Tokugawa, Japan. The Garden of the Last Days of the Shogunate

At the end of the last shogunate.

The establishment of the Tokugawa dynasty in 1600 unified Japan and almost completely isolated it from the rest of the world. This affected many aspects of life in the Land of the Rising Sun, including the military. The number of warriors was sharply reduced, the country was centralized, and many of the samurai who were left behind had to become officials or even merchants. For two and a half centuries the Japanese had not waged war and had been isolated – during this time the armed forces of the shogunate and the feudal princes had become hopelessly obsolete. But, as it turned out, you can’t just “hide” from aggressors – by the middle of the XIX century the actions of Europeans and Americans in Asia became too dangerous for the independence of the country. Japan needed urgent military and political reforms.

Japan in self-isolation

In 1600, victory at the Battle of Sekigahara gave power over Japan to the Tokugawa Shogun Dynasty. Arquebuses purchased from European traders and copied by local artisans were an important contributing factor to this victory. However, firearms were alien to the military traditions of the samurai ranks – when the new government took power in its hands, it immediately disbanded the troops of commoners, locked up the seized weapons in warehouses and forgot about them for a long time. Soon the edged weapons were taken away from all estates except the samurai. For the next two hundred and fifty years Japan was cut off from events outside its borders, and the development of military affairs and weapons was “frozen” at the level of the early seventeenth century.

The only link between Japan, frozen in the Middle Ages, and the outside world was the Dutch trade mission. Understanding of local specifics and strict neutrality allowed the Netherlands to maintain its presence in the Land of the Rising Sun. The Dutch kept the shogunate government constantly informed of world events – wars, the balance of power in Europe and the colonies. That is why Japan knew about the beginning and the results of the First Opium War of 1840-1842. The defeat of mighty China by a handful of “barbarians” showed the vulnerability of the Japanese to the Western threat.

A Dutch trading station in Nagasaki, 1820s. Traditional Japanese printing from wooden boards Source: - At the end of the last shogunate | Military History Portal

A Dutch trading post in Nagasaki, 1820s. Traditional Japanese printing from wooden boards Source:

The threat of British and French landing ships in Japanese harbors forced the shogunate to take action. A special bureau (which later became Tokyo University) was organized to translate books on warfare and fortification from Dutch into Japanese. Holland remained Japan’s only and trusted partner and had a quite modern armed force.

Under the direction of a special official for the study of “Dutch sciences,” an experimental military detachment was created, manned by samurai. The soldiers of this unit were dressed in a semblance of European uniforms, trained in linear infantry tactics, and armed with muskets and bayonets. On the whole, the results of the experiment were considered successful, although no one was quite sure of the practical success of the squad – several generations of Japanese had no combat experience at all. In addition, the outfitting and maintenance of a new type of army was considered too great a burden for the country’s budget. A deeper transformation in Japanese military affairs required a more serious reason, and it was not long in coming.

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“Black Ships” Come to Japan

In 1853 a squadron of American warships under the command of Commodore Matthew Perry entered the harbor of the de facto capital of Japan, Edo (now Tokyo), unhindered. The steamship frigates were armed with the latest bombing guns, and the added weight to the American officer’s words was given by his Marines, ready for any action. The Japanese themselves called the smoking steamers of the American squadron “black ships. Under the threat of force, Japan had to sign an unequal trade treaty, first with the United States and then with Great Britain, France, and Russia. The Japanese could no longer live as before without any reforms.

Commodore Perry's American squadron in Tokyo harbor. Traditional Japanese printing from wooden boards Source: - At the end of the last Shogunate | Military History Portal

Commodore Perry’s American squadron in Tokyo harbor. Traditional Japanese printing from wooden boards Source:

The violent reaction of the samurai class to the appearance of “wide-eyed barbarians” on sacred Japanese soil was clearly inconsistent with their military capabilities. While the shogunate was drafting a Western-style regular army and actively purchasing armaments, the imperial court and samurai opposition demanded that the shogun immediately expel all Europeans from the country. Attacks on foreign merchants by radical samurai and the firing of cannons at European merchant ships were noted.

