Bakumatsu Period

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  • Dates: 1853-1868
  • Japanese: 幕末期 (bakumatsu ki)

Bakumatsu (lit. "end of the shogunate") generally refers to the time period between the arrival of Commodore Matthew Perry in 1853 and the fall of the Tokugawa shogunate in 1868. The period is characterized by considerable "opening" to the West, with Westerners beginning to settle in ports such as Yokohama, and Western fashions, architecture, writings, and so forth swiftly spreading and gaining popularity, at least in Edo. The period is also characterized by considerable political turmoil, as numerous factions within the shogunate and within individual domains, as well as independent groups, jostled for power, competing on an array of different agendas.



The arrival of Commodore Matthew Perry in 1853 was, at the time, only the latest in a long line of increasingly frequent incidents of Western incursions, stretching back, perhaps, to the arrival of the Russian envoy Adam Laxman in 1792. Over the course of the first half of the 19th century, Russian expansion into Sakhalin, the Kuril Islands, and even Ezo (Hokkaido) itself, as well as encounters with British, French, and American ships (among others), contributed to a sense of crisis among many samurai officials and notable scholars & writers. News of China's defeat in the Opium War (1840-1842) and the humiliating terms it was forced to agree to in the Treaty of Nanjing compounded fears already being expressed by kokugaku scholars and others, regarding the dangers of Western expansion and encroachment. The Dutch King William II sent a polite letter to the shogunate in 1844 advising that circumstances were not what they were a century (or two) earlier, and that signing treaties with the Western powers (beginning with Holland, of course) would be advisable, rather than trying and failing to defend Japanese seclusion by force. The shogunate received the letter kindly, but was not yet willing to make significant changes to policy.

Factions began to emerge, both within the shogunate and without, as some advocated a more hard-line stance against Western encroachment, and others sought to appease the Westerners, at least to some extent, in order to avoid a war Japan was sure to lose. Abe Masahiro, who became Tairô in 1845, led the shogunate in expanding coastal defenses while simultaneously advocating a more conciliatory stance.

Meanwhile, a number of domestic concerns contributed to an ongoing, low-level sense of crisis, and/or to the overall weakening of the Pax Tokugawa. Agricultural land had been exhausted; farmers could expand no farther into previously uncultivated land, and they had similarly gone as far as they could with intensification of their production on old lands, at least at current levels of technology. Urbanization continued, and large cities continued to place ever-increasing demands upon agricultural production and supply networks. The wealthy members of the merchant class continued to grow wealthier and to demand (or accrue) increased influence, challenging the social order which placed them at the bottom. And the samurai class - daimyô & their domains, and the shogunate, in particular - struggled financially, with many in severe debt to creditors from the merchant class.


Against that background, Perry's arrival in 1853 has come to be taken as a particularly striking and significant episode, and the Convention of Kanagawa signed with Perry in 1854 indeed marks the beginning of a significant "opening" of Japan to Western trade and Western settlement. The terms of this Convention, opening the ports of Hakodate and Shimoda to foreign trade, and allowing the stationing of permanent consuls, were quickly extended to the French, British, Dutch, and Russians as well. This Convention was signed after the shogunate formally requested advice from the daimyô, a truly unprecedented move which stirred considerable concern about the shogunate's power and authority.

The following year, in 1855, Japan signed its first-ever treaty officially declaring national borders; this was the Treaty of Shimoda, signed with Russia, which declared the island of Urup and everything south of it within the Kuril Islands (as well as Hokkaidô Island) to be Japanese territory, and the remainder of the Kurils, from Iturup on north, to be Russian. The treaty left the status of Sakhalin undetermined, however.

Townsend Harris, the first American consul to be stationed in Japan, arrived in 1856 to take up residence at Shimoda.

By 1858, only a few years later, the Tokugawa shogunate would sign more formal Treaties of Amity & Commerce with the United States, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Russia, and France. These treaties opened the ports of Yokohama and Nagasaki (in 1859), Niigata (in 1860), and Kobe (in 1863), to Western trade and settlement, in addition to Shimoda and Hakodate which were already open. Tairô Ii Naosuke and rôjû Hotta Masayoshi had considerable support for their decision to sign these treaties, but the move was also deeply unpopular among other factions within the shogunate and without. The Treaty was also opposed by Emperor Kômei, who, when asked by Hotta Masayoshi, also voiced his agreement with Tokugawa Nariaki, Shimazu Nariakira, and others that Nariaki's son Tokugawa Yoshinobu, and not the young Tokugawa Iemochi, should be named the next shogun. Shogun Tokugawa Iesada fell ill and died in 1858 with no heirs, and Ii Naosuke saw to it that the lord of Wakayama, the 12-year-old (young, and thus easily controlled) Tokugawa Iemochi was named shogun.

