Tokugawa Ieharu: The Tenth Shogun of Tokugawa Japan

A brief background on the Tokugawa Clan

The Tokugawa shogunate is known to be the last feudal dynasty of Japan. They are the last ruling family of shoguns before the monarchy was brought back to rule the Japanese empire. There are a number of references and books that cover the greatness of the Tokugawa clan. These materials provide info regarding how much the Japanese people changed through the two hundred years of power.

Compared to the shogunate families before them, the Tokugawa clan is the first to rule from Edo instead of the capital city of Kyoto. They resided in the Edo castle and have used the city of Edo as the center of governance, trade, and commerce. They planned for Edo to be as great as Kyoto.

By Mukai [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons

They ruled Japan from the early 1600s right after the decline of the Ashikaga clan up until the late 1800s right before the Meiji restoration. Among the highlights of their rule include the transfer of capital from Kyoto to Edo and the two hundred year isolation period of Japan from the outside world.

They have produced a total of 15 shoguns, which was originally headed by the great Tokugawa Ieyasu. The last shogun of the Tokugawa shogunate would be Tokugawa Yoshinobu.

Learning from their predecessors, the Tokugawa shogunate has improved on their laws and systems of governance. They have set up a group of people to act as advisers and counsel to avoid the production if a puppet government. The Tokugawa period is a time of greatness, but it was also a time of change and calamity.

Early life and Family of Tokugawa Ieharu

Tokugawa Ieharu was the 10th Shogun of the Tokugawa government of Japan. He ruled over the lands between 1760 up to 1786.  Tokugawa Ieharu was the son of the 9th Shogun of the Tokugawa government, Tokugawa Ieshige. He was married to a fine young woman named Iso no Miya Tomoko who died a young age. Due to the death of his wife has caused the shogun to take more concubines. In total, he had three more mistresses.

By 日本語: 伝狩野英信English: Attributed to Kanō Terunobu [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Although he had three women producing possible heirs for him, none of his children survived the age of 10. All of his children, including those born from his first wife, died in infancy or childhood. Because of this, he resulted in adopting two children: a son named Tokugawa Ienari and a daughter named Tanehime. Upon his death, he later declares his adopted son Tokugawa Ienari as his rightful heir and anticipated successor.

The Reign of Tokugawa Ieharu

The Abdication of Tokugawa Ieshige

It is widely known that Tokugawa Ieshige suffered from a chronic illness which has affected his speech severely. It was due to this birth defect that many of his father’s retainers voted against him being the shogun heir. They have insisted that the younger brothers, Tokugawa Munetake and Tokugawa Munetada take on the role as shogun.

However, their father insisted that Ieshige take on the role. He successfully ruled over Japan as the ninth shogun of the Tokugawa government for almost fifteen years. He officially retired in the year 1760 at the age of 50. He then gave the post to his son Tokugawa Ieharu and died shortly after the proclamation.

The problem with this is that the rule of Ieshige is filled with disease, famine, natural disasters, and even corruption from the officials. Ieharu is left with discontented retainers and continuous public upheavals. He ascended to the shogunate leadership of a severely weakened government. Ieharu was left to his own devices to find a way to make the Tokugawa rule powerful once again.  

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

Appointment as Udaijin

In the latter part of his shogunate rule, Emperor Kokaku appointed Tokugawa Ieharu as the ‘Minister of the Right’ or the udaijin. The role of this is to be a part of the Council of State that will advise the current emperor on overseeing the matters of governance. Interestingly, the power of the Council of State and the Emperor himself was lost in the early 12th century right before the shogunate ruled over Japan. It would seem that his appointment as Udaijin was a means for the monarchy to gain back their power. This is especially true after seeing the difficulty with which Ieharu is faced at the time.

More natural disasters and more famine

Although he wanted to make the Tokugawa rule great again, it would seem that the heavens wanted to challenge Ieharu. A decade after he took on the post as shogun, the Great Tenmei famine began spreading not only in the country’s capital but all over the country. The situation was only worsened by other natural calamities like typhoons and volcanic eruptions. Many historians say that Ieharu’s period of rule was one of the worst the Tokugawa shogunate ever faced.

Understanding the Sakoku and its effect on the Japanese economy

There was a time in Japan’s history when it has closed off all its ports to international trade. An event known as Sakoku, this was Japan’s infamous period of isolation. It is well-known that the sakoku period was strengthened in the 17th century while the Tokugawa shogunate was still in the middle of its reign. It was an understandable move as they wanted to protect the Japanese society from influences of the West, hoping to preserve their culture, traditions, language, and even religion.

Behind this wonderful agenda is a hidden motive where the Tokugawa clan wanted to gain full control over Japan’s foreign policies. This means that they get to decide who, what, where, and when the outsiders can trade with Japan. They could officially give licenses to traders  Through this, they were able to ensure that no other warlord in Japan will gain more wealth nor power compared to them. If the ordinary daimyos and warlords do not get an opportunity to gain wealth from outside of Japan, then no one will become more powerful enough to challenge the supremacy of the Tokugawa clan.

