Ancient History & Civilisation


The accession of lyeyasu—His philosophy—lyeyasu and Christianity—Death of lyeyasu—The Tokugawa Shogunate

Hideyoshi being dead, lyeyasu pointed out that he had drawn the blood for his oath not from his finger or his gums, as the code of the Samurai required, but from a scratch behind his ear; hence the oath was not binding.52 He overwhelmed the forces of certain rival leaders at Sekigahara in a battle that left 40,000 dead. He tolerated Hideyori till his coming of age made him dangerous, and then suggested to him the wisdom of submission. Rebuked, he besieged the gigantic Castle of Osaka where Hideyori was established, captured it while the youth committed hara-kiri, and ensured his hold upon power by killing all of Hideyori’s children, legitimate and illegitimate. Then lyeyasu organized peace as ably and ruthlessly as he had organized war, and administered Japan so well that it was content to be ruled by his posterity and his principles for eight generations.

He was a man of his own ideas, and made his morals as he went along. When a very presentable woman came to him with the complaint that one of his officials had killed her husband in order to possess her, lyeyasu ordered the official to disembowel himself, and made the lady his concubine.53 Like Socrates he ranked wisdom as the only virtue, and charted some of its paths in that strange “Legacy,” or intellectual testament, which he bequeathed to his family at his death.

Life is like unto a long journey with a heavy burden. Let thy step be slow and steady, that thou stumble not. Persuade thyself that imperfection and inconvenience is the natural lot of mortals, and there will be no room for discontent, neither for despair. When ambitious desires arise in thy heart, recall the days of extremity thou hast passed through. Forbearance is the root of quietness and assurance forever. Look upon wrath as thy enemy. If thou knowest only what it is to conquer, and knowest not what it is to be defeated, woe unto thee; it will fare ill with thee. Find fault with thyself rather than with others.54

Having captured power by arms, he decided that Japan had no need of further war, and devoted himself to furthering the ways and virtues of peace. To win the Samurai from the habits of the sword he encouraged them to study literature and philosophy, and to contribute to the arts; and under the rule which he established, culture flourished in Japan and militarism decayed. “The people,” he wrote, “are the foundation of the Empire,”55 and he invoked the “special commiseration” of his successors for the “widower, the widowed, the orphaned and the lonely.” But he had no democratic predispositions: the greatest of all crimes, he thought, was insubordination; a “fellow” who stepped out of his rank was to be cut down on the spot; and the entire family of a rebel should be put to death.56 The feudal order, in his judgment, was the best that could be devised for actual human beings; it provided a rational balance between central and local power, it established a natural and hereditary system of social and economic organization, and it preserved the continuity of a society without subjecting it to despotic authority. It must be admitted that Iyeyasu organized the most perfect form of feudal government ever known.57

Like most statesmen he thought of religion chiefly as an organ of social discipline, and regretted that the variety of human beliefs canceled half this good by the disorder of hostile creeds. To his completely political mind the traditional faith of the Japanese people—a careless mixture of Shintoism and Buddhism—was an invaluable bond cementing the race into spiritual unity, moral order and patriotic devotion; and though at first he approached Christianity with the lenient eye and broad intelligence of Akbar, and refrained from enforcing against it the angry edicts of Hideyoshi, he was disturbed by its intolerance, its bitter denunciation of the native faith as idolatry, and the discord which its passionate dogmatism aroused not only between the converts and the nation, but among the neophytes themselves. Finally his resentment was stirred by the discovery that missionaries sometimes allowed themselves to be used as vanguards for conquerors, and were, here and there, conspiring against the Japanese state.58* In 1614 he forbade the practice or preaching of the Christian religion in Japan, and ordered all converts either to depart from the country or to renounce their new beliefs. Many priests evaded the decree, and some of them were arrested. None was executed during the lifetime of Iyeyasu; but after his death the fury of the bureaucrats was turned against the Christians, and a violent and brutal persecution ensued which practically stamped Christianity out of Japan. In 1638 the remaining Christians gathered to the number of 37,000 on the peninsula of Shimabara, fortified it, and made a last stand for the freedom of worship. Iyemitsu, grandson of Iyeyasu, sent a large armed force to subdue them. When, after a three months’ siege, their stronghold was taken, all but one hundred and five of the survivors were massacred in the streets.

Iyeyasu and Shakespeare were contemporaries in death. The doughty Shogun left his power to his son Hidetada, with a simple admonition: “Take care of the people. Strive to be virtuous. Never neglect to protect the country.” And to the nobles who stood at his deathbed he left advice in the best tradition of Confucius and Mencius: “My son has now come of age. I feel no anxiety for the future of the state. But should my successor commit any grave fault in his administration, do you administer affairs yourselves. The country is not the country of one man, but the country of the nation. If my descendants lose their power because of their misdeeds, I shall not regret it.”60

His descendants conducted themselves much better than monarchs can usually be expected to behave over a great length of time. Hidetada was a harmless mediocrity; Iyemitsu represented a stronger mood of the stock, and sternly suppressed a movement to restore to actual power the still reigning but not ruling emperors. Tsunayoshi lavished patronage upon men of letters, and on the great rival schools of painting, Kano and Tosa, that embellished the Genroku age (1688-1703). Yoshimune set himself to the ever-recurrent purpose of abolishing poverty, at the very time when his treasury faced an unusual deficit. He borrowed extensively from the merchant class, attacked the extravagance of the rich, and stoically reduced the expenditures of his government, even to the extent of dismissing the fifty fairest ladies of the court. He dressed in cotton cloth, slept on a peasant’s pallet, and dined on the simplest fare. He had a complaint box placed before the palace of the Supreme Court, and invited the people to submit criticisms of any governmental policy or official. When one Yamashita sent in a caustic indictment of his whole administration Yoshimune had the document read aloud in public, and rewarded the author for his candor with a substantial gift.61

It was the judgment of Lafcadio Hearn that “the Tokugawa period was the happiest in the long life of the nation.”62 History, though it can never quite know the past, inclines tentatively to the same conclusion. How could one, seeing Japan today, suspect that on those now excited islands, only a century ago, lived a people poor but content, enjoying a long epoch of peace under the rule of a military class, and pursuing in quiet isolation the highest aims of literature and art?

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