63|Part 2 of – -29 Bakumatsu Period History (幕末時代)

This chapter is a continued part of Chapter 29| Bakumatsu Period History (幕末)1781 – 1867.  Please read Chapter 29 before reading this chapter.

0-timeline - size 24 Bakumatsu

                                 The circle above indicates the time we discuss in this section

The latter part of the Edo period, around the Tenmei era (天明), 1781to 1868 is called  Bakumatsu time.  During this time, the economy in Japan began  stagnating.  

The several Tokugawa shoguns in different generations tried to perform the financial reforms.  At each time, it succeeded somewhat, but it never solved the core fundamental financial problems.  

Tokugawa Bakufu tried mostly the fiscal restraint on the government, forced people to lead a frugal life, and banned even a small luxury.  You know this only shrinks the economy, and things get even worse.  On top of it, they raised the prevailing interest rate, thinking that may solve the problem.  This is a typical non-economist solution.  The interest rate should be lowered in a situation like this.  As a result lower level Samurais became impoverished, and farmers revolts occurred often, and many natural disasters struck in the farming area.  The famous Kurosawa movie, “Seven Samurai” was staged around this time.  As we all know, “Magnificent Seven” was a Hollywood version of the “Seven Samurai” .

Yet,  little by little, small cottage (or domestic) industry began to grow, together with the improved farming productivity led by the local leaders.  Merchants became affluent, and town people in the city became wealthier.  However, the gap between rich and poor became wider.  Mostly the problem of Ronin (unemployed Samurai) became severe.  It was an almost dangerous level to society. 

The Edo townspeople’s culture

During this time, novels were written for ordinary people, instead of only for the upper-class.  In the past, the paintings were related to religion, and only for the upper class, they became for ordinary people.   This is the golden time for “Ukioe (浮世絵).  Kitagawa Utamaro (喜多川歌麿 1753-1800) is well-known for portraits of ladies, Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849 葛飾北斎) and Ando Hiroshige (1797-1858 安藤広重) were famous for scenery woodblock paintings.  Maruyama Okyo (円山応挙) drew a picture using the European perspective method.  Also, Katsushika Hokusai’s daughter drew some of her paintings in perspective.  Her name is “Ooi, 応為Only a few of her works are left now, but it is said that even her genius father was surprised at her ability to draw. 

Though it was a small number of people, few people learned the Dutch language.  The Netherlands was one of the only two countries allowed to have contact with Japan then.  They translated the European medical book into Japanese using French and Dutch dictionaries.   It is called Kaitai Shinsho (解体新書).After this book was translated, history books, economy books, political books were translated.  New ideas emerged from those books and influenced the intellects. 

In those days, schooling was thriving.  Each feudal domain ran its school for the sons of the Daomyo’s retaomers.  Children of the townspeople went to school called Terakoya (寺子屋: an unofficial neighborhood school) to learn reading, writing, and arithmetic.

Pressure from the Outside World

Even though Japan was in Sakoku state (鎖国: national isolation policy), people knew what was happening outside of Japan.  Since the early 17th century, messengers from Russia came to Japan to demand trades (1792 and 1804).  In 1808, English ships came to Nagasaki.  In 1825, Tokugawa Bakufu ordered to fire guns at any ships that came close to Japan.  In 1842, when England won the Opium War against the Qing dynasty, Bakufu decided to supply with food and fuel for the foreign ships.  They were afraid to have the same fate as Qing.  In 1846, the U.S. sent Japan a fleet commander to open diplomatic relations, but the Bakufu refused.  The U.S. needed Japan to open the ports to supply food, water, and fuel for their whaling ships in the Pacific Ocean. 

In 1853, a fleet commander Perry*, arrived at Uraga (浦賀:a port of Japan) with four warships displaying American military power to open the country.  Tokugawa Bakufu did not have any clear policy on handling the situation and realized it is difficult to maintain the isolation policy any longer. 

In 1854, “the Japan-U.S. Treaty of Amity and Friendship” was signed.  After this,  Japan made a treaty with England, Russia, France, and the Netherlands.  This ended over 200 years of Sakoku (national isolation policy) and Japan opened several ports for foreign ships. 