In 1858-1859, Naosuke then led a series of purges, known as the Ansei Purges, in which over one hundred samurai elites from rival factions were removed from their shogunate positions, or, in the case of daimyô like Tokugawa Nariaki, were confined to their homes. In a few cases, such as that of Yamauchi Yôdô, daimyô were forced to step down as lord of their domain. One of those who lost his position in these purges was Hotta Masayoshi, who was forced to resign for having made the shogunate (and Naosuke in particular) lose face, by seeking and failing to receive Imperial approval for the Treaties, and for the shogunal succession.

These purges fanned the flames of ire against Naosuke, and on 1860/3/3, Naosuke was attacked and killed just outside the Sakurada Gate of Edo castle, by a group of ronin who felt he had betrayed the country. Henry Heusken, Dutch advisor to Townsend Harris, was similarly assassinated by the end of that same lunar year (January 1861).

In the meantime, in 1860, the shogunate sent its first official overseas diplomatic mission, which met with US President James Buchanan in Washington DC. Another official mission visited several of the courts of Europe and met with heads of state there.

The opening of the ports, along with the tax provisions imposed in the treaties, and other factors, caused a number of significant economic shifts and shocks. As domestic industries and markets were suddenly opened (in a greater way than before) to overseas ones, supply and demand shifted dramatically. Japan faced sudden and severe inflation, as commodities prices and currency values fluctuated. Domestic trade routes changed dramatically, both with changes in technology, and shifts in supply and demand; many regions gained, while other regions which had been prosperous producers of a given good, suddenly lost to competitors. And as a result, the 1860s saw numerous large-scale uprisings and revolts, both by peasants in the countryside, and townspeople in the big cities.

Shogun Tokugawa Iemochi and his supporters began to pursue a policy of kôbu gattai, or "unification of Court and Shogunate," using political marriages and other means to bolster the appearance of Imperial support for shogunate policies. In 1861, Iemochi married the Emperor's sister, Princess Kazu-no-Miya. However, the daimyô of Satsuma, Chôshû, Tosa, Mito, and Aizu, among others, for a brief time at least, advocated instead a kôbu gattai which brought more power to the Imperial Court, not just nominally or as a figurehead, but as a real political force, through a council of lords based in Kyoto.

Another chip in the shogunate's power and legitimacy came the following year, in 1862, when chiefly due to financial problems, the shogunate decided to temporarily relax sankin kôtai obligations for all daimyô. Though intended as a temporary measure, in practice, the shogunate would fall before these obligations were ever put back into place. Regulations restricting daimyô in their defense spending were also loosened, in order to allow daimyô to contribute more directly to building up defenses against the Westerners. However, this also meant daimyô were now freer to build up military forces with which to oppose or resist the shogunate - precisely the thing these policies were meant to prevent when they were first put into place in the early 1600s.

As the divides between the shogunate and its opponents grew wider, Kyoto became a hotbed for rebel activity, as political activists calling themselves shishi (often translated as "men of high purpose") began to meet in the city and to plan uprisings or attacks similar to those which had already taken the lives of Ii Naosuke and Henry Heusken. Calling for sonnô jôi ("Revere the Emperor, Expel the Barbarians"), these groups, who have been described as [anti-shogunate] rebels, [pro-Imperial] loyalists, and as terrorists, were for the most part operating separately from the daimyô; when the shogunate learned of rebels - most of them from Satsuma - gathering and plotting at the Teradaya in Fushimi in 1862, it was a group of chiefly Satsuma samurai who raided the inn, in the name of the shogunate, seeking to capture or otherwise stop the rebels. That same year, rôjû Andô Nobumasa was attacked outside the Sakashita Gate of Edo castle (he survived), and after a British merchant named Charles Richardson was cut down along the Tôkaidô after failing to get out of the way of Shimazu Hisamitsu's procession, the British Legation in Yokohama was burned down. The British Royal Navy responded to these two attacks by shelling the Satsuma castle-town of Kagoshima the following year. Satsuma and the British would later turn their relationship around, however, with England aiding Satsuma in various ways against the (French-backed) shogunate only a few years later.

