Episode 492 – The Whipping Boy

This week: Tokugawa Ienari is often considered the worst shogun of the Tokugawa era. Where does his reputation come from, and is it entirely deserved?

Featured image: A portrait of Tokugawa Ienari attributed to Kanō Osanobu. (Image source)


The Tokugawa family crest. (Image source)


Ewa Machotka, Visual Genesis of Japanese National Identity: Hokusai’s Hyakunin Isshu

George Sansom, A History of Japan, 1615-1867

Cecilia Segawa Seigle and Linda H. Chance, Ōoku—The Secret World of the Shogun’s Women


As you probably have noticed if you’ve listened to this podcast for any length of time, I find political power really interesting to think about. After all, if you understand how power is organized in a society, you can learn a great deal–both about how it operates and the ideology that is used to justify the existing order, among other things. And this in turn means I find the Tokugawa shogunate endlessly fascinating–its combination of warrior ethos and Confucianism, of advanced bureaucracy with dense traditional ritual, is just endlessly fascinating to me.

And when we talk about the Tokugawa shoguns, there are a few names that always tend to come up–Ieyasu, of course, as the dynastic founder, and Yoshinobu, as the one who oversaw the end of the shogunate, are the two most common. Then there’s guys like Tsunayoshi, the so-called “dog shogun”, or Iemochi, who reads to me at least like a sad victim of circumstance being manipulated by basically everyone around him.

These men tend to stand out because of the times they lived in: Ieyasu at the foundation of the dynasty, Tsunayoshi at its zenith, and Iemochi and Yoshinobu during the age of its collapse. But there’s one more name that, I think, is worth some consideration when looking at the arc of the Tokugawa family–but who doesn’t usually get that much attention when we do.

In part that’s because of the time he lived in–Tokugawa Ienari did not live during the “dramatic ages” of the shogunate. His reign spanned a big chunk of what might be called “the beginning of the end”–well after the height of the dynasty, but before things really started to go to hell (or I guess, to Naraka) in a handbasket.

This was, in the history of the Tokugawa shogunate, a time of conservatism, of maintenance of what came before–even in the face of evidence that, perhaps, things were beginning to shift and change was needed. If you think about politics from the perspective of dramatic policy shifts or reform or what have you, there’s not a lot to talk about here–but that’s not to claim there’s nothing to say.

This was a period where the personal virtue of the ruler and the strength and legitimacy of the government were largely conflated, and for that reason, I think Ienari is worth some interest from us. What do I mean by that? Well, if you have heard of Tokugawa Ienari–the 11th shogun of the Tokugawa family–it’s very likely that you know one of two things about him.

First, Ienari is by far the longest-reigning shogun of the Tokugawa shogunate. He was formally enthroned as shogun in 1787 (at the tender age of 14, by the Western reckoning) and would remain in office all the way to 1837–a staggering 50 years as the titular head of the shogunate.

But that’s not all–like many of his forebearers, even after officially “retiring”–taking the title of ogosho, or retired shogun, and handing over the reigns to his son and heir Ieyoshi–Ienari did not give up the reigns of power. He continued to call the shots, more or less ignoring the will of his son who was the actual shogun, for four more years until his death in 1841.

So that’s 54 years in the top spot, a pretty remarkable accomplishment just in its own right. For comparison, the next two highest on the length of reign chart are shoguns number 4 and 5 (Tokugawa Ietsuna and Tokugawa Tsunayoshi), both of whom managed 29 years in the top spot (so about half as long).

Of course, how long you can keep a seat warm is not the most impressive accomplishment against which to judge your life. And there is one other thing for which Ienari is known, though to be honest I’m not sure how he personally would feel about it: his lifestyle. Specifically, Ienari is often described as one of the most degenerate members of the Tokugawa dynasty, concerned more with dissipating himself in the pleasures of wine and women than with, you know, ruling anything.

And of course, stories about monarchs who have gone crazy with power and wealth are nothing new–indeed, Ienari was a contemporary of Marie Antoinette in France, who literally lost her head over accusations of impropriety (among other things). Having taught history for a while now, I can attest personally that there’s nothing quite like a tail of monarchical debauchery for getting the attention of a roomfull of students.