The catalyst for the subsequent political and military activity (which for the Japanese was one and the same) was the emperor’s attempt to transform Japan from a ceremonial ruler to a real one. In 1863 the imperial court ordered the shogun to cancel all agreements with the “barbarians. The shogun refused, and now the emperor became the moral leader of the movement to expel the Europeans from the country.

The center of anti-European and anti-government demonstrations was the southern principality of Chōshū. To oppose the Europeans, young samurai and those from other walks of life, with the financial support of local merchants, created volunteer units from all estates. The ruler of the principality actually led the volunteers, but was careful not to disclose this fact. Weapons and several steamboats were secretly purchased, but it turned out that these preparations were quite insufficient. In July 1863 a single American sloop, the Wyoming, destroyed three armed vessels and destroyed four Japanese coastal batteries in the battle of Shimonoseki Strait. The combined squadron of Great Britain, France, the Netherlands, and the United States then bombed Shimonoseki, and in September 1864 an American-European landing force took the city after a three-day assault.

In another southern principality, Satsuma, there was another clash between Japanese and Europeans. For violating local etiquette, the Satsuma samurai hacked to death a British sailor. In response, in August 1863 a British squadron of seven steamers with long-range rifled guns suppressed the coastal defenses, captured the principality’s small fleet, and destroyed the foundry and mint.

The Shogunate Strikes Back

Taking advantage of the weakening of the recalcitrant southerners in conflicts with Europeans, the shogunate sent a punitive expedition of 150,000 samurai gathered from all over Japan to Chōshū. The samurai of the principality of Chōshū were defeated, after which they were forced to surrender and tear down their ancestral castle. Among the Shogun’s warriors, the European observers’ attention was particularly drawn to the distinctly chiseled soldiers in European uniforms with muskets on their shoulders. The Europeans estimated the number of the new regular army at two to three thousand men.

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Execution of rebel instigators during the first punitive expedition of the shogunate army to Choshu. Illustration from the French political magazine Le Monde illustré Source: - At the end of the last Shogunate |

Execution of mutineers during the first punitive expedition of the shogunate army to Choshu. Illustration from the French political magazine Le Monde illustré Source:

“Enrich the country, strengthen the army.”

The defeat of Satsuma and Choshu by the Europeans and the inability to withstand the partially renewed army of the Shogunate led to a change in the political situation in both principalities: supporters of a more balanced and practical position came to power. It was necessary to learn to fight in a new way without denying traditional Japanese values. To do this, it was necessary to reject the samurai monopoly on the use of violence and begin to recruit volunteers from all estates. The new military organization was based on the so-called mixed units, recruited from samurai and commoners – modern rifles, buckshot and rifled guns were purchased to arm these units. Both European methods and the experience of the recently ended U.S. Civil War were used in training volunteers.

Military preparations required very considerable financial means, and the former sources of income were insufficient. The solution was found in industrialization and trade relations with Europeans. English machine tools were bought, production of goods for export began, and the first coal mines and blast furnaces began operating. Yesterday’s enemies Europeans became partners and teachers. Instead of the old slogan about the expulsion of barbarians came a new one – “enrich the country, strengthen the army”.

After the transformation, the renewed “southern” troops were far inferior in numbers to the Shogunate’s army, but their combat capabilities were incomparably greater. In June 1866, the second punitive expedition of the Shogunate troops to Choshu began (after the first expedition, power in the principality passed to those under the control of the central government, but they were unable to keep the young radicals under control).

The considerable numerical advantage and dominance on the sea could not offset the organizational and logistical backwardness of the government troops. The result of short battles was the military triumph of Choshu and the fall of the prestige of the ruling Tokugawa dynasty.

New Shogun, New Army

In fact, hostilities ceased after the old shogun died in August 1866. Soon after, in January 1867, the emperor himself died – a chance for the anti-government opposition to seize power. The new, still very young Meiji Emperor was to become a symbol of change in all aspects of life – by 1867 both the loyal shogunate north and the rebellious south were absolutely convinced of the need to modernize the country and carry out reforms. The only question was who would lead the new Japan: a prime minister from the Tokugawa family or Meiji, a protégé of the Satsuma and Choshu samurai, vested with the title of emperor. The Shogunate was oriented toward France and the opposition toward Great Britain.