Their prediction was true enough, in the century to come when the US wishes to trade with the Japanese, there are many daimyo warlords who would be instrumental in its success. These men include Abe Masahiro, Inoue Masanao, Inaba Masanobu, and many more. In turn, these men became powerful and wealthy enough to put down the Tokugawa shogunate. This marks the end of the shogunate era before the country reverts back from military dictatorship to monarchy.

His adoption of Tokugawa Ienari

Despite the fact that he had numerous children, it would seem that he failed at producing a natural heir. Because of this, he neede to choose an anticipated heir in case of his unexpected death. This is so that there will be no power struggle or confusion in choosing his successor.

The highlights of Tokugawa Ieharu’s bakufu

The Great Tenmei Famine

Japan has been known to suffer from great famines in the past before the modern age came about. One of the major famines that the Japanese have experienced in the distant past was the Great Tenmei Famine which affected Japan in the late 1700s. It lasted for eight years and was considered as the deadliest in the entire early modern period in Japan.

Many people say that the great Tenmei famine was unavoidable and all events that led up to it was enough to create a recipe for disaster. There were both natural and man-made causes which doubled up the speed and scale of the famine. It is one of the largest events that reached up to a national scale.

There were many indicative causes to this unbelievable calamity. One of it would be the destruction of crops from recent eruptions around Edo. People thought that the eruption itself would, alone, cause the damage. However, an amount of solar radiation in the surroundings due to the accumulated amount of ash in the atmosphere lead to cold weather that damaged the crops. This has dwindled the food supply of many communities all over the country.

The situation was not made any better by existing economic policies at the time. The counsel of Tokugawa Ieharu has lobbied for the increase in taxes which was paid in grains or rice. With this and the increasing demand for rice, the value of rice skyrocketed. On top of that, an emergency supply of rice and grains depleted as well due to a poor harvest.

Based on surveys, and government records at the time, there are roughly 20,000 people who lost their lives due to the calamity. Death and starvation were spread out all over the country, especially in rural areas where the food supply relied strongly on agriculture. According to some skeptics, the death toll may have been underestimated and wrongly reported. Some personal records exaggerate the numbers to hundreds of thousands.

To make it all worse, the impact of famine did not end with starvation. Outbreaks of diseases and pandemics became common as well to the point that the population decreased almost by a million in just five years.

The Eruption of Mount Asama

Mount Asama is one of the most active volcanoes in the Tohoku region and has caused severe calamities in the early modern era. In the last decade, it has erupted a number of times proving its activity. One specific record of the eruption was in 1783 and is known as the Tenmei Eruption.

Based on analyses, the eruption of Mount Asama has created more damage to the society at the time and may have worsened the effects of the Great Tenmei Famine. The eruption of the volcano destroyed both residential and agricultural lands. Much of the surrounding prefectures were severely damaged to the point that agricultural lands in Shinan and Kozuke were under-producing for the next half-decade. Census indicated that the eruption took the lives of more than 1,500 people. However, it's after-effects took 20,000 lives more.

The Assassination of a Wakadoshiyori

Japan’s shogunate, just like a royal council, has separate groups of advisers. One such set of advisers is known as the wakadoshiyori, or ‘Junior Elders’. These are government officials who worked as subordinates to the Roju, or Shogun Elders. Often times, this wakadoshiyori oversaw the nitty-gritty of the works inside the government. When the Roju gives an order, the wakadoshiyori ensures that the job is done.

During the reign of Tokugawa Ieharu, there was a controversy regarding one of the wakadoshiyoris. The young man was assassinated inside Edo castle, right in front of his father who worked as a Roju. According to reports, the young man was killed by a hatamoto or bannerman but the mastermind remained unknown. The young man’s father is no other than Tanuma Okitsugu, a lord who is responsible for reforms in improving and expanding Japan’s export of goods. His reform was believed to have caused a minor famine in the region when a massive drainage program failed and agricultural lands under-produced.

It is said that many of the other elders of the reign of Ieharu did not agree with the young man’s father’s increasing influence and power, despite the man’s continuous disappointments. This was a means of showing no mercy towards those that the shogun favors.

The death of Tokugawa Ieharu

Tokugawa Ieharu died of natural causes in his castle in Edo. This happened in the year 1768 at the young age of 49. Along with other members of his family, his ancestors and children, his body lies in the Kaneiji temple.

Joe Mabel [CC BY-SA 2.0 (, CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons

The reason why many members of the Tokugawa family rest in the courtyards od Kaneiji temple is mainly due to the fact that this temple gained great influence, prosperity, and power through the support of the Tokugawa family. Many of the great forefathers of the Tokugawa shoguns have mausoleums in the Kaeniji temple. This is true for shoguns who are not even buried there. The temple is also a good tourist destination for people who wish to visit Tokyo because of its proximity to the National History Museum of the city. This is where great works, accomplishments, as well as personal belongings of the Tokugawa shogunate, are displayed.