State Power and Ordinary People from the Tokugawa Period through the 20th Century

By Craig Wright | 23 May 2022 | Economics

Traditionally, the study of history looked at the state and elite forces and people and how they would change the world from the leading edge of change. Since the Second World War, history has moved towards the analysis of individual lives and started to look at how the average person of the middle-class has faced and experienced change. In the periods from the end of the Tokugawa period through to the twentieth century, we have seen the development of a world that is changing rapidly in every period, yet one that is often portrayed as changing only in the twentieth century and as static beforehand.

In the Tokugawa period, Japan entered a period of internal peace and political stability. It allowed the development of economic growth, while simultaneously limiting the freedom of individuals in their lives. Friday (2012) notes how Tokugawa Iemitsu implemented a system of control over the Daimyo that required them to reside in Edo every year yet equally created semiautonomous domains that remained tightly under the control of the shogunate for over 250 years.

While the warrior class or samurai moved from a position of soldiers to one of bureaucrats, the peasant class was forbidden to engage in nonagricultural activities. This enabled a stable continuing source of income for those in charge of the country, but equally created underlying tensions. In regions that were involved with the distribution of grain, such as Okinawa, the rise of merchant classes came about. Sakai (1964) documented the trade with the Chinese mainland and the development of illegal trade structures between the Ryukyu Islanders.

Here, we see the underlying tensions that existed throughout the same period. As the government sought to maintain the illusion of power and control at all levels, small, controlled changes and the introduction of foreign goods were allowed in a manner that permitted the government to maintain the illusion of power they held over the country. Such an illusion, of course, was very formidable, and combined with the stability that followed a period of intense struggles before the rise of the shogunate, many individuals would accept the domination of an autocratic lord.

The Edo period formed the necessary conditions that enabled the later industrialisation in the Meiji era that would follow.

The unequal treaties of 1858 that followed the arrival of Commodore Perry, 1853–1854, led to the opening of the country to the United States, France, Britain, Russia, and the Netherlands. With such changes, the elite samurai class remained in leadership and wielded power behind the restored Emperor, despite the change of the shogunate and the nominal head of the country. With such changes came the introduction of processes that moved the country towards modernisation. Yet, for many people in the country, life didn’t change terribly much.

For many people, there was a sense of both continuity and change, with the later Edo period being one of proto-industrialisation. The changes that occurred throughout the country, in the agricultural distribution and the development of the bureaucracy, enabled many of the changes that would come about soon after the start of the Meiji. Gordon (2019) documented the transition—and the development of premodern Japan.

The Meiji era served as Japan’s introduction to modernity. The work by Amy Stanley (2020) captures the life of a woman going through these times, and is a portrait of a woman who, having been born in 1804 and having moved into the Shogun’s city when she was widowed, was brought up in a village in Japan. Tsuneno provides a touching tale of a woman who does not fit the model of the nineteenth-century Japanese woman present in many other tales of literature, considering her three divorces and strong-willed temperament.

Through the change from the nineteenth to the twentieth century, and the move towards modernity, many aspects of Japanese life remained unchanged. The government ensured a sense of stability in the transition. For most people, modernisation was not the dominant feature of daily life, even though their children started to be educated and people would even be more mobile.

Housing is expensive, and changes only slowly. It was no different during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. While Tokyo and large cities may have seen the development of Western-style buildings and construction methodologies, the introduction of brick and concrete would not have been seen in most homes across the country. Even with certain changes, parts of the capital or other more industrialised areas would have seen Western-style homes in a particularly Japanese manner. Western rooms were built for entertainment, but the families continued living in Japanese-style rooms—where they could interact with their family and friends in a more traditional manner.

People with dirt floors started to install wooden floors and use tatami mats, which improved the health and welfare of the population. Clothing also changed, with many Western styles being introduced in the cities, but they were found to be impractical for many Japanese people, and women in the West who wore long skirts found the Japanese environment difficult. The Japanese lady at home would find cleaning difficult. Moreover, long skirts make squat toilets difficult to use, and for a long time, little developed outside of elite circles. Japanese people also take their shoes off when inside, and the general buttoned-up, high shoes and boots that the Westerners wore would be impractical.

