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 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 despite his support for both the Harris Treaty and for Iemochi (rather than Yoshinobu) being named heir, had been the one who made the disastrous misstep of formally requesting the Emperor's approval, leading to the shogunate having done these two things against formal Imperial opposition.

The following year, in 1860, the shogunate sent its first official overseas diplomatic mission, which met with US President James Buchanan in Washington DC.

In the wake of the controversial shogunal succession and signing of the Harris Treaty, Ii Naosuke and his faction, 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).

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.

Philosophies in Bakumatsu

Events in Bakumatsu

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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