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.

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.

Philosophies in Bakumatsu

Events in Bakumatsu

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