How did han (domain) rivalry contribute to the downfall of the Tokugawa Shogunate? 

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Last updated: May 5, 2019

After the signing of the Treaty of Edo in 1858, the balance of power in Japan, which had remained more or less frozen since the 17th century, began to change. This shift of authority was in Kyoto’s flavour, while the Tokugawa Shogunate in Edo saw its power ever declining. The issue that divided the two camps and finally brought about Tokugawa’s demise was Japan’s foreign policy. The Emperor represented the xenophobic faction, resisting almost all forms of contact with the West.

The Shogun’s position was awkward as it was supposed to resist the foreigners but failed. It was forced to agree to western incessant demands. Some western clans, prominent among them were Satsuma and Choshu, took sides according to their own interests. In the Bakumatsu period there was han rivalry which centred around Kyoto, Edo and among tomaza clans. This played a decisive role in Tokugawa collapse.The rivalry set in motion two phenomena: the gradual weakening of Bakufu power and the strengthening of Satsuma and Choshu. Indeed they were almost interrelated. The Shogun’s fall of power is to be examined first.

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Han rivalry did much to weaken the power of the Shogunate. In June 1862, at the urging of Satsuma and Choshu, the Court decided to send a special envoy to Edo to demand that Hitotsubashi and Matsudaira, Satsuma’s Shimazu’s allies, be admitted to high office and, more importantly as later events would prove, the envoy was to insist that the shogun visit Kyoto to discuss expulsion of foreigners from Japan. The first of these objectives was met when Keiki assumed the powers of the Regent. They immediately decided to reduce the financial burdens on the daimyo by relaxing the sankin kotai system – reducing the time that the damiyo required to stay in Edo and abolishing the hostage system. Besides, the daimyo were to have the right to give advice when visiting the Edo castle. The relaxation of the sankin-kotai system gave the domains the opportunity to save money with which they enhanced their army.

The control of the daimyo by the Shogun was no longer rigid.A final break with Satsuma in 1864 left the shogun in a lurch. After Satsuma and Aizu ousted Choshu forces from Kyoto, the Court was dominated by Shimazu. This brought Satsuma and the Bakufu into direct confrontation. Shimazu favoured the realistic foreign policy of contact with the West and attempted to disillusion the Emperor of the seclusion policy. However, the Bakufu chose a compromise, believing that Edo should continue to work for the closing of Yokohama. The weak ‘alliance’ between the shogun and Satsuma broke up.

Shimazu fell gradually under the influence of the anti-Tokugawa faction. One can say with much certainty that if this ‘alliance’ had continued for sometime, the Bakufu could put rebel clans like Choshu into submission. The Bakufu became shorn of support from a strong domain.

A catastrophic event unfolded in 1866 demonstrated the military incompetence of the Shogun and assured Satsuma and Choshu that the time for them to topple had become well-nigh. By the end of 1864 the pro-Bakufu party in Choshu was overthrown by the return of the radicals. Sensing that Choshu would become a trouble spot if it was not checked, the Shogun organized another expedition against Choshu despite heavy opposition from other domains. In this battle superior military techniques and weapons proved more efficient than foot soldiers. The Bakufu’s army was defeated; Choshu, a regional power, won. Nothing clearer showed that the days of the Bakufu were numbered.

This rivalry between the Shogunate and Choshu exposed almost entirely the weakness of the former. No more signs were necessary to convince Satsuma and Choshu that they could win the fight against the Bakufu.Han rivalry worked the other way to bring about the end of the Shogunate by directly strengthening the political as well as military powers of western domains like Choshu and Satsuma which were the key players of the 1868 coup d’etat.

The military might of Choshu was further empowered by their defeats in fighting the foreigners. In 1863, Keiei and Keiki went to Kyoto in response to the Court’s demands. Facing concerted pressure from Court nobles and many hostile Choshu samurai, who dominated the Court at that time, they agreed to set a date to expel theforeigners. However, the document fell short of stating clearly the actions taken to enforce this promise .

It soon became evident, nevertheless, that the Shogunate preferred compromise with the foreigners. On 25th June, 1863, the day appointed for Bakufu action, Choshu steamers attacked an American vessel in the Shimonoseki Strait. This began the series of attacks on foreign ships by Choshu. At last, a contingent of foreign forces punished Choshu by dismantling its coastal defences.

Choshu suffered heavily. However, Choshu was prompt to learn from failures. It realized that to resist the foreigners one must consolidate military power first.

This set off military reform learning western military technology which brought success against the Bakufu in 1866.Lastly, the Satsuma-Choshu alliance of 1866 was an important achievement by the two traditionally rival clans without which the downfall of the Bakufu in 1868 would be placed in serious doubt. In 1866 the radicals took over the government of Choshu and single-mindedly aimed at the destruction of the Bakufu.

Despite the opposition from many domains, an ultimatum was sent to Choshu by the Shogun laying out the terms of submission. The ultimatum was ignored. Meanwhile, Satsuma and Choshu had been gradually overcoming their suspicions of each other with the help of refugees from Tosa. Finally they reached an alliance in 1866, concluded secretly by Kido Koin and Saigo Takamori. Satsuma agreed to use its influence at Court to restore Choshu to favour. And most significantly, both were bound to topple the Bakufu and restore the emperor’s status.

This alliance provided a solid core of military strength which made it possible to meet the Tokugawa on equal terms.

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