Places, Images, Times & Transformations

Tokugawa Period (1603 – 1868)

Historically considered the most stable and peaceful period in Japan's premodern history, the Tokugawa Period—also known as the Edo Period, after the city in which the shōgun had his capital—began with Tokugawa Ieyasu’s victory in 1600 over Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s forces at the Battle of Sekigahara, and the consolidation of political power around the Tokugawa clan and its daimyō allies in Japan’s east, on the Kantō plain.  In 1603, the imperial court conferred upon Ieyasu the title of shōgun. Ieyasu then moved his base to the village of Edo when he had already established a castle. It marked the beginning of nearly three full centuries of shogunal rule by the Tokugawa family. In 1615, Ieyasu defeated the Toyotomi clan in a battle at Osaka Castle, thereby solidifying his power over the islands of Japan. Thus began a period of relative peace and stability in which the military lords known as daimyō were kept in check through a system of alternate attendance and tribute known as sankin kōtai.

The period was also marked by a near-complete withdrawal from international trade and relations.  Christianity was suppressed and European missionaries were expelled from Japan; trade was conducted only with the Dutch and Chinese, and even then only in specially designated trading ports such as the manmade island of Dejima in Nagasaki harbor.  This isolationism was ended in 1854, when United States naval commander Commodore Matthew C. Perry entered Edo Bay with his “black ships” and demanded trade be opened to the US.  This set in motion the chain of events that would lead to the end of Tokugawa rule and the reestablishment of imperial sovereignty.

Despite the withdrawal from international relations, Japanese scholars and intellectuals gained an understanding of Western philosophy, history and medicine through texts that entered the country via Dejima and were subsequently translated into Japanese.  It was also during the Tokugawa Period that the haiku poet Mitsuo Bashō was active, and artists such as Hiroshige and Hokusai produced their ukiyo-e prints, the forerunners to today’s manga.

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Japan Module | Map | Tokugawa Period (1603 – 1868)