The Tokugawa Polity
The tumultuous changes of modern times in Japan unfolded against the backdrop of more than two centuries of unprecedented peace and social order. This era, called the Tokugawa period after the family name of Japan's military rulers between 1600 and 1868, has left a variety of images for later ages. The Tokugawa order was bolstered by harsh laws and restrictions on social and geographic mobility. Officials are said to have ruled by the motto, “Sesame seeds and peasants are very much alike. The more you squeeze them, the more you can extract from them.” 1 At the same time, the Tokugawa centuries were an era of flourishing rural production and commerce and lively city life. One careful European observer wrote in the 1690s that “an incredible number of people daily use the highways of Japan's provinces, indeed at certain times of the year they are as crowded as the streets of a populous European city.” 2
Numerous formal restrictions coexisted with an energetic, at times rambunctious, population over the Tokugawa centuries. And important changes took place. These did not set the Tokugawa system on a smooth course toward modernity, but they were important nonetheless. By the nineteenth century, the regime faced grave problems. Underemployed warriors suffered a troubling identity crisis. Established institutions and ideas seemed inadequate to deal with new pressures at home and from outside. Rulers strongly committed to maintaining order faced social tensions and protests. A look at the origins of Tokugawa society and the emergence of these problems helps one make sense of the unexpected and hardly predictable modern transformations that began when the regime eventually collapsed.
The most important feature of Tokugawa history was the absence of warfare. The contrast to what came before was immense. From 1467 to 1477, the Ōnin War destroyed the ancient capital of Kyoto, the emperor's home since 794, a beautiful city of temples and aristocratic residences. For the next century, warfare was constant. Hundreds of thousands of samurai men in arms clustered around provincial military rulers called daimyō. These regional rulers jockeyed for control of land, people, and commerce.
Although war was a dominant theme of the age, this was by no means a century