The Importance of the Tokugawa Era

Robert Oxnam
President Emeritus, Asia Society

Tokugawa Japan spanned the years 1600-1868. Thus the Tokugawa era began at the same time European colonists came to what would later be the United States, and ended just after the American Civil War. For Japan, the Tokugawa era brought 250 years of peace and order, a long-term stability that fostered great changes in Japanese society, readying it for entering the modern era. Japan's rapid modernization in the late nineteenth century­the so-called Meiji era is well known. Less well known are the crucial preparatory steps that were taken in the Tokugawa period.

The Meiji period begins with the Meiji Restoration of 1868.

Carol Gluck
George Sansom Professor of Japanese History
Columbia University

The Tokugawa period, which in Japan begins in 1600 and ends in 1868, is important for what happens before it and what happens after it. Before the Tokugawa period, Japan was a country of warring states, it was not unified, it was medieval, as we call it, medieval Japan.

So that the first importance of Tokugawa has to do with the creation of a centralized state, a national system.

And the second importance of it has to do with what followed the Tokugawa and that is the modern period which began in 1868 and so we need to think about what happened during the Tokugawa period that relates to modern Japan. So, it is between the medieval and the modern, it is early modern Japan. And we think of it in the same terms as we do early modern Europe. Which is to say we think of it from the point of view of the modern.