World history textbooks do not do justice to the complexities of early modern Japanese government. Popular perceptions are no better. Even at the college level, I have frequently heard Tokugawa Japan being referred to as ‘feudal.’ Historiographically speaking, the issue is somewhat contentious. Before delving into specifics, I think it is necessary to present a brief survey of Japanese historiography from the Meiji period to the present regarding perceptions on Tokugawa Japan. Early interpretations of the Tokugawa period tended to be quite negative. Leading reformers of the Meiji period (1868–1912) were generally unsympathetic with the government they just helped to overthrow. Fukuzawa Yukichi, in particular, saw Tokugawa society as being quite backward. Westerners also held fairly negative views of Tokugawa Japan (though were admittedly more sympathetic with regard to certain aspects such as the woodblock prints many collected). It wasn’t until after World War II that historians of Japan re-evaluated the Tokugawa period. John Whitney Hall, a preeminent Japanologist of the twentieth century was one such historian. While the chaos of the 1850s and 1860s shaped the opinions of those who had lived at the time, later historians focused on the long-term success of the Tokugawa Shogunate (1603–1868). The shogunate lasted longer than the United States. Two hundred and sixty-five years is too long for a failed and backward state to exist. Not all Japanologists of the postwar period viewed Tokugawa Japan very positively. E.H. Norman, a radical Marxist, continued to articulate stale arguments about Tokugawa Japan as being backward. He interpreted, or rather misinterpreted, Tokugawa Japan from the perspective of his limited, and deeply ideological, worldview. His scathing critiques of Tokugawa Japan lack any real sense that he either understood or appreciated the subjects he purported to write about.
More recently, historian such as Mark Ravina, have written about the dynamism of Tokugawa politics. Known as the Baku-Han System, Tokugawa political power was de-centralized to a considerable extent. The Tokugawa Shogunate directly controlled only about 15 percent of land in Japan. Much of the rest of Japan was controlled by 260 or so daimyo (the number changed various times throughout the Tokugawa period). At the conclusion of his book Land and Lordship in Early Modern Japan, historian Mark Ravina refers to Japan as a ‘compound state.’ “The Tokugawa “compound state” stood in contrast to the absolutist state of early modern Europe. Seventeenth- and eighteenth-century European political thought can be understood, with tolerable reduction, as the struggle between two absolutists principles: the divine right of kings and the inalienable rights of the individual human being.” In 1600, Tokugawa Ieyasu and his forces won the Battle of Sekigahara. He did not vanquish all of his enemies. Key enemy daimyo (lords, literally translated: ‘great name’) were allowed to survive, though on reduced holdings. Japan was not a nation-state before the latter half of the nineteenth century. The Japanese compound state of the Tokugawa period was composed of feudal elements reorganized in a proto-federal form. Tokugawa Japan was a Confucian agrarian bureaucracy. Several key changes and processes differentiate the Tokugawa Shogunate from the previous shogunal governments. These include: urbanization, the role of the samurai in a time of peace, and economic developments.
Beginning in the warring states period (the chaotic sixteenth century), castle towns developed. For centuries, there were few heavily populated centers in an overwhelmingly rural country. The rise of castles led to the rise of castle towns. In Tokugawa Japan, the daimyo’s castle was often in the center of a city. As the daimyo lived in a particular location, those who served him moved nearby. Samurai, merchants, and artisans populated these cities. The largest city was Edo (Tokyo). In order to keep the daimyo in line, the Tokugawa government devised a system called alternate attendance. Under this system, each daimyo had to spend time in Edo. While he was away at his domain, the daimyo’s family lived in Edo. Travelling back and forth kept the daimyo short of funds maintaining elaborate processions and a residence in Edo (in addition to his ONE castle). By 1720, Edo was probably the largest city in the world.
The role of the samurai changed radically between the medieval (1185–1603) and early modern (1603–1868) periods. Samurai were originally rural land steward, the younger sons of the nobility who went into the countryside because of the lack of opportunity around the Imperial Court in Kyoto during the Heian period (794–1185). Early samurai were warriors, a rural elite and often illiterate. In Tokugawa Japan, there were no more wars to fight (apart from the occasional rebellion). The samurai were transformed from a rural elite into an urban one. Literacy was of prime importance. In a Confucian agrarian bureaucracy, political offices were to be staffed by samurai. Samurai had to be scholars, well-versed in Neo-Confucian philosophy. Samurai also increasingly diversified their income due to the meagerness of their official stipends. Over the course of the Tokugawa period, the merchant class (officially at the bottom of Confucian society) advanced to the top economically. Samurai, members of the top class in Tokugawa society increasingly fell into living in genteel poverty.
“The state (国家, kokka) is inherited from one’s ancestors and passed on to one’s descendants; it should not be administered selfishly.
The people belong to the state; they should not be administered selfishly.
The lord exists for the sake of the state and the people: the state and the people do not exist for the sake of the lord” -Lord Uesugi Harunori’s epistle on statecraft, from a letter to his heir (1785)
Mark Ravina wrote of the samurai in Yonegawa Domain. In the latter decades of the eighteenth century, Lord Uesugi Harunori (1751–1822) promoted proto-industrialization in his domain. While it was previously considered shameful for samurai to take on such work as weaving, samurai were encouraged to bring quality and honor to whatever jobs they did. Weaving was not shameful, only weaving badly. Domains varied widely in terms of economics because the shogunate was not involved extensively at the local level in terms of economics beyond basic taxation. Just like in eighteenth-century Britain, early industrialization was linked to textile production.
World history textbooks in the United States have depicted pre-1868 Japanese history in terms of emphasizing a hierarchical pyramid with the shogun and samurai at the top with peasants, artisans, and merchants below. This model is terribly inadequate. Historians have begun to speak of the Tokugawa government as ‘early modern,’ ‘centralized feudalism,’ ‘the ‘Baku-Han State,’ the ‘composite state,’ and even the ‘Japanese States.’ As a Japanologist, I would argue for the latter. Many comparisons can be made between Tokugawa Japan and the United States in the early federal period (1787–1825). Federalism or one kind or another produced robust political systems. The Tokugawa Shogunate lasted for over two and a half centuries. The United States political system is still, more or less, going strong (despite the disconcerting trend toward centralization and ballooning of the central government over the past century).
 Ravina, Mark. Land and Lordship in Early Modern Japan. (1999). p.194.
 Under Tokugawa rule, each daimyo was allowed only one castle.