-Brief History of Transitional Period-
from Tokugawa Shogunate to the Meiji Restoration

In Japanese history, there was a decade of drastic change from 1857 to 1867. Here is a brief history of the period of modernizing Japan, the last days of the Tokugawa Shogunate. During the Edo period, Japan had been governed by Shogun of the Tokugawa family for more than 250 years since 1600s. This military government is called “Tokugawa Shogunate.” The Tokugawa Shogunate had adopted the policy of Sakoku, a national isolationism having foreign relations only at Dejima in Nagasaki. Under the rule of the Tokugawa Shogunate, there was a system of the “Han.” Japan was divided into regional areas called “Han” and each of them was governed by a person of power called Daimyo who was like a landlord in the feudal Europe, though with less power. The name of Han (such as Satsuma, Choshu or Tosa) represents Japanese former place-name in the Edo period.

In 1853, Matthew Perry, the commander in chief of the American East India Fleet, visited Uraga, a part of today’s Kanagawa Prefecture located west of Tokyo, leading four gigantic black warships. Taking an assertive stance, Perry urged the officials of the Shogunate to open up the country to foreign nations. The officials saw the warships with large cannons and they were threatened with the American armaments. So they reluctantly decided to open up the country next year. Faced with foreign militaries, three large movements spread among the intellectuals and the samurai in Japan: Joi activism, Son-no activism, and Modernization.

First, Joi activism is a political movement for exclusion of foreigners. The Richardson Affair which happened at Satsuma region, present Kagoshima Prefecture, is a good example of this activism. Samurai warriors of Satsuma Han, a group of Son-no Joi, murdered a British merchant. Charles Lennox Richardson and his party did not dismount from a horse when the Daimyo of Satsuma Han passed by and the samurai took this as an insult. Consequently British warships attacked the Satsuma Han in retaliation (Kagoshima Bombardment). Satsuma Han fought back, but was finally defeated and temporarily occupied by Britain. Satsuma realized that they were inferior to Britain (or other foreign countries) in military force and gave up the Joi movement.

Second, Son-no activism is a political movement for defending the Emperor against the Shogunate. You can understand the activism from the following example of the Ikedaya Incident in 1864. The Joi activists held a meeting in Kyoto and crafted a radical plan. The plan was to set fire on the Kyoto Imperial Palace, and take the Emperor away to Choshu, the western part of the present Yamaguchi Prefecture. Furthermore they wanted to assassinate politicians of the Tokugawa Shogunate. The purpose of this plot was empowering the Emperor in their home town Choshu. But one of the members of Joi activist, Shuntaro Furutaka was caught by Shinsengumi, a voluntarily organized group of masterless samurai, whose aim was to police anti-Shogunate activists. Furutaka was tortured and confessed the plot in the end. Then Shinsengumi rushed to Ikedaya where the meeting was held, and they killed many Son-no activists, the samurai mainly belonging to Choshu. The plot was not completed.

However, Son-no activists did not necessarily wish the Emperor to hold real power. The Son-no activists realized that modernized foreign power was overwhelming. On the other hand, the Tokugawa Shogunate had no idea except for an old political thought and system. They were too stubborn to adopt foreign technologies. With such old thought and system, Japan would not be able to match foreign power. The Son-no activists wished to modernize Japan by themselves, by overthrowing the Tokugawa Shogunate and establishing new political power. But when they did overthrow the Tokugawa Shogunate, they lost political leader. This is why they chose the Emperor as a political symbol. After all they simply regarded Emperor as a step toward modernization.

Tosa Han, present Kochi Prefecture, and Choshu Han, present Yamaguchi Prefecture, were concerned about Japan’s insecure political conditions. They felt uneasy about the fact that Japan might be occupied by foreign countries during the period of confusion, the struggles between the Shogunate and Han. They thought Japan should be reestablished as a unified nation, abolishing the old Han system of the Tokugawa Shogunate lasting for 250 years. Japan needed a stable condition and only after that it would be able to face up squarely to foreign countries. Tosa and Choshu arrived at an agreement of overthrowing the Tokugawa Shogunate together.

Actually Satsuma Han had been the supporters of the Shogun. They devoted their lives for the Shogunate. But there were a lot of anti-Shogunate Han at that time. So the Shogunate doubted the loyalty of Satsuma Han, thinking. “The eager work of Satsuma Han is strange. They must be plotting to overthrow us the Shogunate.” Satsuma Han got infuriated because they worked for the Shogunate very hard. The antagonism occurred between the Shogunate and Satsuma Han. In the end Satsuma Han changed their thought from the supporters of the Shogun to overthrowing the Shogunate.

By a series of various historical events, Tosa, Choshu and Satsuma Han agreed to overthrow the Shogunate. Tosa had known usefulness of foreign technologies, and made Choshu and Satsuma Han understand advantages of modernizing Japan. After that, Choshu and Satsuma Han formed alliance mediated by Ryoma Sakamoto and Shintaro Nakaoka, belonging to Tosa Han. (Satsuma-Choshu alliance). By forming this alliance, the relationship between Satsuma Han and Shogunate was totally broken and Satsuma and Choshu started to overthrow the Tokugawa Shogunate in order to modernize Japan. This alliance contributed to the Meiji Restoration.

 After Satsuma-Choshu alliance was made, the movement of overthrowing the Shogunate came to the final scene. Ryoma Sakamoto planned to make the Shogunate return its political power to the Emperor. So he drafted eight policies for the new nation and reported them to his followers, Shojiro Goto and Yodo Yamanouchi.

Finally, Yodo Yamanouchi made the documents based on the draft and presented them to the Shogun Yoshinobu Tokugawa. Yoshinobu Tokugawa returned his political power to the Emperor in 1867. This is how the history of the Tokugawa Shogunate, which had continued for more than 250 years, came to an end in 1868.