Japan Tokugawa Bakuhan System

Tokugawa Bakuhan System
Tokugawa Bakuhan System

The Tokugawa shoguns were the de facto rulers of Japan from 1603 to 1867, when emperors, symbolic rulers of the country, bestowed the title of shogun on the Tokugawa clan. After the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600, the first shogun, Ieyasu, instituted a form of government that established the dominance of the Tokugawa family completed under his grandson Iemitsu.

They enacted laws to control Japan’s polity, society, and economy under the Tokugawas’ centralized authority. The center of the Tokugawa power was the Kanto Plain around Edo (Tokyo). The bakufu that they instituted unified Japan after the Warring States Era, brought peace to the land for 250 years, and created a vibrant domestic economy that flourished in a strict hierarchical society.

Social Order

Ieyasu’s policy to establish Tokugawa hegemony began with freezing the social order. Adapting China’s Confucian system, Japanese society was organized into four classes, in descending order, scholar-officials (samurai), peasants, artisans, and merchants. The samurai and their families composed about 6 percent of the population. Since peace prevailed, the samurai became educated to perform bureaucratic tasks of administration and tax collection.


They were the only men allowed to carry a sword, which became a symbol of their social superiority. They were paid a stipend according to their rank by the lord, or daimyo, in whose domain they lived. Samurai were supposed to cultivate and follow a strict ethical code of behavior called Bushido, of duty to the shogun, disciplined lifestyle, and frugal living.

Peasants were to live and work on the land and could not marry with samurai. Peasants were not allowed to sell their land. Artisans worked their crafts orgainized in guilds, and merchants belonged at the lowest levels of society, despised for an unproductive life.

There was some mobility between artisans and merchants. Tokugawa Ieyasu created their strictly hierarchical society to preempt social chaos and rebellion. Their stability may have been welcomed by the Japanese themselves as it created stability after a protracted period of warfare.

Social live in tokugawa period
Social live in tokugawa period

Government Structure

The basis of Tokugawa power was control of the land. Under the shogun were daimyo or feudal lords, who governed land given to them by the shogun, called han. Since powerful daimyo could pose challenges to the Tokugawa, Ieyasu immediately set about shuffling the domains of various daimyo; these numbered 295 but after the reallocation of lands there were reduced to 267.

About a quarter of the han lands were put under direct Tokugawa family control. Ieyasu redistributed the remainder among the daimyo on the basis of their allegiance to him. Ieyasu, Hidetada, and Iemitsu then created a structure by which Tokugawa hegemony was ensured.

Daimyo were classified into three categories:
  1. Shimpan were members of the Tokugawa family,
  2. Fudai (hereditary nobles) were those daimyo who had been allied with the Tokugawa before the Battle of Sekigahara, and
  3. The tozama (outside nobles) were those who had surrendered to Tokugawa dominance after the battle. Since tozama were least reliable, their han were strategically placed the farthest from Edo or between two fudai domains; the intent was to watch for any signs of rebellion.
The Buke Sho-Hatto, or Ordinances for the Military Houses, was first passed by Ieyasu in 1615 and then firmly reiterated by Iemitsu in 1635. These ordinances were a code of conduct for the daimyo. They included the sankin kotai system, which required that every daimyo live in Edo every other year for a full year; if he could not do so then he had to send his family to Edo.

Also, a daimyo’s chief wife and heir had to be left in Edo at all times as permanent hostages. The requirement was expensive for the daimyo because they had to travel back and forth with large retinues and also had to maintain two residences, one in their own domains, another in Edo.

Marriages between daimyo families could not take place without the shogun’s permission. The impressive castle-towns in which the daimyo resided, called the jokamachi, were put under shogunal surveillance and repairs or improvements to the castles needed permission from the shogun. Notably, the tozama daimyos were excluded from playing any active role in the bakufu.

The daimyo were required to model their government on that of the bakufu. A collective form of government developed. The shogun was assisted by councilors in administration. Usually four or five roju were selected from among the fudai daimyo who controlled the finances, made policy decisions, and dealt with officialdom.

Theoretically, the daimyo were free to manage their local affairs and retain their own vassals, who received stipends in kind from them. Initially, the bakufu closely supervised the daimyo. In the first 50 years of Tokugawa rule, there were 281 cases of daimyo moved from one han to another, and 213 of domain confiscation because of misrule or lack of an heir. Later, the daimyo replicated the shogunal system of government in their han. The bakufu’s interference in the hans was reduced.

The main task of the civil officials in both bakuhan was to collect taxes. Rice was the primary form of taxation; the unit of rice, called koku, was equal to 4.97 bushels. The bakufu’s landholdings yielded 7 million koku out of the total 30 million koku produced nationwide; hence it enjoyed the most revenue.

The common people lived on five koku of rice per capita per annum. The bakufu reserved the right to control all matters related to foreign affairs, minting and distribution of gold and silver coins, and interhan transportation.

The machinery for collecting taxes was small and efficient. The bakuhan levied taxes on an entire village; it was decided within the village what each household paid as taxes. Junior-ranking samurai oversaw the collection of taxes. Nearly all the taxes were deposited to the bakufu and han treasuries.

The bakufu is military force. It consisted of samurai recruited from Tokugawa lands. These were divided into two categories: 5,000 standard-bearers who enjoyed high rank, and 18,000 middling rank and footsoldiers. In addition, the daimyo were required to provide armies and ammunition whenever the shogun needed them, which was infrequent.

Samurai were used more for policing than as active warriors throughout the era. Fudai and Shimpan daimyo, and their samurai, kept watch over the tozama domains for a possible challenge to Tokugawa authority.

The bakuhan system remained largely unchanged from the 1600s into the 1860s, an era of stability, economic growth, and peace internally and externally. There were only local rebellions, easily suppressed. However, the shogunate was never able to tame the tozama daimyo and it was the han of Choshu, Satsuma, and Tosa who eventually challenged the Tokugawa in the 1860s, bringing the Edo era to an end.