Tokugawa Ienari: The Longest Serving Tokugawa Shogun

The History of the Tokugawa Shogunate’s leadership

Also known as the Tokugawa bakufu, the Tokugawa shogunate has a very long history. It lasted between the early 1600s to the late 1800s. The end of their reign also marked the end of the shogunate government in Japan. It is considered as the last feudal government of the country.

The Tokugawa shogunate has a number of identifying events. These include the infamous isolation of the Japanese during the 17th century. During this time, strict economic policies have limited Japan’s abilities to trade with other countries. Effectively, people of foreign nations are not allowed to enter Japanese ports. Also during the Tokugawa shogunate, Christianity started to trickle into the Japanese society. However, through time, the Tokugawa shoguns saw this religion as a threat and completely banned the practice for the centuries to come.

The Tokugawa leadership has also revised some institutions that existed in the government. Counsels have been set up to provide effective and efficient advice for the shoguns. These people act as supervisors who would oversee all the affairs of the shogun in different aspects of governance – tax implementation, financial management, and more.

This particular bakufu has seen the best, and also, the worst of the world. They experienced major famines and natural calamities that killed hundreds of thousands of citizens. However, they also gained popularity all over the world as a powerful empire that cannot be penetrated. On the other hand, it was apparent that change in the Japanese society was inevitable. They needed to modernize and improve their governance to protect the people not from perpetrators within their territories but from groups with personal motives towards the Japanese. To learn how to protect the nation, they must be able to see what other nations can do.

Despite all the rumors and controversies, the Tokugawa shogunate may be considered as one of the best the country has ever seen. It may all be thanks to, not only the shogun but other powerful warlords as well.

These are the people who are influential during the Tokugawa shogunate. These men may have been considered as enemies or allies of the Tokugawa shoguns. But definitely, they are well known in to have provided control over governance and other affairs:

  • Matsudaira Sadanobu

  • Hachisuka Narihiro

  • Abe Masahiro

  • Inoue Masano

  • Makino Tadamasa and Makino Tadayuki

  • Inaba Masakuni

  • Aoyama Tadanari

  • Honda Masanobu

  • Itakura Katsushige

  • Mizuno Tadaakira

Early Life and Family of Tokugawa Ienari

Ancestors and Predecessors

Tokugawa Ienari is the adoptive son of Tokugawa Ieharu, the 10th Shogun of Tokugawa Japan. His biological father, a distant cousin of the 10th Shogun is named Tokugawa Harusada. His mother, on the other hand, is named O-Tomi no Kata. By all means, by blood and lineage, this man is still of Tokugawa bloodline. However, he is not born into the post (role) and was not the rightful heir to the throne. It just so happens that all of the sons of Tokugawa Ieharu did not live past childhood or infancy.

By 日本語: 狩野養信かEnglish: Attributed to Kanō Osanobu [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

His biological father, Tokugawa Harusada is also known by the name Tokugawa Harunari and is considered to be the head of the Hitotsubashi branch of the Tokugawa family. A slightly distant cousin of the main lineage of the Tokugawa clan, but still of Tokugawa lineage regardless. Although this branch of the family is not as popular as the main lineage of Tokugawa, they are still of a noble background.

Wife and Children

Tokugawa Ienari was married to Shige-hime who is a daughter of Shimazu Shigehide. This man was the head of the Shimazu clan, one of the most influential, wealthy, and powerful clans in all of Edo during that time. The young bride married Ienari at a very young age and was expected to provide an heir to the bakufu leadership.

This particular marriage, just like any other marriage at the time, was considered a political move rather than a romantic union. Shigehide requested to receive special privileges for being a father-in-law to the bakufu leader. He received special treatment when visiting the shogun’s castle in Edo. This includes mounting and dismounting directly at the palace and having crowds cleared up when he passes them by on roads.

Believe it or not, the marriage between shige-hime and Ienari had been planned when they were as young as four years of age. They have been betrothed to each other as a sign of alliance between the Tokugawa, Hitotsubashi-Tokugawa, and Shimazu clans. The bond among these clans is almost indestructible. It was only a lucky deal when Ienari was adopted by the main Tokugawa family and was even declared as the heir apparent to the throne. Sadly the marriage was not blessed with children as heirs were not produced by this union.

Concubines and Children

The 11th Shogun is infamous for his excessive love for pleasure and women. It is believed that he kept a harem which is home to no less than 900 women throughout his reign. Out of these 900, he had kept a constant handful which he took in as concubines to produce possible heirs. He kept a total of 17 concubines which produced him about 56 children. One of the most popular would be Ohana noKata, Oraku no Kata, Oyae no Kata, and Otase no Kata.

Kitagawa Utamaro [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

His son, Tokugawa Ieyoshi shall become the 12th Shogun of the Tokugawa Shogunate who, himself, will produce countless children of his own just like his father. Many of his children had become notable in Japanese history and had made names for themselves despite being overshadowed by their brother who is to become the shogun.

