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Edo Period (1603 - 1867)



Tokugawa Ieyasu was the most powerful man in all Japan after of the government of Hideyoshi when he had died in 1598. Against his promises he did not respect Hideyoshi's successor Hideyori because he wanted to become the absolute governor of Japan.

During the battle of Sekigahara in 1600, Ieyasu vanquished the Hideyori loyalists and other Western rivals. Consequently, he had almost unlimited power and fortune. In the year 1603, Ieyasu was Shogun by the emperor and based his government in Edo (Tokyo). The Tokugawa shoguns continued to rule Japan for a remarkable 250 years.

Ieyasu had the country under rigorous control. He smartly redistributed the gained land among the daimyo: more loyal vassals (the ones who supported him already before Sekigahara) received strategically more important domains consequently. Every daimyo was also prescribed to spend every second year in Edo. This meant a great financial burden for the daimyo and moderated his power at home.

Ieyasu persisted to promote foreign trade. He based relations with the English and the Dutch. Besides, he implemented the suppression and persecution of Christianity from 1614 on.

After the decline of the Toyotomi clan in 1615 when Ieyasu captured Osaka Castle, he and his successors had virtually no rivals anymore, and peace predominated throughout the Edo period. Therefore, the warriors (samurai) were educating themselves not only in the martial arts but also in literature, philosophy and the arts, e.g. the tea ceremony.

In the year 1633, shogun Iemitsu prohibited to travel abroad and practically isolated Japan in 1639 by decreasing the contacts to the outside world to very limited trade relations with China and the Netherlands in the port of Nagasaki. Besides, all foreign books were banned.

In spite of the isolation, domestic trade and agricultural production was improved. In the Edo period and particularly during the Genroku era (1688 - 1703), popular culture established and flourished. New art forms such as kabuki and ukiyo-e became very popular mainly between the townspeople.

The most fundamental philosophy of Tokugawa Japan was Neo-Confucianism, emphasising the importance of morals, education and hierarchical order in the government and society: A rigid four class system existed during the Edo period: at the top of the social hierarchy was the samurai, followed by the peasants, artisans and merchants. The members of the four social classes were not permitted to change their social status. Outcasts (eta), people with professions that were considered impure, formed a fifth class.

In the year 1720, the prohibition of Western literature was suspended, and many new teachings introduced Japan from China and Europe (Dutch Learning). New nationalist schools that combined Shinto and Confucianist elements also developed.

Even though the Tokugawa government was very stable over many centuries, its situation was firmly declining for many reasons: A certain worsening of the financial circumstance of the government led to bigger taxes and riots between the farm populations. Besides, Japan periodically experienced natural disasters and years of famine that caused disorders and further financial difficulties for the central government and the daimyo. The social hierarchy started to break down as the merchant class grew progressively powerful while some samurai became financially dependent of them. In the second part of the era, corruption, incompetence and a decline of morals within the government caused problems.

In the last part of 18th century, external pressure began to be a progressively important issue, when the Russians first tried to base trade contacts with Japan without success. They were followed by other European nations and the Americans in the 19th century. It was finally Commodore Perry in 1853 and again in 1854 that obliged the Tokugawa government to open a limited number of ports for international trade. However, the trade remained very limited until the Meiji restoration in 1868. All elements combined, the anti-government senses were inciting and caused other movements such as the demand for the restoration of imperial power and anti western feelings, particularly between ultra-conservative samurai in progressively independently acting domains such as Choshu and Satsuma. Several people, however, soon accepted the great advantages of the Western nations in science and military, and favoured a absolute opening to the world. Finally, also the conservatives accepted this fact after being challenged with Western warships in several incidents.

For the years of 1867-68, the Tokugawa government collapsed because of of big political pressure, and the power of Emperor Meiji was restored.

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