Daily Archives: 7 December 2021

Opposition to the Shogunate, 1867

From Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World, 1852–1912, by Donald Keene (Columbia U. Press, 2005), Kindle pp. 112-113:

The most pressing problem facing the shogunate was, of course, its continued existence. Because the mounting opposition to the shogunate is a subject already treated by many historians, suffice it to say here that the alliance between Chōshū and Satsuma, formerly bitter enemies, was the key factor in galvanizing the opposition to the shogunate. The anti-shogunate domains, mainly in west Honshū, Kyūshū, and Shikoku, had become increasingly dissatisfied with the shogunate’s monopoly of the highly lucrative foreign trade. But when discussing their grievances, they normally did not mention this; instead, they spoke of the need to restore imperial rule. A contemporary historian has written, “It needs hardly be said that the internal disturbances at the time of the Restoration were definitely not caused by loyalist convictions. Fundamentally, they resulted from the aspirations of the major domains in the southwest, headed by Satsuma and Chōshū, to be independent of the shogunate.”

Even if these were the real aspirations of Satsuma, Chōshū, and the other domains that ultimately overthrew the shogunate, they needed a rallying cry, and “Restore power to the emperor!” served this purpose. The shogunate under Tokugawa Yoshinobu, especially after its humiliating defeat in the war with Chōshū, took desperate measures to stave off collapse. With France’s help, it rapidly increased its store of modern weapons, and under Yoshinobu’s leadership, many reforms were launched. Senior shogunate statesmen, notably Oguri Tadamasa (1827–1868), attempted to push through plans for making the shogunate into an absolutist regime, believing this was the only way it could ensure its authority over rebellious domains. As early as 1866 Oguri privately discussed the advisability of abolishing the domains and replacing them with prefectures, a measure that eventually was adopted by the Meiji government in 1871, but the shogunate lacked sufficient support to carry out so daring a plan.

The daimyos of the major domains, especially in the west and south, joined forces in alliances. But for all the reverence they professed for the court in Kyōto, their chief concern seems to have been preserving their own power. Initially at least, they seem not to have hoped to substitute the absolute authority of the emperor for the authority of the shogunate, as hardly any of the daimyos or their retainers rose above anxiety over the survival of their particular domains to consider what was desirable for the country as a whole.

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