However, Ienari’s reputation is important for reasons beyond its ability to be useful in putting together my standup comedy routine–er, lecture notes. You see, as I alluded to earlier, his personal behavior was thought, in the political framework of the age, to reflect on the fundamental righteousness of the government itself. Why? Well, it all comes back to Confucius.

Confucianism as a political ideology and philosophy has a long history in East Asia, of course–and more or less from the jump, one of the crucial ideas of the whole philosophy was that the personal virtue of the ruler reflected the virtue of the government itself. This notion goes back to Confucius himself; the Analects of Confucius, Book 12, Analect 19 includes this fascinating exchange: “Ji Kangzi asked Confucius about government, saying, “What would you think if, in order to move closer to those who possess the Way, I were to kill those who do not follow the Way?” Confucius answered, “In administering your government, what need is there for you to kill? Just desire the good yourself and the common people will be good. The virtue of the superior man is like wind; the virtue of the inferior man is like grass. Let the wind blow over the grass and it is sure to bend.”

That theme was picked up by Mencius, the “2nd founder” of Confucianism who wrote a few centuries later. His writings include one of my very favorite exchanges in the history of philosophy, coming from book 1B:6. In this section, Mencius repeatedly questions King Xuan of Qi; King Xuan himself was another ruler more concerned with pleasure than with rule, and Mencius would eventually leave the kingdom of Qi out of frustration with the king’s failure to correct his misbehavior. In this particular exchange, Mencius asks the king what he would do if, having entrusted the care of his family to a friend while away on a long trip, he returned to find his family in disarray and poorly cared for. The king, naturally, says he would find a new friend.

Mencius then asks–what if your captain of the guard failed to manage the very guards he was supposed to lead. And of course, the king says: I’d get a new captain of the guard.

And then finally asks: “And what if there were disorder within the borders of the state, what then?” The King turned to his other courtiers and changed the subject.”

The implied answer, of course, being: “Get a new king.”

This is, of course, a quite literally revolutionary principle–implying that the legitimacy of the government itself is predicated on whether or not the king can be judged fit to rule. And part of that judgment of fitness in turn is the moral character of the ruler. If you’re familiar with the concept of the mandate of heaven in Chinese history–the notion that heaven itself bestows legitimacy upon a ruling dynasty and can take it away–you know that the moral unfitness and capriciousness of rulers was one sign they’d lost the mandate.

Even in Japan, where the idea of the mandate of heaven was not as embedded into the political framework, the notion that the moral character of the ruler reflected the legitimacy of the state had a great deal of currency.

So the fact that Tokugawa Ienari was possessed, shall we say, of a wandering eye–and a fondness for parties and drink to boot, by the way–was not just an indictment of his personal character or that of his enablers in the office of the shogun. It was an indictment of the fundamental moral character of the shogunate–and thus of its suitability as a government.

And of course, it’s worth noting that Ienari’s reign, for practical purposes, ended in 1841–only 27 years before the end of the shogunate itself. This connection did not, suffice it to say, go unnoticed–something we’ll have plenty to say about in a bit.

But before we get to all that:these are all matters of historical reputation, but what do we actually know for sure about Tokugawa Ienari? Well, for starters he was not, in fact, born the heir to the shogunate. The 10th shogun, Tokugawa Ieharu, took office in 1760 at the age of 23. This might seem young, but it was a matter of political necessity–Ieharu’s own father, the 9th shogun Ieshige, was both sickly and had chronic ailments that affected his speech quite badly. This did not win him many friends in a system predicated on warrior power and strength, and his own retainers pushed for his abdication as soon as there was a viable alternative in Ieharu.

In point of fact, Ieshige himself had likely been chosen by HIS predecessor, the talented and well-regarded shogun Tokugawa Yoshimune, as a simple seatwarmer for his grandson Ieharu, who was charismatic and diligent and generally well liked–but who was also 13 when his grandfather died, so a bit young for the gig.

Ieharu was a popular choice–he was thoughtful, frugal, and his only real vices were falconry (an appropriately upper crust hobby) and shogi, Japanese-style chess (at which he was supposedly quite good, though I have to wonder how many people were brave enough to legitimately try and beat the shogun. Even so, he did not have an easy time as shogun. His time in office was stressful, to say the least–it’s best remembered for things like the Great Tenmei Famine, which killed or displaced hundreds of thousands of people, and which was exacerbated by not one but two separate volcanic eruptions in 1783 (of Mt Asama in central Honshu, and Mt. Iwaki on the northern end of the island).