However, those treaties caused many problems.  The treaties were unequal.  It caused a shortage of daily necessities; as a result, the price went up.  Also, a large amount of gold flowed out of Japan because the exchange rate between gold and silver was different in Japan and Europe.  The exchange rate was gold 1 to silver 5 in Japan, but in Europe, it was gold 1 to silver 15.   

On top of it, there was another problem; who should be the next Shogun after Shogun after  Shogun Tokugawa Yesada (徳川家定), since he did not have any heir.

At a chaotic time like this, many feudal  domains opposing each other wanted a shogun whose political idea was on their side.  Many other problems already had caused big battles among feudal domains, and there were also other reasons for them to oppose the Bakufu.

Now the base of Tokugawa Bakufu began to fall apart.  The Choshu-han (Choshu domain) and the Satsuma-han (Satsuma domain) were the main forces against the Tokugawa Bakufu.  In the beginning, they opposed each other,  but after many strained incidents, they decided to reconcile and went after the Bakufu together, since they realized it was not the time to fight among themselves.  England realizing Bakufu did not have much power any longer, they started to be closer to the Emperor’s side, whereas France sided with Tokugawa.  England and France almost started a war in Japan.   

1867, Tokugawa Yoshinobu issued “the Restoration of Imperial Rule (Taisei Hokan, 大政奉還).”  1868, the Tokugawa left the Edo-Jo (Edo Castle), and the Meiji Emperor moved in the Edo-Jo.  It is now called Kokyo (皇居: Imperial Palace).  The present Emperor lives there.  

Many well-known political figures were the driving forces and played an active role in toppling the Tokugawa Bakufu.  They were people like Ito Hirobumi (伊藤博文), Ookubo Toshimichi (大久保利通), Shimazu Nariakira (島津斉彬),  Hitotsubashi Yoshinobu (一橋慶喜) and many more.   Those were the characters who established a new government system, the Meiji Shin Seifu (明治新政府), centering around the Emperor,.

The original Edo-Jo (castle) was lost by a big fire, yet the original moat (you can see several swans), massive stone wall, a beautiful bridge called Nijyu-bashi (二重橋) are still there.  And big garden areas are free to walk around.  This area is famous for its beautiful cherry blossoms.  This is in front of the Marunouchi side of Tokyo station,  a walking distance from the Tokyo station.  

Japanese like the historical dramas of the Meiji Ishin (Meiji revolution) time, and we see them on TV and in movies quite often.  Those are the stories of people like Saigo Takamori (西郷隆盛), Sakamoto Ryoma (坂本龍馬), and Shinnsen-Gumi (新撰組) Though it was fiction, the movie “Last Samurai ” was staged around this time with a real historical character of Saigo Takamori. 

66 koukyo

Imperial Palace (From Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository ).  The copyright holder of this work hereby publishes it under the following license: Creative Commons attribution share-alike.


Commodore M.C. Perry came to Japan two times with four warships.  In 1853, he brought the sovereign diplomatic letter from the president of the U.S.  The following year he came back to demand the answer to the letter.  After his expedition, Perry wrote a book about his journey, “Expedition of an American Squadron to the China Seas and Japan, Under the command of Commodore M.C. Perry, United States Navy by order of the Government of the United States.”   In his book, he mentioned Japan very favorably;  the beautiful scenery and people’s ingenuities, lively active females, and drawings.

Even though it was a long, tough negotiation between the Edo Bakufu and Perry, yet during his stay, there were several moments of fun.  Perry displayed and presented to Japan a quarter-sized model steam locomotive, a sewing machine, etc. The Japanese had a Sumo match and presented them items like silk, lacquer wares, etc.  The Japanese prepared the elaborate banquets for the American diplomats. Perry invited the Japanese officials to the banquet.  The biggest hit was when Perry served a dessert at the end of the dinner with a small flag on which each Japanese guest’s family crest printed. 

Before starting his expedition, he realized tough negotiations lying ahead.  So he had studied Japanese beforehand and realized that the Japanese ewould njoy parties a lot.  He brought skilled chefs and loaded the ship with some livestock on his way to Japan for the party.  He entertained Japanese officials with whiskey, wine, beer, etc.  Initially, the U.S wanted Japan to open five ports, whereas Bakufu was willing to open only one port.  In the end, both sides agreed on opening three ports.