Crash Course: The Tokugawa Shogun(s)

Quick – name a Japanese historical figure. (And no, Ken Watanabe’s character in The Last Samurai does NOT count.) Chances are one of two names comes to mind – Emperor Meiji, the man who oversaw Japan’s emergence as a modern power, and Tokugawa Ieyasu, the samurai who fought to unite Japan and ushered in an unprecedented era of peace – and isolation – beginning in the early 1600s.

So who IS Tokugawa Ieyasu? Which name is his last name? And are there more Tokugawas you need to know about?

Not the handsomest chap in the bunch but he got the job done.

We’ll start with the easiest question first. Tokugawa is a family name, Ieyasu is the first name. But maybe that’s not entirely uncomplicated, as Ieyasu was actually born Matsudaira (last name) Takechiyo. He petitioned to change his name in his late youth, after he had begun to make a reputation for himself fighting the battles of Oda Nobunaga (another of Japan’s great samurai warlords). After Nobunaga was killed in 1582, he and Toyotomi Hideyoshi spent nearly two decades duking it out for total control of Japan. At times allies, at other times at odds, they don’t call this era the Warring States Period for nothing. (Alright, technically the Warring States Period ended around the 1570s, but the fighting didn’t).Ieyasu fought a lot of battles but the only one you really need to know is Sekigahara. When Hideyoshi died (see a pattern here?), Ieyasu was left to take on Iishida Mitsunari. They fought a decisive skirmish in October of 1600. If you haven’t already guessed, Ieyasu won. Whether he had been angling for the job or not, by 1603 the Emperor had named him shogun (military dictator). He moved his capital to Edo and an unbroken line of Tokugawa rulers was born, lasting until 1868.

Surprisingly, Ieyasu only spent two years as shogun before he retired and was replaced by his son. So, yes, there are a lot of Tokugawas to follow (15 who served as shogun, to be exact) though none had quite the impact Ieyasu did. He died in 1616 in his 70s, an incredible longevity for a samurai in that age. If you want to pay your respects to the man who was largely responsible for making Japan the unified nation it is today, head to Nikko or Shizuoka, where his spirit is enshrined in some incredibly striking mausoleums.

One of the grand shrines of Nikko

Whew! What a history lesson! I’ll let you ponder all that over the weekend but check back next week when I share some finds from my latest trip to Tokyo

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