One of Ieharu’s own advisors, Tanuma Okitsugu, was blamed by many for the famine–he’d jacked up tax levels and fiddled with the market price of rice by removing some of it from circulation in order to try and stabilize the shogunate’s finances, and this was seen as helping exacerbate the famine conditions. Probably because of this, Okitsugu’s son Okimoto was actually assassinated by a disgruntled samurai in the shogun’s own palace–in the aftermath, Okitsugu retired from politics to mourn, and many of his policies were reversed.

Simply put, it was a stressful time to be shogun, and I have to imagine that this contributed to Ieharu’s relatively young death at the age of 49.

But before he could reach the sweet release of death, Ieharu had one other problem. Like all shoguns, he’d been forced into a political marriage at a young age (with a distant relative of the emperor), and had two concubines to boot. Yet, while he was able to have children–4, in point of fact–none of them made it to adulthood.

The longest-lived was his initial heir, Tokugawa Iemoto, who was born in 1762 and lived until 1779–so 17–until he took ill and died very suddenly while he was out hawking–hunting with a falcon, a favored pastime of both himself and his father.

Iemoto’s death led to all sorts of salacious rumors that he’d been bumped off by one or another advisor who did not want a young, independent-minded shogun in office–but none of those salacious rumors have any evidence to back them up, and it’s not like these things didn’t just happen from time to time, especially before the advent of modern medicine.

Ieharu’s other children were far less healthy–his two daughters by his primary wife, Chiyohime and Manjuhime, both died before their teenage years, and his second son Sadajiro only lived a year. By all accounts, this absolutely destroyed Ieharu, who loved his children very deeply and was overcome with sadness by their loss. It also left him with a far more practical problem–the system needed an heir, and he could not provide one.

Fortunately, there was a baked-in solution for this problem–the so-called cadet houses. The house of Tokugawa got its start as a ruling dynasty in 1600, and families being what they are–and especially, family structures that allow for legitimate offspring from multiple female partners being what they are–there were soon far more Tokugawa children rolling around than anyone knew what to do with.

The solution was to set these kids up as cadet houses–plop them down in a fiefdom somewhere like a regular member of the feudal elite, but also with some special privileges recognizing their special relationship with the shogunate (and thus their strong stake in protecting the shogunate as an institution.

Lords from the cadet houses were often advisors to the shogun or trusted to deal with sensitive matters the shogun did not have the time to attend to personally. And, when there was no readily available heir, they were responsible for providing one.

Specifically, any one of them could offer up a son to be adopted by an heirless shogun–that adopted child would then legally be the shogun’s son and could inherit the throne, while the biological family would of course be richly rewarded in the short term and enjoy influence from having their son take the top job when the time came. As you might imagine, there was not a shortage of volunteers for this prestigious honor.

Which brings us to Ienari–born the biological son of Hitsotsubashi Harusada, who in turn was descended from the 9th Tokugawa Yoshimune’s fourth son Munetada (for those of you keeping track at home, this made Munetada the younger brother of Tokugawa Ieshige, that unpopular and sickly shogun.

Ienari was of course not the only candidate; there were many Tokugawa branch houses out there, and plenty of them had a son or two to spare to fulfill this prestigious duty. However, Ienari had one qualification that the others didn’t; he was very young. Specifically, Ienari was adopted in 1781, at the tender age of 8 (by the Western reckoning)–and his youth made him the ideal candidate in the eyes of one of the shogun’s advisors.

This was Matsudaira Sadanobu, who was engaged in a clever bit of political gamesmanship. Sadanobu wanted power, and wanted a young, pliable shogun in office so that he could have it. Remember that advisor whose son was assassinated in front of him, Tanuma Okitsugu? Well, Matsudaira Sadanobu hated Tanuma, and worked hard to bring about his downfall–and if you’re wondering, of course there were salacious but totally unproven rumors that Sadanobu had Tanuma’s son bumped off as a part of this plot.