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The ruling house of Tokugawa, represented by the old shogun, spent enormous resources to organize a second campaign to the rebellious principality and was defeated. The new Tokugawa Shogun Yoshinobu made one last attempt to bring his army up to fighting strength. At the request of the Japanese envoy to Europe, Emperor Napoleon III of France sent a military mission of French military specialists and a small shipment of the most modern weapons to Japan. The French arrived in Yokohama on January 14, 1867, and they soon drew up plans for the deployment and training of an army of ten thousand men. The Japanese placed and paid for orders in Europe and the United States for warships as well as uniforms, equipment and small arms (most of the expenses were paid by a French loan). Within a year the Europeans had managed to train a model Densutai military unit of 800 men – in fact, it was the Shogun’s guard. The soldiers of this unit were armed with the latest needle-shaped 1866 Chasspo single-shot rifles. The Japanese officers adopted the tactics of the best European army of the time from their French teachers, and the samurai recruits were able to carry out the commander’s commands quickly and accurately.

Tokugawa Yoshinobu - the last Shogun of Japan Source: - The sunset of the last Shogunate | Military History Portal

Tokugawa Yoshinobu, the last Shogun of Japan Source:

The military successes of the private armies of Satsuma and Chōshū made a great impression on the leaders of the relatively independent northern principalities. The northern ones, facing financial difficulties, began to improve their military formations. The Sendai and Nagaoka principalities went the furthest along the path of reform – the British army was their role model (the British successes in the Second Opium War, which broke out in neighboring China, were a great advertisement for them). Interestingly, while the Southerners recruited men of all estates, commoners were not welcome in the armies of the Shogunate and the Northern princedoms. There were also differences in the purpose of the new armies: while the Shogunate and the supporters of the restoration of imperial power needed Western-style troops to fight for control of the entire state, Sendai and Nagaoka hoped to remain neutral. Relying on modernized armed forces, these principalities intended to negotiate with the victor on their own terms.

Sendai Duchy soldiers' uniforms, modern reconstruction Source: - At the end of the last Shogunate | Military History Portal

Sendai Principality soldiers’ uniforms, modern reconstruction Source:

When war is inevitable

Observing the enemy’s military preparations, the Southerners realized that their only significant advantage was their retinue, hardened in battle against the Western “barbarians” and the vassals of the shogunate. They had to be used here and now – otherwise they would have lost that advantage after the French had prepared a large and modern army for the government. On January 3, 1868, the Meiji emperor’s advisors proclaimed the restoration of full imperial power on his behalf. On January 10, the Tokugawa shogun Yoshinobu declared the imperial rescript illegal. Although Yoshinobu himself hesitated to use force, his supporters marched to seize the imperial residence in Kyoto, where the troops of Satsuma, Choshu, and their allies were preparing to fight.

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Prolonged self-isolation led to stagnation in military development. However, under the pressure of unequal trade treaties with Europeans and the threat of the country becoming a colony, the Japanese made a massive effort to bridge the gap in a relatively short period. Modern fortresses, military arsenals, coastal batteries, shipyards, foundries, hundreds of European books on military affairs, fortification, shipbuilding and finance were translated into Japanese. Educational institutions for training of specialists were opened, the Japanese created from scratch a modern naval and merchant fleet. Foreign economic relations also intensified – Japanese traders began to work with partners from Shanghai, Hong Kong, Paris, London and San Francisco to their mutual advantage.

Against the backdrop of economic growth and the reforms that had already begun, Japan’s political system seemed to be the weak point. The feudal structure of society and the old contradictions between the shogunate government, the imperial court, and the individual principalities meant that these forces were divided and turned against each other. It remained to be decided in battle who was stronger and would rule a renewed united Japan. With the start of the new year 1868 (the year of the Dragon according to the Chinese calendar), a war broke out in the country with an appropriate name – the War of the Dragon Year or the Bosin War.

