A History of Wealth and Poverty: Why a Few Nations are Rich and Many Poor, by John P. Powelson.

Appendixes for Chapter 2

Appendix 2.1: Historical References to the Weakening Power of the Shogun during the Tokugawa Era (1603-1868)

  1. Merchants repeatedly made loans to the shogun, to his retainers (hatamoto), and to the daimyo and their samurai. Why did not these borrowers pull their rank to demand this money as gift or tax? Why did they not default? They did both, but to insist on this privilege too often would kill the goose of the golden eggs. After defaulting, they could not borrow more without making concessions that improved merchant freedom and control over business practices. Thus power shifted from a military and/or religious base to one based on capabilities — the ability to produce and sell.

  2. The exclusion of foreigners from 1635 to 1868 was intended, among other things, to bolster the power of the shogun relative to the western daimyo, particularly those of Satsuma and Choshu, who were in the best position to trade abroad. Hall [17] writes that "seclusion was merely the culminating step in the Tokugawa effort to deny the western daimyo access to profits from foreign trade." But widespread smuggling confirmed the relative power of these daimyo. Takekoshi [18] relates an episode in which merchants hid a smuggler while the shogun was trying to arrest him.

  3. Many shogunal decrees were repeated time and again, an indication that they could not be enforced. Fearing the corruption of the samurai, the shogunate issued numerous decrees against marriage for money. To preserve the system of the samurai, many times it pronounced these offices hereditary; sons were required to assume them. Decree after decree outlawed rice speculation. Takekoshi [19] describes the abundant ways in which the merchants outdid the shogun in maneuvering around his orders. "In spite of the Shogunate issuing countless statutes prohibiting the combination of merchants and tonyas [guilds], when we note these underhand methods of the business men, we cannot but realize their ingenuity and the power of wealth."

  4. The shogun attempted repeatedly to establish a gold standard instead of a silver one, when the latter was more popular in the trading center of Osaka. Often he failed. An attempt at a bimetallic standard in the 1760s failed because the shogun did not have the officials to enforce it and because he tried to fix an exchange rate in favor of gold, while merchants traded these precious metals at market price. A new coin issued by the shogun failed despite threats of punishment for those who would not accept it. Nor did the shogun succeed in suppressing private coinage, so that he might profit more readily from debasement.

  5. When ordered by the shogun to open an office in Yokohama to keep trade in Japanese hands, the Mitsui house at first refused. [20] Finally, in compromise, it opened a branch there.

  6. Many peasant rebellions were settled on terms the shogunate would not have favored. Between 1765 and 1800 the shogun tried to institute a uniform system of punishments for peasants. But his law was repeatedly broken. [21]

  7. The shogunate had little military power west of Osaka. [22]

  8. The custom of primogeniture, which had become law, strengthened the power of the house (family landownership) while also sending younger sons to the cities where they enhanced the power of guilds. Increases in the power of both house and guild decreased relatively the power of the shogun, who was often their adversary.

  9. Many of the price controls declared by the shogunate were ignored. For example, in 1742 a number of decrees were issued, but prices continued to rise. [23]

  10. The ninth Tokugawa shogun, Iyeshige (r.1744-63), was a paralytic who had difficulty speaking. That he was allowed to take office shows that the shogun was by then a figurehead. [24] Many shoguns thereafter were personally weak.

Other references to the weakening power of the Tokugawa shogun are found in Bix 1986:109; Hall 1970:167, 206; Takekoshi 1930:125, 354, 363, 499; and Wigmore 1969:90.


Copyright © 1994 by the University of Michigan. First published in the USA by the University of Michigan Press, 1994.

Published on the World Wide Web by The Quaker Economist with permission from the University of Michigan Press, 2005.

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