Why did Tokugawa Yoshinobu become Shogun? The 15th and final king of the Tokugawa Shogunate

Tokugawa Yoshinobu (1837 – 1913) is a very well known figure to the people of Japan for being the last Shogun (top of the samurai government, essential kings of Japan) in Japanese history. Although he is descendant of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first Shogun of the Tokugawa Shogunate who united Japan in 1603, Yoshinobu is not from the main Tokugawa family, but from a branch family ruling a rural province called Mito. Why was Yoshinobu chosen as the last shogun? This was a combined result of coincidence and confusion in the final years of the Tokugawa Shogunate, when Japan was forced to open its gates to the western world.


Background – The Tokugawa Gosanke and Gosankyou families:

Yoshinobu’s original family was the Tokugawa family that ruled the Mito province. This Mito Tokugawa family was one of the 3 important branch families of the Tokugawa Shogun family called Gosanke (“the 3 families” in Japanese), which were to provide sons to the main Tokugawa Shogun family to adopt them when the main family did not have sons. The other 2 Gosanke families were the Owari Tokugawa family of Nagoya and the Kishu Tokugawa family of Wakayama. All three Gosanke families started from the last sons of Tokugawa Ieyasu (Owari family started from Ieyasu’s 9th son Yoshinao, Kishu family started from 10th son Yorinobu, and Mito family started from 11th son Yorifusa).

In addition to the Gosanke, later in the Tokugawa period, 3 more families called Gosankyou (“the 3 lords” in Japanese) were established by 8th Shogun Yoshimune and 9th Shogun Ieshige. The Gosankyou families were the Tayasu Tokugawa family started from Yoshimune’s second son Munetake, the Hitotsubashi Tokugawa family started from Yoshimune’s 4th son Munetada, and the Shimizu Tokugawa family started from Ieshige’s second son Shigeyoshi. The Gosankyou families were also to provide sons to the main Tokugawa Shogun family when there were no sons to become Shogun, but the Gosankyou families did not have provincial territory as the Gosanke families. The Gosankyou families and Gosanke families often exchanged sons for adoption when a family did not have sons to succeed the head of family. Although the Gosanke had a higher position in the ranking of Tokugawa families, the Gosankyou usually provided sons to the main Shogun family to become Shogun. This may have been due to the closeness of the Gosankyou families to the Shogun family because they had residents inside the Edo Castle where the Shogun lived, unlike the Gosanke who had their own country province.

Even with these 6 families established to continue the succession of the Tokugawa Shogun family, few male children grew up to become eligible for Shogun. Especially in the last years of the Tokugawa Shogunate, many were ill or incompetent, which resulted in Yoshinobu becoming the last Shogun from a branch family.

About Tokugawa Yoshinobu; How he became last Shogun:

Yoshinobu was born in 1837 as the 7th son of the feudal lord of Mito Province, Tokugawa Nariaki. The place name Mito still remains as the capital city of Ibaraki Prefecture. Mito is about 150 km away from today’s Tokyo in a rural area of the Kanto region.

Yoshinobu was from the Mito Tokugawa family, which was succeeded by his eldest brother Yoshiatsu. Their father Nariaki had many children, which many were sent to be adopted by lords of provinces who did not have sons to succeed their position. Yoshinobu was not an exception, but he was chosen by one of the Gosankyou families, the Hitotsubashi Tokugawa family of the Edo Castle. Yoshinobu was just 10 years old at this time, but the Shogun of the time Ienobu saw him as an intelligent boy, and he was expected to perhaps become Shogun in the future.

After the arrival of U.S. Commodore Matthew Perry in 1853 to open Japan to the western world, the 12th Shogun Ienobu died. Ienobu had 14 sons and 13 daughters, but only one son lived to reach adulthood, which was Iesada who succeeded the position of Shogun. However, Iesada also had problems with his health and died just 5 years later without children.

At this point, there were 2 candidates for next Shogun; One was Yoshinobu, supported by his father Tokugawa Nariaki and lord of Satsuma, Shimazu Nariakira, and the other was Yoshitomi, lord of Kishu province, one of the Gosanke, supported by Ii Naosuke and the Ooku (office of women in the Edo Castle, which retained strong power as wives and mothers of the Shogun). Yoshitomi won this political battle over Yoshinobu, being closer in the family tree to the Shogun family, but Yoshitomi (changed his name to Iemochi after becoming Shogun) was still 13 when he became Shogun and died when he was 20 because of illness.

Then, Yoshinobu was just about the only option for the next Shogun, but there were many officials and Tokugawa family members who opposed this succession because Yoshinobu was from a branch family of the Shogun family that branched out more than 200 years ago and more over, was the 7th son (usually the elder sons were considered to be more important). Yoshinobu knowing these voices, refused to become Shogun for almost 6 months during which the position was empty. When the officials pleaded Yoshinobu that he succeed as Shogun, he finally became Shogun in 1867.

After Yoshinobu became Shogun:

The time when Yoshinobu became Shogun was a time of confusion brought by western influences to Japan, which had practiced a policy of isolation for over 200 years. The end of Shogunate system was just about to come.

Only 10 months after becoming Shogun, Yoshinobu decides to return governmental powers to the imperial family of Japan, 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.

After the return of power, forces of the new government supporting the emperor of Meiji and those still supporting the Shogunate clashed in war (the Boshin war), but Yoshinobu did not want to fight against the emperor. This was an ideology of his original Mito family, that they should never stand hostile to the imperial family, even if their Tokugawa family and imperial family go to war. Yoshinobu surrendered the Edo Castle without war to the new government and was to be under house arrest. At the time, many saw this as a cowardly act, but this decision saved many lives by preventing a major war in the populated city of Edo, today’s Tokyo. This was when Yoshinobu was just 32 years of age.

After this, Yoshinobu spent a quiet life in his palace in Shizuoka, enjoying photography, hunting, painting, and other hobbies. In 1901, when he was 64, he returns to Tokyo to become politicial and served in the House of Peers for almost 10 years. He then retired again, passing down the position of head of family to his son Yoshihisa, and died at the age of 76. Yoshinobu was the longest living among the 15 Shogun of the Tokugawa Shogunate.

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