A Modern History of Japan: From Tokugawa Times to the Present

By Andrew Gordon | Go to book overview
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The Intellectual World of Late Tokugawa

Faced with widespread symptoms of distress and decline, from chronic daimyō and samurai debt to devastating famine and increased instances of violent protests, both rulers and ruled produced vigorous critiques of their changing world. The gist of such statements often looked backward as well as forward: Reform was needed to return the world of the present to the better times of the past. Ironically, as is often the case, conservative reforms actually set in motion a chain of events that made a return to that past impossible. To understand the cultural and intellectual ferment of late Tokugawa times, one must begin by examining the ideal world that reformers wished to restore.


For any political order to endure as long as the Tokugawa system did, it cannot rely solely on the coercive power of hegemon and henchmen. Authority has to be grounded in an accepted concept of legitimate rule. Like all aspiring rulers, Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi faced this ideological dilemma. They faced it, however, with a particular intensity. Because they had used coercion so nakedly, they had greater than usual need to convince people of the legitimacy of their rule. Both of these men, as well as Tokugawa Ieyasu, sought to ground their authority upon religious as well as secular symbols and ideals.

Nobunaga promoted himself as a divine ruler even as he went to war against popular religious sects and killed tens of thousands. He demanded that samurai “venerate” him. In exchange he offered not only military but also divine protection. He asserted that the service rendered in this life would benefit a loyal vassal in the next life. He issued proclamations demanding worship of him for those wishing to gain wealth and happiness. He also came to present himself as the embodiment of “the realm” (tenka in Japanese, literally “under heaven”). Unlike earlier military hegemons, he rejected a shogunal position because this would have placed him symbolically subordinate to the emperor as recipient of imperial confirmation. He had vassals use the phrase “for the tenka, for Nobunaga” in their pledges of loyalty. He thus identified himself with the realm, which was itself defined in terms of being all under heaven. He claimed sovereignty in a way that was similar to, but pre


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A Modern History of Japan: From Tokugawa Times to the Present


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