Tokugawa, Japan. The Garden of the Last Days of the Shogunate

In Japan, in the city of Nagoya, Aichi Prefecture, stands the majestic and mysterious Tokugawa Garden. It gets its name from the Ovari Tokugawa family, who for a long time held the fate of the country in their hands. The Tokugawa shogunate lasted more than two centuries (1603-1868), and the ruins of the samurai residence are still located at the main gate of their former mansion. The local gardens are an amazing combination of a variety of natural landscapes. On the vast area you can see forests, rocks and even a pond, which symbolizes the natural landscape of Japan itself.

Tokugawa, Japan. The garden of the last days of the Shogunate - Photo 2

Tokugawa, Japan. The garden of the Shogunate’s last days


For tourists, this place has more than just aesthetic value. The Tokugawa Garden is considered one of the most “Japanese” gardens in Japan, created during the formation of the country. It was during this time that unification began. Foreigners were expelled from Japan and the level of self-realization was skyrocketing. This was what affected the architecture of the time. The tea gardens were replaced by the long-forgotten camellia and iris.

There is an ancient temple on the grounds of the Tokugawa Garden. Anyone can make an offering and pray there. It is believed that if you make a wish here, write it on a wooden plank, and then tie it to the gates of the temple, it will certainly come true. Next to the temple is one of the most important attractions of the place, namely the tombs of the last six Tokugawa dynasty Shoguns.

Tokugawa, Japan. Garden of the last days of the Shogunate - Photo 3

Tokugawa, Japan. The Garden of the Last Days of the Shogunate

They were buried with their wives and children. Also a must-see when visiting the Tokugawa Gardens are the ruins of the Shogunate’s samurai residence. Unfortunately, during the change of power, as a sign of the end of the Shogunate era, the residence was destroyed. The building wanted to be restored several times, but was eventually left in ruins as a sign of the memory of the great coup.

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After visiting the temple, it is worth going to the main mansion and enjoying the tea ceremony. From the mansion, all tourists are usually invited to step out onto the spacious terrace, which sits right in front of the Tokugawa pond. It is believed that it was here that the last Shogun of the dynasty pondered tactics and military strategy. The terrace offers a stunning view of the entire southern part of the garden. After visiting the terrace, almost all tourists go to the famous rock garden. According to history, it, back in 1620, was laid out by the first Shogun of the Tokugawa clan. Until today, the garden has been preserved in its original form.

Organizing excursions

It is not forbidden to come to the garden on your own. There are no places here where a tourist cannot go, but a great deal of literature must be read to fully immerse oneself in the era. Of course, you can just stroll around and enjoy the beautiful views, but only an experienced guide will be able to reveal the whole essence of the buildings and events taking place here.

Tokugawa, Japan. The garden of the last days of the Shogunate. Photo 4

Tokugawa, Japan. The Garden of the Last Days of the Shogunate

Tours of the Tokugawa Garden can be booked either from Tokyo or directly upon arrival at the site. However, in this case, tourists should take into account that the transfer to the destination will have to find their own. Whereas when ordering excursions in advance, for a modest fee travelers will provide a tourist bus. If the desire to visit the Tokugawa Garden has arisen spontaneously, you can get to it with transfers by bus or call a cab. Also, do not forget that if you do not pre-booked tour, tourists may have to wait a while to the guide. The cost of tours varies depending on the number of people in the group (from one to ten) and the range of services provided.

For example, for the tea ceremony or photo shoot in traditional Edo period attire, you will have to pay extra. It is worth noting that special offerings at the local temple are also not included in the price of the visit.

Tokugawa, Japan. The garden of the last days of the Shogunate. Photo 5

Tokugawa, Japan. The garden of the Shogunate’s last days

For visitors, the garden has a restaurant overlooking the pond and a souvenir shop where anyone can buy not only themed souvenirs, but also handmade meat confections.

Tourist season here is quite long. The first groups arrive in early spring, and only in late autumn the garden closes its doors.

Tokugawa, Japan. The garden of the last days of the Shogunate - Photo 6

Tokugawa, Japan. The Garden of the Last Days of the Shogunate

Tokugawa Garden is worth visiting for its samurai martial spirit, picturesque scenery and to plunge into the intrigues of the Shogunate period.

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