More provable is the fact that Matsudaira bribed his way into the shogun’s inner circle (specifically to leadership of the roju, the senior council of shogunal advisors), and there used his influence to push the grieving Tanuma out–stripping his projects of funding and sidelining Tanuma himself. Matsudaira was also friendly with Hitotsubashi Harusada, and convinced Harusada to both offer up his son as a shogunal heir and bring around the other cadet houses to supporting the young boy’s candidacy.

As for the sitting shogun Ieharu, after losing his own children he doesn’t seem to have thought too deeply about the matter and simply accepted the advice of his councilors to go with Ienari–and in 1786, Ieharu finally died, heartbroken.

It took until the next year for the ceremonies to enthrone Ieharu formally as shogun to go forward, but on paper he was now running the country. Except of course that really he was not, because who would listen to a 14 year old about how to run a complex feudal government? Matsudaira Sadanobu was the one really calling the shots.

And he had big plans–finishing off Tanuma Okitsugu for one, by placing his former rival under house arrest and then stripping him of a part of his feudal domain. Tanuma would die under house arrest in the early summer of 1788, leaving to his grandson Okiaki a fiefdom that had lost 2/3rds of its former value. For another, Matsudaira had ambitious plans for reforming the shogunate–the so-called Kansei Reforms, named after the era name in which they were enacted.

Like many attempts by the Tokugawa shogunate to reform itself in later years, the Kansei Reforms were a mixture of a few good ideas–imposition of an exam system intended to promote officials on merit, or land grants to farmers displaced by famines intended to repopulate under-cultivated farmlands–with a great many socially conservative and pointless ones, like new sumptuary laws that (ineffectually) tried to ban commoners from wearing nice clothes or laws banning non-orthodox interpretations of Confucian texts.

Fundamentally, like so many reforms before and after, the Kansei reforms were unable to address the root problems of the Tokugawa structure, because those problems went far deeper than the fact that uppity commoners were wearing silk or that young samurai were being taught the wrong way of interpreting Confucius.

Sadanobu was eventually forced to resign in 1793, after his reforms failed to alter much of anything and after he fell afoul of his ostensible puppet shogun. Because while Tokugawa Ienari had been chosen because (theoretically) he was young and pliable, in fact the young boy was extremely willful and not super interested in taking advice.

The break between the two men came in 1792, when Ienari advanced a somewhat unusual request. He wanted his birth father Hitotsubashi Harusada to be granted the title of ogosho, or retired shogun, and set up with his own wing of Chiyoda Castle in Edo (what’s now the imperial palace). This was completely unprecedented–the only people to be granted the title of retired shogun had, at one point, been the shogun, not just the shogun’s dad. And furthermore, such title and position would make Harusada extremely influential–possibly even enough to challenge Matsudaira Sadanobu’s position.

Sadanobu thus blocked the appointment on the grounds that it was utterly without precedent–and, in fact, he’d just blocked an identical request from the sitting emperor Kokaku, who had also been adopted from a cadet house of the imperial family and who wished to honor his birth father with the position of retired emperor. Sadanobu blocked this request for the same reasons, and summoned two Kyoto nobles responsible for advancing it to Edo to be confined under house arrest.

But Sadanobu’s own grip on power was a bit rocky given how little meaningful change his reforms had produced, and eventually he was forced to resign–and Ienari got his way. Emperor Kokaku did not; his birth father was not honored with the title of retired emperor until after the Meiji Restoration.

All of this points to an important truth about Ienari–he was not, in fact, pliable or interested in taking direction from others when it did not suit him. However, just because he’d dismissed an advisor who had clashed with him did not mean Ienari was going to start taking an active hand in government–indeed, while he was no longer the head of the roju, Matsudaira Sadanobu hung on to influence for several more decades thanks to friends of his who remained in the administration.

Ienari, you see, did not really care much for the day to day work of government, and so unless his ministers directly clashed with something he cared about–like honoring his father in an unprecedented way–he was not really going to get too up in their business, so to speak.

What did Ienari care about? Well, frankly, sex was pretty clearly at the top of his list. Before he’d even been heir to the shogunate he’d been betrothed to Shigehime, a daughter of the wealthy and powerful Shimazu family lords of Satsuma domain. However, he didn’t have much time for her, because he had a truly ludicrous number of consorts in his ooku–’inner palace’, the shogun’s harem in other words.

