01 Japanese History

#30 The Dog Shogun

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In 1651, after the death of the third shogun, Tokugawa Iemitsu, a large-scale rebellion against the shogunate was discovered and shocked the Edo Shogun.

The ringleader of the rebellion was Yui Shosetsu, a military scholar. At the time, Iemitsu’s strict government had led many samurais to become ronin, or samurai with no place to serve, and social unrest was spreading.

Yui planned a coup d’etat with the support of the ronin. The plan was discovered by an anonymous tip and quickly suppressed.

However, this incident triggered a change in the politics of the Shogunate. The Shogunate changed its previous coercive politics which was based on force, began to encourage learning, and aimed to govern society through laws rather than royal edicts.

The politics of the fifth shogun, Tokugawa Tsunayoshi, is a notable example. He promoted Confucianism and stressed the importance of loyalty and courtesy. He also promoted policies to protect abandoned children, the sick, the elderly, and all animals.

The “Edicts of Pity for Animals,” as it was called, was criticized as “bad laws under heaven” because of the severe penalties for violators and the enormous costs incurred in operating the facilities set up to house wild dogs in Edo City. Some people even called him the “Dog Shogun.”

For a long time, Tsunayoshi was maligned as the epitome of a bad shogun. Recently, however, his image has improved after people reevaluated their opinions about his policies on social welfare and the protection of animals.

Let me introduce the famous Ako Incident, which occurred during the reign of Tsunayoshi and became the basis of the drama “Chushingura,” a longtime favorite of the Japanese people.

In 1701, Asano Naganori, the lord of Ako, who had been humiliated by Kira Yoshitaka, slashed Kira in Edo Castle. The shogunate ordered Asano to commit seppuku. However, Kira was not punished.

According to samurai ethics at that time, punishing both sides of a conflict was common. Asano’s vassals were not satisfied with this punishment, and in the following year, 47 of them, led by Oishi Yoshio, went into Kira’s residence and killed him. They showed their loyalty however Tsunayoshi ordered them to be put to death.

They are enshrined at Sengakuji Temple in Minato Ward, Tokyo, along with their lord Asano Naganori, and are still worshipped by many people as a symbol of loyalty more than 300 years later.

Thank you for reading.

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