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

By Andrew Gordon | Go to book overview
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The Overthrow of the Tokugawa

In the decades around 1800, whalers, merchant ships, and gunboats from Europe and the United States appeared in Japanese waters with alarming frequency, pressing their claims with increasing persistence. They were powerful symbols and emissaries of the capitalist and nationalist revolutions that were just then transforming Euro-American societies and reaching beyond to transform the world. In Japan they turned a chronic low-grade crisis into an acute, revolutionary situation. For decades, the superintendents of the Tokugawa order had been somehow muddling through. Shogun and daimyō managed to handle the combined pressures of social discontent among peasants and samurai and fiscal crisis in their own treasuries. Into this mix came heretofore unknown foreign power—military, economic, and cultural—raising unprecedented demands for a new sort of international relationship. Suddenly the Tokugawa bakufu's very legitimacy was called into question.

Even so, for some time it appeared that the Tokugawa system might bend without breaking. By the mid-1860s the bakufu had moved to remodel the military, adjust the balance between domain and shogunal power, and import new technology. Foreign diplomats divided their bets. The British were officially neutral, but their chief representative maintained unofficial ties with the insurgent outer domains, and some of their merchants offered direct support. The French backed the Tokugawa reformers seeking to superintend the process of integrating Japan into the Western diplomatic and economic order.

By hedging their bets the British turned out to be smarter gamblers. In the end, the Tokugawa rulers had too much of an investment in the old order. Rulers of outer domains were often cautious, as well, and they sometimes suppressed the rebels in their domains. But at critical moments they supported the initiatives of new actors, lower on the social scale. These were the “men of action,” self-styled heroes hoisting a banner to “honor the emperor and expel the barbarians.” They forced the Tokugawa from power and then launched one of the great revolutions of modern history.


The first harbingers of renewed Western interest in Japan came by land. Russian explorers had reached the far eastern shores of the vast Siberian forests in the 1780s.


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


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