Bakufu Power

Headed by a shogun and administered at the top by fudai daimyō (lords of privileged domains), the bakufu was primarily a military organization concerned with the regulation of Japan's warriors. One aspect of the status-based society described above is that most status groups were semiautonomous. The bakufu periodically issued directives regarding civilian affairs, but in most routine matters it expected civilians to regulate themselves. The major bakufu concerns with respect to civilians were that peasants in bakufu territory pay their taxes and that peasants and townspeople everywhere refrain from collective violence or serious social disruption. By the eighteenth century, as a complex market economy connected cities and countryside, the bakufu became increasingly concerned with regulating economic affairs connected with the supply and prices of goods.[1] Although it sometimes issued regulations about cultural or moral matters, the shogunate lacked the will and the means to enforce most such regulations for more than a brief period. Buyō Inshi pointed out in the early nineteenth century that “the Shogunate's proclamations and ordinances are called 'three-day laws.' No one fears them, and no one pays attention to them. . . . They are disregarded after that short period of time.”[2] Because punishment for violating bakufu edicts was rare and not usually severe by modern standards, “disregard of regulations in the Tokugawa period was the norm.”[3]

One reason people so commonly disregarded bakufu decrees in the capital was because the shogunate devoted few resources to civil administration and police. To ensure at least a modicum of civil order, police officials tended to rely on the cooperation of neighborhood-level leaders, trade guilds, and other commoner organizations. As historian Katō Takashi points out, in Edo, “the veneer of administration over commoner residential areas was thin: the population was great, the numbers of administrators and police relatively small. Consequently, to ensure that merchant and artisan quarters of the city ran in an orderly and peaceful fashion, the city magistrates delegated many important functions to the merchants and artisans themselves.”[4] To point out these systematic limitations in direct bakufu control of the civilian population is not to suggest that the shogunate was completely incapable of enforcing its decrees. In the wake of the Ansei Edo earthquake, for example, the bakufu eventually regained control over publishers, forcing them to stop producing catfish prints and other unauthorized items. Getting to this point, however, required two months of time and several rounds of escalation, culminating in the brief arrest of the heads of several publishing guilds.

When bakufu officials focused their limited resources, they could often force compliance with most unpopular decrees, at least temporarily. Even when there was a will to enforce bakufu edicts, however, sometimes opposing forces were simply too strong. Bakufu attempts to control prices and wages after the Ansei Edo earthquake, for example, were a complete failure despite the repeated issuing of sternly worded edicts and some concrete attempts to enforce them. The power of supply and demand was simply too strong and pervasive. Overall, it is important to bear in mind that there was usually a substantial gap between ideal behavior as framed by bakufu directives and the actual circumstances of life among peasants and, especially, townspeople.

  • [1] For a trenchant analysis of these matters, see Hayashi, Reiko, “Provisioning Edo in the Early Eighteenth Century: The Pricing Policies of the Shogunate and the Crisis of 1733,” in James L. McClain, John W. Merriman, and Ugawa Kaoru, eds. Edo and Paris: Urban Life and the State in the Early Modern Era (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press), 1994, 211–233.
  • [2] Takeuchi Makoto, “Festivals and Fights: The Law and the People of Edo,” in McClain, Merriman, and Ugawa, Edo and Paris, 404.
  • [3] Peter Kornicki, The Book in Japan: A Cultural History from the Beginning to the Nineteenth Century (Leiden: Brill, 1998), 350.
  • [4] Katō Takashi, “Governing Edo,” in McClain, Merriman, and Ugawa, Edo and Paris, 53.
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