- The Dog Shogun: The Personality and Policies of Tokugawa Tsunayoshi
Beatrice Bodart-Bailey's important contributions to the English-language literature on Tokugawa Japan will already be familiar to many readers. Her translation from German of Engelbert Kaempfer's firsthand account of Japanese society in the late seventeenth century has furnished students and scholars alike with an accessible and reliable version of an invaluable source, and her articles on key aspects of governance under the fifth Tokugawa shogun have greatly enriched our understanding of the period. Building on this earlier work, her new book on Tsunayoshi offers a comprehensive study of his life and reign while also reminding readers of the controversies that have surrounded them. Bodart-Bailey's own stance on these controversies is very clear. Her overarching aim is to dismiss, once and for all, the notion that Tsunayoshi was a mad tyrant whose personal passions and idiosyncrasies drove him to promote people and policies that proved disastrous for the country and caused widespread suffering. She portrays him instead as a serious-minded and caring ruler who wielded his power in an effort to curb the brutality that continued to characterize warrior society, promote culture and learning, solve the financial problems that faced the Tokugawa polity, and ease the sufferings of ordinary people. His promotion of Yanagisawa Yoshiyasu and other previously obscure advisers to positions of power was not about corruption or favoritism, she argues, but rather formed part of a deliberate strategy to ensure that, in the face of entrenched opposition from [End Page 154] samurai conservatives, hard-working, loyal "men of ability" would be available to implement the shogun's policies.
For specialists, the general thrust of these arguments may be somewhat familiar. As Bodart-Bailey notes, historians in Japan have been questioning aspects of Tsunayoshi's image as a "bad ruler" since the early twentieth century—and yet the negative perceptions have persisted. The main reason, she argues, is that in pursuing his enlightened policies Tsunayoshi also directly challenged the privileges and, indeed, the core values of the "samurai class," the same group responsible for compiling many of the records that have survived from the period. In contrast to the scurrilous tales contained in influential sources such as the Sannō gaiki, a work generally attributed to the samurai scholar Dazai Shundai, she points instead to the glowing descriptions of Tsunayoshi provided by non-samurai observers such as Kaempfer and Yanagisawa's aristocratic wife, Machiko, in her diary, the Matsukage nikki. Bodart-Bailey also offers an interesting explanation for Tsunayoshi's rebellion against the values of his own "class" based on an analysis of his upbringing. She notes that Tsunayoshi's father, the third shogun, Iemitsu, seems to have deliberately denied him a "traditional military education" in order to decrease the possibility of sibling rivalry and succession disputes with his (less capable) older brothers. (Tsunayoshi's eventual appointment as shogun was unexpected and came about only because his eldest brother, the fourth shogun, had failed to produce an heir and because by that point he had outlived his other older sibling.) According to Bodart Bailey, however, even more important for his supposed rejection of samurai values was the unusually close relationship he formed with his mother. Keishō-in, she emphasizes, was born "the daughter of a Kyoto greengrocer, a mere commoner," and because Tsunayoshi was not removed from her care in the manner of most high-ranking samurai boys, she was able to transmit to him a general sense of sympathy and understanding for the "lower classes" (p. 21). This early experience, she argues, would also profoundly shape his policy agenda as shogun.
At a general level, Bodart-Bailey suggests that Tsunayoshi sought to transform the samurai from ruthless warriors, who reveled in the taking of life, into peaceful bureaucrats who worked diligently to protect the welfare of the people and uphold the general good. It was primarily for this reason that he promoted the "civilizing" values of Confucianism and Buddhism while also...