Unfit for the Shogunate: The Truth behind Tokugawa Iesada

Looking back at Tokugawa Shoguns in the Past

Tokugawa Ieyasu’s Timeline

This man was the founder of the Tokugawa shogunate and is effectively the first Shogun of the Tokugawa clan. He was able to gain the shogunate role effectively from the Ashikaga clan when he won the Battle of Sekigahara in the 1600s.

His real name was Matsudaira Takechiyo which he changed to Tokugawa Ieyasu, claiming that he is a descendant of the Minamoto clan and Emperor Seiwa. Some historians indicate that there are actually no proofs to his claim but the Imperial Court allowed that he use such a special family name. From here on until his death, he will be known as Tokugawa Ieyasu.

What is interesting about his reign is that even though he was the founder of the Tokugawa shogunate, he only had the role for two years. He was appointed as a shogun three years after they won the Battle of Sekigahara. However, he abdicated from his role in 1605 due to his old age of 63.

Even though he abdicated early in the role, his presence was instrumental in the development of the Tokugawa shogunate and the official start of the Edo Period. There were a number of men who became influential in the development of the Tokugawa shogunate for the next two hundred years, among them would be the following:

·         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 Iesada

Tokugawa Iesada Family History

This man is known in history as the 13th shogun of the Tokugawa government of Japan. He is the fourth son of the 12th Shogun, Tokugawa Ieyoshi. In normal hierarchical systems, it is the firstborn who has the legal right to become an heir. However, none of his older siblings survived beyond infancy or childhood. This is why, even at a very early age, Iesada was proclaimed as the successor to the 12th Shogun of the Tokugawa government.

His mother was Honjuin which is one of Tokugawa Ieyoshi’s most popular mistresses. He has around 20 more siblings that have either died in infancy or childhood. He is known to be the only child of Tokugawa Ieyoshi to survive beyond the age of 20.

Tokugawa Iesada’s Wife

In Iesada’s lifetime, he was officially married to three different princesses at three different times. His first wife was Princess Takatsuka Atsuko who is the daughter of Takatsukasa Masahiro, a powerful leader during the late 1700s and early 1800s. This man was a popular ally of the Tokugawa family. However, the princess died during the early years of their marriage and was not able to provide an heir to the shogunate leadership.

His second wife is another princess, Princess Ichijo Hideko, who is the daughter of Ichijo Tadayoshi, another powerful and wealthy daimyo in Japan. His family consists of court nobles which are why an intermarriage between the two families is strategic. Sadly again, the princess died less than a year after they are married due to a severe illness.

His third and last marriage were with Princess Atsu who was the daughter of Shimazu Nariakira. Even though she did not die early in the marriage, Princess Atsu still failed to provide an heir for the shogun. This proved to be problematic for the Shogun, especially later on when he requires an heir.

Because of his failure to produce an heir, the Shogun decided to adopt a young boy named Tokugawa Iemochi. He is the biological son of Tokugawa Nariyuki. This young boy was supposed to be the heir to the Wakayama domain before he was adopted into the shogunate. Iemochi was declared the sole heir to the shogunate and the only adopted son of iesada.

Tokugawa Iesada’s sickness

Many people during his time believed that he was not capable of ruling the nation. This is not because of his lineage or his rank in birth. It is not even because of his academic capabilities. Rather, people did not believe he could physically survive the role. He was born too frail or weak and had a list of health complications. According to historical records, he suffered from cerebral palsy. On top of this, he was also a survivor of smallpox.

These previous complications contributed to the fact that many daimyos debated whether he should be appointed to the role. Thankfully, with the help of Abe Masahiro, a senior counsel of Iesada’s father, the young man was able to ascend to the throne. During his reign, his interaction with the public was limited. This is so that the frail shogun will not contract any communicable diseases.

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

Tokugawa Iesada Facts

U.S. Commodore Matthew Perry and his ‘Black Ships’

During most of the Tokugawa period, Japan was closed off from trading with foreign countries. Their ports were not welcoming to foreign ships and they only allowed entry to a handful of diplomatic partners. These included neighboring oriental empires like Korea and China. Late into the rule of Ieyoshi was the coming of the US ‘Black Ships’ who demanded that Japan open their ports to American traders and ships.

Naturally, the Japanese declined this demand and asked that the American ships transfer to another port. The courageous Commodore insisted that he will gun down the city if they are not allowed entry. Fearing for the lives of the citizens, Ieyoshi agreed to provide an audience to the foreigner’s demands. They agreed to negotiate on grounds for possible diplomatic relationships.

The problem with this, on the other hand, is the fact that Ieyoshi died before any of the agreements had any conclusions. He originally did not agree with the Commodore’s demands and the Commodore did not agree with his restrictions. Iesada, being the heir to the shogunate leadership, was forced to take the lead in the negotiations.

The Kanagawa Treaty

The negotiations for this particular treaty was not easy. It was public knowledge that the new Shogun does not participate in any strenuous political activities due to his poor health. Because of this, he left the negotiations at the hands of Abe Masahiro, his Chief, and Primary adviser. The Treaty was signed just after a month of negotiations, one of the fastest dialogues in the reign of the 13th Shogun.