In the meantime, independent of shogunate policy, Emperor Kômei declared in 1863 that all foreigners should be expelled from the country. Shogun Tokugawa Iemochi then traveled to Kyoto - the first time any shogun entered the city in over two hundred years, since 1634 - to discuss the matter. Negotiations came to naught, and Iemochi returned to Edo with the Emperor's expulsion order still standing. While most domains (and shogunal lands) realized that any attacks on foreign ships would only invite severe retribution, Chôshû obeyed the order, and began firing on American and other Western ships, and suffered the consequences.

The shogunate formed two counter-terrorism squads, the Rôshigumi and Shinsengumi, aimed at hunting down and eliminating the shishi rebels. Another raid like that at the Teradaya famously took place at the Ikedaya in Kyoto in 1864, just one month before a group of Chôshû activists tried to take the Imperial Palace by force. Their rebellion was stopped by forces chiefly from Satsuma and Aizu domains, an example of the ways in which factional allegiances were complex and often shifting during this brief period. Chôshû domain was declared an enemy of the Court, and ships from Britain, France, the Netherlands, and the United States contributed to a bombardment of Shimonoseki, Chôshû's main port city. Shogunate and allied samurai forces also launched a punitive mission against Chôshû the following year (1865), forcing the daimyô to round up and execute those behind the attack on the Imperial Palace, or else be stripped of his domain. He did so, but this would not prove to be the end for radicalism and violence coming out of Chôshû.

The reform faction within the shogunate gained strength in 1865 as finance & military commissioner Oguri Tadamasa, with the advice of French resident minister Leon Roches, began pushing for Westernization of military organization, and even floating the idea of abolishing the domains and centralizing authority under a more Western-style government. He faced considerable opposition at first from conservative forces within the shogunate, but gained strong support from Tokugawa Yoshinobu, who became shogun in 1866. Historian Andrew Gordon has even suggested that had the shogunate not fallen, under Yoshinobu it may well have adopted many of the Westernizing political reforms that the Meiji government did in reality.[1] Such moves towards reform were not enough to save the shogunate, however, as the daimyô of Satsuma, Chôshû, and several other domains, as well as factions within those domains operating independently from their lords, were already well on their way towards consolidating power with the explicit aim of overthrowing the shogunate. The wheels were already in motion.

Rebel forces in Chôshû, including a combination samurai & peasant fighting force called the Kiheitai, led by Takasugi Shinsaku, seized power away from moderate leaders in Chôshû in 1865, and proved themselves in battle resisting shogunate forces sent for a punitive mission against the domain. Satsuma had been gaining strength as well, consolidating its financial situation, and working with the British to obtain Western weapons, military training, and even steamship warships. Tosa samurai & prominent pro-Imperial loyalist rebel Sakamoto Ryôma helped broker an alliance between Chôshû and Satsuma in 1866, and when the shogunate launched a second punitive mission against Chôshû later that year, several domains, including Satsuma, refused to contribute troops.

Fall of the Shogunate

Main article: Meiji Restoration

While Satsuma and Chôshû continued to build up their military forces, the lord of Tosa petitioned the shogun to abdicate, and to establish in his place a constitutional monarchy & representative democracy, headed by a council of lords (perhaps including a Tokugawa clan representative) and a lower house of lower-ranking samurai representatives or perhaps even commoners. Tokugawa Yoshinobu accepted this petition, and stepped down on January 3, 1868 (Keiô 3/12/9), less than a year after becoming shogun. The Imperial Court declared power restored to the Emperor.

Forces from Satsuma, Chôshû, and a few other allied domains marched on Kyoto and Edo anyway, seizing Osaka and Kyoto through a number of conflicts including the battle of Toba-Fushimi in 1868/1-3. Edo surrendered on 4/11 with little fighting. Fighting continued, however, as Aizu and a number of other domains still loyal to the abdicated shogunate held out for another 18 months, eventually being defeated in a series of battles known as the Bôshin War.

Previous Period
Edo Period
Bakumatsu Period Following Period
Meiji Period
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  • Andrew Gordon, A Modern History of Japan, Oxford University Press (2013), 47-59.

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