Western ideas can be seen to change some attitudes and aspects of appearance, with men cutting their hair short and wearing caps and hats. Women stopped teeth blackening, and started to clean their teeth and whiten them in Western fashion. Other Western items, such as watches, shawls, or umbrellas, became commonplace, and imported wool was used as a Veblen good that showed wealth.

Western suits and attire were worn by government officials. Many of the elite would use such attire to demonstrate their position in the modern rising hierarchy of Japan. The same was also true of the military, who sought to use Western-style uniforms to demonstrate how they were embracing modernity in Western culture [1].

In the early twentieth century, the government reverted to one that was more autocratic and moved away from the democratic processes that had started to evolve.

Sugita Teiichi summed many such changes up by saying, “Japan’s choice in the late 1800s came down to being either a ‘guest at the table’ or ‘meat’ on the table.” The view expressed here is that either Japan would learn to become like the West or the West would simply make Japan a colony and exploit its people. In the reorganisation of Japan following the First World War, such a view became more and more ingrained in the government, and the people saw that they needed to come out of the depression stronger than ever, lest they would end up, like China, as a plaything of the West [2].

With a history of rule through an autocratic shogunate, it was not too difficult for the people to accept the return to authority from the democratic processes that had been implemented at the start of the twentieth century. In particular, the Japanese people saw that they could be powerful, and having conquered Russia in naval battles and having been victorious against Western powers, the Japanese saw the depression and problems that originated from Western systems as something they needed to avoid. In seeking a more modernised version of the Empire and the shogunate, many people sought to abandon the changes that would lead to democracy and capitalist control.

The changes following the First World War, and the development of nationalistic pride following the defeat of Western nations, led to many Japanese leaders promoting the concept of Pan-Asianism. In the process, the Asian population was being taught to feel pride for the nation and to believe that they were being oppressed by the European powers and that they would thus need to have control by an Asian political elite.

The propaganda efforts in Japan and other nations in the 1930s led to a sense of despondency after the Second World War. With a sudden defeat, where the Japanese government had gone from promising victory a few years earlier, and describing the power of the Asian people, to now losing the war, many Japanese saw themselves in a state of uncertainty. During the same period, the Japanese people saw themselves as increasingly powerful, which, in seeking industrial products from surrounding nations, enabled many of the elite and politicians in the country to extend control and become colonial powers in the form of the Europeans they sought to replace.

The Japanese people moved into a role of change that would lead to the resumption of an autocratic power structure and control from the top. But even then, when Japan surrendered at World War II, the Japanese way of life would change only partially. As explained in a previous post, the Japanese worker forms part of a system that is controlled from above. It is a system where people work hard and dream of something else. Japan, as it has integrated modern Western society into a proto-industrial mediaeval culture, has become a land of contrasts. In many ways, it is also what will make it unique in the future.


1. Image: Famous Places in Tokyo: True View of the Post Office at Edobashi, by Kobayashi Ikuhide, 1889 [2000.509] Sharf Collection, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2008, Visualizing Cultures,

2. Kita Ikki: An Outline for the Reorganization of Japan


Friday, K. (ed.). (2012). Japan Emerging: Premodern History to 1850. Boulder: Westview Press.

Gordon, A. (2019). A Modern History of Japan from Tokugawa Times to the Present (4th edition). New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Sakai, R. K. (1964). The Satsuma-Ryukyu trade and the Tokugawa seclusion policy. The Journal of Asian Studies, 23(3), 391-403.

Stanley, A. (2020). Stranger in the Shogun’s City. New York: Simon and Schuster.

[Image: Famous Places in Tokyo: True View of the Post Office at Edobashi, by Kobayashi Ikuhide, 1889 [2000.509] Sharf Collection, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2008, Visualizing Cultures,]

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