Who is Tokugawa Nariaki? Father of the last Shogun


About Tokugawa Nariaki:

Tokugawa Nariaki (1800 – 1860) was the 9th feudal lord (Daimyo in Japanese, head of state) of the Mito Province of Japan, about 150 km away from today’s Tokyo. As his family name Tokugawa shows, he is from the family which ruled Japan for more than 250 years, starting from the famous samurai lord Tokugawa Ieyasu in 1603 to 1868. Nariaki is well known in today’s Mito City for creating the “Kairakuen” garden, one of the 3 great gardens of Japan along with Kenrokuen of Kanazawa and Kourakuen of Okayama.

In other parts of Japan, Nariaki himself may not be so famous. However, his son Yoshinobu is known to most people of Japan for being the last Shogun (top of the samurai government, essential kings of Japan) in history. Yoshinobu returned the political power of Shogun to the imperial family of Japan in 1867, ending the rule of the Tokugawa family which started in 1603, and also ending the Shogunate system, the rule of samurai war lords which started in 1185. The imperial family of Japan had continued during this time as a symbolic leader and the Shogun held the real political power.

Returning to the main subject of this article, Tokugawa Nariaki, why was his son chosen as the last shogun, even though Nariaki himself was just a lord of a rural province? This was a combined result of coincidence, confusion in the final years of the Tokugawa Shogunate, and the activities of Nariaki which expanded much further than just inside his Mito province.

Life of Nariaki:

Nariaki was born on April 4th, 1800 as child of the 7th lord (called Daimyo in Japanese) of Mito province, Tokugawa Harutoshi. His childhood name was Torasaburo and later Keisaburo (Japanese upper class families used to use childhood names until they reached adulthood).

Nariaki was the third son, so he was not the primary successor of his father, Harutoshi, as lord of Mito province. His eldest brother Tokugawa Narinobu succeeded the lord of Mito province when he was 20, due to the death of their father Harutoshi. However, Narinobu had problems with his health and died at the age of 33 without children. At this time, Nariaki’s second elder brother Yorihiro was already sent away to the Tokugawa family of Takamatsu, ruling another part of Japan, which did not have male children. Therefore, Nariaki ended up being the 9th lord (Daimyo) of the Mito province. Actually, this was not a smooth process because Narinobu’s successor was not chosen at the time of his death, and there was a group of families who wanted to make Narinobu adopt one of the sons of the Shogun (Tokugawa Narikatsu, son of shogun Tokugawa Ienari), so that the Mito province will have strong connections with the Shogun family. However, many Mito samurais opposed this movement to prevent the Shogun family from controlling the Mito family. These Mito samurais went to Edo (today’s Tokyo, where the Shogun family was) to claim that the province lord should be Nariaki, who is from the original Mito family. Then, the will of Narinobu was found, supporting Nariaki as his successor, so Narikatsu, the child of the Shogun family was never adopted to the Mito family and Nariaki became lord of the Mito province in 1829 when he was 29 years of age.

After becoming lord of his province, he especially had high priority in education. He established the Kodokan school where the famous Kairakuen garden was also built later during Nariaki’s rule.

Regarding religion, Nariaki oppressed Buddhism and supported Shintoism, the original religion of Japan. In Japan, Buddhism and Shintoism was usually practiced together, but this religious stance of Nariaki became basis of the political stance of the Meiji government, started after the fall of the Tokugawa shogunate in 1868. However, the shogunate disliked the oppression of Buddhism by Nariaki. They ordered that Nariaki should retire the lord of Mito province and pass down the position to his eldest son, Yoshiatsu. This was in 1844 when Nariaki was 44, and he was not allowed to be involved in the province government, but many Mito officials continued to support Nariaki, and this penalty was removed in 1849.

When U.S. Commodore Matthew Perry arrived in Japan in 1853 to open Japan to the world, Nariaki was invited to the Shogunate as advisor of naval defense. Nariaki advised that the Shogunate should exclude all foreigners and continue isolation. This was opposed by Ii Naosuke, political rival of Nariaki who proposed that Japan should open its gates to the world. At this time, the 13th Shogun, Tokugawa Iesada was very ill. Nariaki supported his son Yoshinobu as next Shogun, and Ii Naosuke supported Tokugawa Iemochi. Nariaki eventually lost in this political battle with Ii Naosuke, who became Tairo (temporary position virtually equal to head of the nation when shogun is absent or too young). In 1858, the same year that he became Tairo, Ii Naosuke signed the treaty of commerce with the United States and also ordered Nariaki to be under house arrest in Mito.

Nariaki died in 1860 at the age of 60, still under house arrest in Mito. A few months before his death, his greatest political rival Ii Naosuke was assassinated by samurais sharing Nariaki’s political views. Regarding the position of Shogun, Tokugawa Iemochi, supported by Ii Naosuke became 14th shogun, but he died in 1866 at the age of 20. Tokugawa Yoshinobu, son of Nariaki, became the 15th and final Shogun.


Nariaki is said to have been an intelligent and passionate person. In the last years of the Tokugawa shogunate, the Tokugawa family had many problems of health and incompetence, but Nariaki was one of the few who possessed charisma and ability to take action in the Tokugawa family. He knew well that his province had economic problems, so when he became lord of the province and his vassals prepared better meals for Nariaki, he told them that his meals can be same as before.

His family:

Nariaki had 37 children in his life. His eldest son, Yoshiatsu, became lord of the Mito province after Nariaki. His seventh son, Yoshinobu, was adopted by the Hitotsubashi Tokugawa family and later became the 15th and final Shogun. Many sons of Nariaki were adopted by other provinces and became lords of these provinces. Many daughters got married to other province lords or members of the imperial family.

  • Father: Harutoshi, 7th lord of Mito Province
  • Elder brother: Narinobu, 8th lord of Mito Province
  • Primary wife:
    • Yoshiko, from imperial family
  • Concubines:
    • 古與
    • Nao
    • Sadako
    • 登聞
    • Toshiko
    • Mutsuko
    • Noriko
    • Michiko
    • Etsuko
  • Children:
    • Eldest son, Yoshiatsu: 10th lord of Mito Province, born from Yoshiko
    • 5th son, Yoshinori: 12th lord of Tottori Province, born from Sadako
    • 7th son, Yoshinobu: 15th Shogun, born from Yoshiko
    • 8th son, Naoyoshi: 6th lord of Kawagoe Province, born from Nao
    • 9th son, Mochimasa: 9th lord of Okayama Province, born from Sadako
    • 10th son, Takeakira: 4th lord of Hamada Province, born from Nao
    • 11th son, Tsunauji: 11th lord of Kitsuregawa Province, born from Toshiko
    • 18th son, Akitake: 6th head of Shimizu Tokugawa family, later 11th lord of Mito Province, born from Mutsuko
    • Eldest daughter, Sakako: Married to 8th lord of Uwajima Province, Date Munenari, but died at age 17. Born from 古與

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