By World Imaging [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], from Wikimedia Commons

The Reign of 13th Shogun Tokugawa Iesada

The influence of Abe Masahiro and Hotta Masayoshi

Abe Masahiro was the chief adviser of Shogun Iesada upon the death of the old Shogun Ieyoshi. He was mainly responsible for the agreements between the US and Japan under the Convention of Kanagawa. It was clear in this treaty that the Japanese will not allow any form of trade with the US. However, they will be allowed to perform whaling activities near the ports. Sadly, just a few months after the Convention of Kanagawa was signed, the ailing Abe Masahiro died of natural causes.

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

He was then replaced by a new adviser, the roju named Hotta Masayoshi. He is known to be responsible for negotiations with foreign powers. In the 1850s, he even formed a committee responsible for handling foreign affairs members of which are experts in the field. They formed regulations and terms in opening the Japanese ports.

These deliberations were discussed with the American traders and a new treaty was developed. This is now known as the Treaty of Amity and Commerce (also known as the Harris Treaty). During this time, the Shogun was already very ill and talks about his successor already arose. In the midst of this, he was replaced by Ii Naosuke as roju. The next year, Hotta Masayoshi retired from his post as chief adviser to the shogun.

Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1061022

Natural calamities and disasters

Just like his father and grandfather before him, the Japanese people suffered a great deal from natural calamities that strike. It takes them a while to rehabilitate and recover, especially for those who have lost their livelihood from the disasters. What makes his reign much worse is that there were a continuous number of earthquakes in the area. To make it worse, there was also a widespread pandemic which may have caused the death of the Shogun himself.

·         1854 Tokai Earthquake – This particular earthquake happened on the 23rd of December 1854 in the Tokai region of Japan. It had a magnitude of 8.4 M and it is considered as the first of the Great Ansei earthquakes. Since it happened near the shore, a gigantic tsunami was created by the quake. The waves went as high as 16 meters above the ground.

·         1854 Nankai Earthquake – Within the same area, another great earthquake occurred a day after the Tokai earthquake. This particular earthquake had a magnitude of 8.4 M, one of the strongest ever felt in the early modern age of Japan. Because the epicenter of the earthquake was located near the shore, the strong vibrations have caused a mega-tsunami. This twin disaster has caused the damage of almost 30,000 structures and took with it more than 3,000 lives.

·         1855 Ansei Edo Earthquake – Known to be the third of the great Ansei earthquakes, the Edo quake was a slightly less powerful earthquake whose magnitude was 6.9 M. The epicenter of this earthquake happened near the Arakawa River. Because the population density of the city is much higher than that of Nankai and Tokai, there were more casualties in Edo. It was recorded that more than 6,000 deaths and more than 2,000 injuries occurred due to the quake alone.  

·         1858 Cholera Outbreak – Between the years 1858 and 1860, there was a widespread cholera outbreak in Edo, Japan. Its origin and how it has affected the drinking water in the city remain unsure. Based on historical data, more than 100,000 individuals died from Edo alone. The Shogun died in the same year that it started to spread while showing symptoms of the illness.

The death of Tokugawa Iesada

Burial at Kaneiji Temple

Just like his forefathers before him, Tokugawa Iesada was laid to rest in the Kaneiji Temple in Edo. He was posthumously given the Buddhist name Onkyoin when he was buried in the temple. This particular temple became the famous resting place of the Tokugawa shoguns, and their family, because of the undying support the family had for the prosperity of the temple. According to history books, the financial support provided by the Tokugawa family for this temple made it popular not only for noblemen and royalty but for the ordinary citizen as well.

Although some members of the Tokugawa family wish to be buried elsewhere, like Osaka or Nagasaki, they will still have their own memorial or marker in the temple. This is so that people paying their respects would not forget their names in prayer.  

Tokugawa Iesada in Fiction

Tokugawa Iesada in games

The 13th Shogun of the Tokugawa shogunate has become an inspiration for fictional characters in video games and role-playing games (or RPGs). On the other hand, most games which include the shogun in the storyline does not include his person among the playable characters. Oftentimes, he (as well as other shoguns) remain in the background but provide enough backstory for the gameplay.

Atsuhime’s Tokugawa Iesada character

Atsuhime was the wife of the 13th Shogun of Japan, Iesada. She is known to be a strong supporter of her husband, especially with political and foreign affairs. She became quite influential and hands-on when dealing with certain affairs especially since her husband is known for his frailness. Although she was not able to produce an heir to the shogunate leader, she had given him all the support and loyalty she could ever provide.

She was a part of the Shimazu clan and was married to the Shogun as a means of showing support and loyalty. She is considered as one of the most influential women of the times. The unwavering love and loyalty of Atsuhime towards Iesada became the inspiration for historical dramas, poetry, and other works of art. There is even a TV show which focuses on how much Atsuhime loved the shogun.