsuccessful. There were severe restrictions which were put into place. Migration towards large cities was restricted, debts were abolished, the price of commodities and goods were controlled.

The failure of the Tempo reform proved how much power has been divided into the masses and rigorous control cannot be a way to regulate the complex economy. The Tempo reform was discontinued as soon as Tadakuni was relieved of his position.

However, there were positive outcomes that resulted from the Tempo reforms. This was the first time a general, controlled, census was put in place for Japanese families. They are tasked to register themselves to the nearest Shinto shrine twice a year. On top of that, reforms made by the Meiji Restoration period were somewhat based on these earlier policies. With strict enforcement, they proved to be efficient and beneficial for the Japanese government.

The Agechi-rei Reforms

It was in 1843 when this particular policy was put into place. The Agechi-rei was literally an “order to requisition land” and it was an attempt to provide a stronghold for the Tokugawa clan. Based on this policy, any piece of land which is located around the perimeter of Edo and Osaka are to be “returned” to the shogunate. These pieces of land are to be replaced (of equal amount) in another location or with a certain amount of rice and grains.

This particular reform caused severe upheaval from the public, especially those powerful warlords affected by the policy. This was the time both the shogunate and his adviser gained a number of political enemies. In fact, just less than two weeks after its issuance, Tadakuni was forced to resign from his post.

The fire that destroyed Edo Castle

Through the history of the Edo Castle, it has suffered a great number of fires. During every fire, it was rebuilt and reconstructed so it can continue to provide service and residence for the Tokugawa clan. However, one specific fire in the Edo castle became an important historical marker in the Tokugawa period. The Tenpo Era, which encompasses the reign of Ienari and Ieyoshi, have been difficult for the Japanese people. It was a time of famine, natural calamity, and political unrest.

When a fire broke out in the Edo castle in 1843, they took it as a sign to finally change eras. The next four years was known as Koka, which literally meant “becoming vast”. It was a symbol of change and renewal for the Tokugawa shogunate, particularly for Tokugawa Ieyoshi.

U.S. Commodore Matthew Perry and the black ships

It is common knowledge that the Japanese decided to retain its isolation from the western influence for the most of the Tokugawa period. At the time when the trans-Pacific trade was so common, they have decided to close their ports to these strange men out of fear that they will eat up their culture and economy. The Japanese people living under the Tokugawa regime are under the sakoku which forbids any form of contact with the outside world.

Mathew Brady [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

For years and years, the Japanese have seen western ships in great number. They have tried again and again to trade with the Japanese but continuously failed. The country traded with foreign countries but are only restricted to China, Korea, and the Dutch. On top of that, they can only approach one port in the entire Japanese peninsula. This proved a strategic move for the Japanese and served as a protection for their people.

It was in 1853 when a man named U.S. Commodore Matthew Perry arrived in the ports of Japan to demand that the country open up their ports for trading. He arrived with a fleet of black ships or Kurofune in Japanese. When Perry arrived at Edo Bay (now near Aoyama district), he ignored all requests that he move to the port of Nagasaki. This proves that he is a tough negotiator. He instigated that if they are turned away, he is willing to take his ships directly to Edo, terrorize the community, and burn the city to the ground.

Unlike those before him, Perry was able to negotiate a treaty with Japan, under the rule of Shogun Ieyoshi. Other people who proved to be instrumental in the signing of the treaty included Abe Masahiro, Itakura, and Tadayuki. Perhaps, it was a time for a change after closing off the country for more than 200 years. They may have been forced to come up with an agreement, but they still have the chance to have control over the treaty. The US and Japan spent months (starting March of that year) negotiating the Treaty of Kanagawa where the shogun has imposed strict laws and regulations that will limit the influence of the West to Japan. Perry refused certain conditions and the negotiation was then deferred once again. However, just before the treaty was concluded, Shogun Ieyoshi died from cardiac arrest.

The beginning of the Bakumatsu Period

The end of the reign of Tokugawa Ieyoshi marked the beginning of the Bakumatsu period. This was a time for a change and it was apparent with the Treaty of Kanagawa. This period marked the beginning of the end of the Tokugawa shogunate. It started when the son of Tokugawa Ieyoshi sat in the position of Shogunate and finally signed the Treaty of Kanagawa. It may have restricted trade with the Americans but it has successfully opened two ports for whaling (Yamanote, Hakodate, and Shimoda).

The shogunate saw significant damage especially when many retainers have lost their trust in the existing shogun. They believe that the treaty has further endangered the Japanese society. There had been debates and continuous public unrest due to the presence of Westerners in Japanese shores. This has caused a significant divide among the daimyos where many did not support the decision of the new shogun. With the conclusion of the Kanagawa treaty, more and more western ships started to appear in Japan. Among the most important characters at this time was Inoue Masanao, an official of the Tokugawa shogunate from the Bakumatsu period.

See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

What many people did not see was that there were benefits to this treaty for the Japanese. They were able to purchase weapons and ships from the Americans, upgrading and modernizing their fleets to improve their battle skills. They can also exchange diplomatic agents, where representatives of the Japanese shogun can go to America for negotiations and trade.

Death of Tokugawa Ieyoshi

At the ripe old age of 60, the powerful Shogun Ieyoshi of the Tokugawa clan died from natural causes. It is said that he perished in June of 1853 before the Kanagawa treaty was concluded. Based on historical records, Ieyoshi died from complications of a heat stroke that lead to a fatal heart attack. He is then succeeded by his eldest son, Tokugawa Iesada.