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Tokugawa Memorial Foundation

About Us

The Tokugawa Memorial Foundation was established in 2003, the quadricentennial of the creation of the Tokugawa Shogunate. Its objective is to preserve and administer the historical objects and documents that have been passed down in the Tokugawa Shogunal Household over the generations, display them for the general audience and provide assistance to academic research on topics concerning Tokugawa Japan and, through such activities, enhance understanding on the long and eventful Tokugawa era.

The Tokugawa family were Japan’s ruling dynasty between 1603 and 1868. Its founder, Tokugawa Ieyasu, was born a prince in the tiny and endangered dominion of Mikawa (eastern half of present day Aichi prefecture) during Japan’s Era of Warring States. He would with valor in battle and sincerity in diplomacy, as well as with the loyalty of his rustic, yet dependable, vassals, become one of the leading political/military figures of the time, and eventually unify Japan in the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600. The Imperial Court recognized this feat by appointing Ieyasu to the position of Sei’I Tai Shogun–the Barbarian-Subduing Generalissimo, an ancient title which had become synonymous with the head of the samurai class and de-facto sovereign of Japan, in 1603.

The government of the Tokugawa Shoguns–the Shogunate–would last for another 265 years, with 14 successive Shoguns at the helm. The most marked achievement of the Shogunate was the long period of peace, both external and domestic, lasting from the pacification of the Christian riot in Kyushu in 1638 until the War for the Subjugation of Choshu, fought between the Shogunate and one Daimyo in western Japan in 1866 which ended in the former’s defeat. Given that Japan was endowed with a very large population–some thirty million people for most of the Tokugawa period, exceptional for a pre-industrial nation–which was as prone to conflict and violence as any major nation in the world, as Japanese history before and after the Tokugawa era eloquently demonstrates, it was a miraculous feat to have kept the country free of major armed conflicts for over two centuries.

Tokugawa society was divided into estates. The samurai estate, accounting for 5 to 7 percent of the total population, descending from the warrior clans of the Era of Warring States, formed the ruling class. The ferocious warriors had, over the generations, been transformed into competent and honest administrators, adhering to the strict moral code of Confucianism. Their intellectual sophistication and pragmatism enabled the remaining three estates of agrarian, crafts and commerce to create a dynamic economy. The Shogunal capital of Edo (present day Tokyo) would boast a population of one million by the first half of the 18th century, and from this urban prosperity much of what is considered as distinctly Japanese emerged, such as fashionable kimono, ukiyo-e, kabuki, dishes such as tempura and sushi, and various customs and mores. In this sense, Tokugawa Japan was the foundation of Japanese civilization today.

The decline and fall of the Tokugawa Shogunate started with the arrival of American warships in Uraga bay near Edo in 1853. The Americans more or less forced Japan into establishing diplomatic relations with Western powers, as well as opening its ports to foreign trade (until then, foreign trade was restricted to the port of Nagasaki, with the Netherlands and China as the sole partners). The decision of the Shogunate to establish formal relations with Western powers met fierce opposition from the hitherto politically dormant Imperial Court, as well as from much of the Samurai class, for reasons plausible and absurd. This opposition movement led to the return of formal authority to the Court by Tokugawa Yoshinobu, the 15th and last Shogun, in 1867. Civil war followed, and a new Imperial government led by Samurai from western Japan and Court nobles was formed.

Although the new Imperial government was born through what could be described a revolution, the Shogunate’s policy of Westernization and accommodation of Western powers would be retained, in spite of the professed anti-Western beliefs the leaders of the Imperial government held, at least at the beginning of their political careers. The Tokugawa Shogunal Household would change its head from Yoshinobu, the last Shogun, to Iesato, born in one of the branch families and who was merely 6 years old when becoming the head of the Household, and it would remain an important pillar of Imperial Japan’s aristocracy.