For instance, one of his daughters married Date Chikamune who is the head of the Sendai domain. Another one of his daughters married Maeda Nariyasu, who is the lord of Kaga Han. One of his sons, Tokugawa Nariyuki, became the head of the Shimizu Tokugawa clan. Another one of his daughters is married to Matsudaira Naritsugu of the Fukui domain. His other son, Tokugawa Naritaka, became the head of the Hitotsubashi-Tokugawa family. One of his grandchildren will marry Prince Kaya-no-Miya Harunori in the future.

The Reign of Tokugawa Ienari

Of Corruption, Women, and Illegitimate Children

Ienari, after the death of his father, became the 11th Shogun of Tokugawa Japan. He was known to be the longest-running shogun in the entire Tokugawa period where his reign lasted between 1787 up to 1837. Although he may be the longest-running Shogun in Tokugawa’s history, he is also known to be one of the worst. It is during his reign that the people of Japan suffered in poverty caused by calamities and poor governance.

It is well-known how much Ienari loved pleasure and women. On top of that, he loved showering his concubines with gifts and luxuries. He also enjoyed gambling away his fortune. There are historians that believe that he had dwindled away all his wealth to the point that his successors merely inherited debts and never recovered. This could have potentially led to the downfall of the Tokugawa shogunate.

His reign was filled with controversies. As historians pointed out, his entire period of governance was marked by disaster. It is believed that these disasters were caused by his excessive desires for pleasure, excessiveness, and lavishness. There are even notes about him indicating that he, along with his council and officials, were corrupt.

Interestingly as well, it would seem that the poor management of the people’s funds may have caused the lives of thousands of innocent Japanese. He lived to a ripe old age of 67. He reached such an age where he chose to retire instead of wait for his death.

A reign of calamity, disaster, and death

It may be due to the length of his regime but it was apparent that the people of Japan suffered more than they should. It all started out when a significant price hike of rice and grains caused riots in the streets. It is then followed by a gigantic and disastrous fire in Kyoto which destroyed the Imperial Palace.

Katsushika Hokusai [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A few years later, the peak of Mt. Unzen collapsed due to severe eruption. Then within the same year, Mt. Biwas-no-Kubi erupted as well. This is followed by another earthquake and eruption within the same year. All natural catastrophes happened within a month of each other, causing difficulty in rehabilitation and recovery. It has destroyed homes, agricultural lands, and even other livelihoods.

He ended his reign with an even more terrible calamity – the Tenpo famine. With the number of calamities that affect the livelihood of people living in Japan, even though each event happened decades apart, it would seem that the Japanese people failed to recover fast. With the dwindling of national funds, power struggles in the government, price hikes of basic commodities, going about a normal life is difficult not only for people of Edo but for the whole of Japan.

Main Events of Tokugawa Ienari’s Leadership

The Great Fire of Kyoto

Lighting equipment from early modern Japan usually uses flames from kerosene, gas, and oil. Most residential fires start from the spreading of flames from these wall lamps or table lamps. These may reach light indoor material until embers become large enough to swallow thick wooden beams and columns.

josef knecht [CC BY 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Fires in the early modern period of Japan were quite common. The dry crisp air added to ember from torches, and timber for houses - an absolute recipe for a disaster. However, what made the Great Fire of Kyoto in 1788 so unique from others is the fact that the main keep of the Imperial Palace was burned to the ground. The Emperor, along with his royal court, had just enough time to flee towards safety.

What makes this particular incident even more terrifying is the fact that it lasted for a couple of days. It was only extinguished when a continuous rain fell over the city. The entire palace was completely destroyed to the point that no other structures must be repaired prior the grand palace. With the financial status of the nation being tightened by the economic undertakings at the time, the reconstruction of the imperial palace proved to add more strain to the already dwindling economy.

The Eruption of Mount Unzen and the Shimabara Earthquake

Based on historical records, the eruption of Mount Unzen was the least of their problems. The volcanic activity of the mountain led to continuous earthquakes in the area with the strongest being a magnitude of 6.4. This particular earthquake has caused a massive tsunami in the Kumamoto peninsula and wiped out homes and livelihood blocking its path.

Personal accounts from officials at the time showed that there are more than 15,000 casualties in these parts of Japan alone as a side effect of the natural calamities.

Sakoku and Japan’s External relations

There are benefits and downfalls for the Tokugawa shogunate’s decision in isolating Japan from the outside world. The shogunate was able to protect its title from other powerful warlords who can gain opportunities from trading with other countries. On top of that, the country was also able to preserve their culture and their population from influences of the Western world. However, the presence of more exports may have improved the general financial condition of the country at the time. This may, or may not, have helped in the prevention of inflation and famine in the latter parts of Ienari's reign.

Tenpo Famine

This may be the worst famine Japan has ever faced in the early modern period. Financial strains in the government added to the consecutive attacks from mother nature has truly depleted the food sources of the Japanese at the time. Death and starvation loom communities and its citizens. This was the reason Ienari lost the trust of many of his retainers.

The Death of Tokugawa Ienari

Due to the never-ending ill-fortune that Ienari’s reign has experienced, he resigned from his position when he reached the age of 60. His body may be too old and frail to deal with the everyday strains of ruling a nation. Three years after he resigned, Ienari died of natural causes leaving his son, Ieyoshi the title for Japan’s 12th Shogun. Then after the death of the 12th Shogun, his grandson Tokugawa Iesada will take on the role of Shogun.