A blue statue at Nikko Taiyuin

The Third Shogun of Edo: Tokugawa Iemitsu

The Third Shogun of Edo: Tokugawa Iemitsu

The Third Shogun of Edo: Tokugawa Iemitsu
The start of the Edo period brought great changes to Japan. It was the start of a relatively peaceful era compared to the centuries before that saw a lot of fighting between different clans and no real unity of Japan. When the Tokugawa shogunate started with the Edo period, Japan entered a golden age of culture and arts brought about by the way the shogunate structured information flows to and from new capital Edo, and the long period of peace. Almost entirely closed off from any foreign influences, a culture very specific to Japan started blooming.

You can read more about the first Tokugawa shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu, in this article, but he was not the only shogun with a very interesting life. The third Tokugawa shogun was named Tokugawa Iemitsu, and his life is definitely the stuff of legends. Who was this man who was mainly responsible for closing Japan to nearly all foreigners for centuries?

Tokugawa Sibling Rivalry

Tokugawa Iemitsu was born in 1604, as the second son of second shogun Tokugawa Hidetada. His older brother died young, so Iemitsu became the eldest son and heir to the position. He became shogun in 1623 and ruled for 28 years. As a child, Iemitsu often felt a strong sibling rivalry because his parents seemed to strongly favor his younger brother so much that people who loved Iemitsu even feared that the younger brother would be appointed as the next shogun. It was also for this reason that Iemitsu felt a strong connection to his grandfather, the first shogun. This love was immortalized in the form of the Toshogu shrine in Nikko, a great tribute to Tokugawa Ieyasu that was paid for completely by the shogunate. Iemitsu even made sure that he would be buried near his beloved grandfather in the Taiyuin in Nikko.

After Iemitsu officially became shogun, his father still called most of the shots from behind the screen, and it wasn’t until after his father’s death that he could start his rule. Iemitsu quickly undid some of his father’s deeds like welcoming previously exiled enemies back. He also started the events that led to his hated younger brother’s death by seppuku, ritual suicide. This is not the only sordid death he was responsible for, as he also murdered his homosexual lover while they were taking a bath after falling out with him.

Iemitsu’s Character and Life

Iemitsu had a lively temperament and enjoyed hunting and martial arts, but as a shogun, he was placed at the top of the shogunate’s political structure which was well-developed, and he did not have much room to exercise his leadership in the shogunate government like his father’s. Rather, his personality was suppressed through his strict upbringing. 

Many anecdotes about him as a great sovereign, tell us that his free will was restricted. His illness seems to have been a kind of neurosis resulting from the frustration of being restricted like this. Iemitsu was only able to relax with his wet nurse, who he loved like his mother and advised him on political matters as well, and Sawan Sopeng, who he had been in close contact with since he was pardoned and whose virtue he was attracted to, and more than anything else, his grandfather Ieyasu, who seemed to provide him with emotional support.

Iemitsu has done a great deal to stabilize the Tokugawa shogunate’s rule in these early days. He intimidated the court in Kyoto with a large army and strengthened relationships with feudal lords (daimyo) from both the shogunate and outside of the shogunate. He also put the daimyo in charge of their own military needs in their domains. He created more laws and regulations that contributed to political and community stability, like the monthly shift system for officials, council meetings for important matters, and litigation rules.

Iemitsu’s rule was not an easy one, he was physically not strong, and natural disasters led to the Great Famine that century. The stress that the famine caused, has also caused problems between classes in the caste system that made up the society of Japan during the Edo period.

Iemitsu was married to a woman named Takako, but they didn’t have any natural children. He had 1 daughter and 3 surviving sons, of which 2 became later shoguns, by his concubines. He also had 5 adopted daughters for strategic reasons. Tokugawa Iemitsu died aged 47, and he was the first shogun to not abdicate.

Isolation of Japan

In the 16th century, Japan was a trading partner of several European countries including Spain, Portugal, and England. From the mid-16th century, a Jesuit mission succeeded in converting almost 5% of the Japanese population to Christianity. It was also around that time that the Spanish made the Philippines into their colony, and some of the Japanese elite started to distrust the Europeans and their influence. This is why Japan began to ‘isolate’ themselves during the Edo period.

Iemitsu’s work on the policy of national isolation was perhaps his biggest influence on Japanese history. He prohibited Japanese who lived overseas to return to Japan, Japanese ships were no longer allowed to go abroad, and the only foreigners who were still allowed to trade with Japan were the Dutch, who were restricted to a small island near Nagasaki and were not allowed out. Bonds with China, Korea, and Hokkaido (which didn’t belong to Japan at the time) were also still kept. The Portuguese, who had a strong trading relationship with Japan up until that point, were kicked out and Christians were persecuted.

Was there no cultural exchange at all during this period? There most certainly still was, Japan still had a great interest in the developments in the rest of the world, they just didn’t want to be a part of it and introduce Western-style modernizations into the mainstream in Japan. But many of the Japanese elite followed the news from outside of Japan through the few points of contact that they did have. But it was not until the revolutionary Meiji period in the late 19th century that Japan finally completely caught up with the West in terms of modern industry and society.

Your Japan Tour

As seasoned Japan experts, we can help you create your perfect Japan tour including guides who can tell you all about historical figures like Tokugawa Iemitsu. Contact us to start planning your unforgettable holiday to this fascinating country full of once-in-a-lifetime experiences, culture, history, nature, and delicious food!

Recommended Articles