Seriously I cannot even find consistent numbers here. For the number of mistresses, I’ve seen numbers as low as 25 and as high as 40, probably because within the harem, some job titles that don’t seem on the surface to directly require uh, servicing the shogun often did in fact include that demand.

Now, by itself, you might be surprised to hear that this doesn’t mean much–the goal of the harem was not just, well, the obvious stuff, but a signal of power and prestige. After all, the people in its employ were by definition not exactly economically productive–having a large harem was a way of signalling political power and wealth, not just a way to…enjoy yourself.

But we have pretty good evidence that Ienari was not just in it to show off the number of people he could afford to employ–evidence in the form of a GREAT many kids. And I do mean a LOT of kids–the LOW number I’ve seen is 50, with some sources numbering Ienari’s children at over 70. Frankly, I don’t think the precise numbers matter a great deal. Everyone seems to agree that number is VERY high, and that’s all you really need to know.

Now, infant medicine being what it was, the mortality rate among these children was very high–again, I’ve seen different numbers, but many of these children did not survive to adulthood. Still, a great many did–and we’ll have more to say about them in a second.

But before we get there, there’s one other thing Tokugawa Ienari has a historical reputation for caring about–being an absolute and wild party animal. Here, things are a bit more difficult to verify historically. The women of the ooku, the shogunal harem, were responsible for keeping a sort of diary of the shogun’s activities, and those do make mention of pretty regular drinking parties and the like. But that’s also kind of par for the course, the sorts of celebrations anyone with political power would have.

Frankly, it’s very hard to separate rumor from reality here; the shogun’s private life was by definition, well, private, and it’s not like anyone outside the shogun’s inner circle or his harem really knew how he spent his day to day time.

Indeed, that was the whole point–a big part of life within the shogun’s household was swearing to keep his secrets, because the protection of those secrets was considered a sign of true loyalty.

Still, a lot of salacious rumors did leak out about Ienari, and his household was subjected to more than a few scandals. We actually talked about one of the biggest ones a while back: the tale of the so-called Kannoji scandal.

This is the tale of O-miyo, daughter of a Buddhist priest of the Nichiren sect named Nikkei. Nikkei was able to place his daughter in Ienari’s household through a friendship with a former lady of the shogun’s harem; members of said harem were by custom made to become Buddhist nuns after the shogun’s death, and presumably this was how she ended up knowing Nikkei.

O-miyo in turn was able to turn on the charm and win Ienari’s heart, and within a few years had wiled her way into Ienari’s inner circle. It’s pretty clear that she did use her charms to win Ienari’s support for the Nichiren sect (rather unusual, because Nichiren was considered a lowbrow sect of Buddhism too unrefined for a high and mighty Tokugawa shogun), and to convince Ienari to support construction of a new temple for her father (Kannouji, though today the temple is called Yakuouji).

After Ienari died, an investigation by shogunal officials also found that O-miyo and her allies in the harem had, in tandem with her father, led the ladies of the shogun’s household into debaucheries, sneaking them out alone for orgies and somesuch.

But we can’t totally trust those investigations; members of the shogun’s bureaucracy were often jealous of the power women in the shogun’s inner circle could wield, and would slander them with accusations of sexual impropriety to try and undercut that influence.

Stories like this came to form the official image of Tokugawa Ienari, so to speak–that he was obsessed with women and would do whatever they said, and that he neglected government beyond what it could do for his ability to spend money on his favorites

In fact, this was the image that came to predominate even before Ienari died. Probably the most famous example is one of the great works of late Edo literature: Nise Murasaki Inaka Genji–or, in English, a Fake Murasaki and a Rural Genji.

As the name gives away, Inaka Genji (as it’s known for short) was a spoof of one of the great classics of Japanese literature. Published as a kusazoshi–a wide-ranging genre, but essentially combinations of text and images that serve as a predecessor of modern manga–the text is of course making fun of the great classic Tale of Genji.

Its story is pretty tortured–it’s set during the 1400s, in the leadup to the massive civil wars of the Sengoku Jidai. The main character is one Ashikaga Mitsuuji, illegitimate son of the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa (the guy who triggered the start of the civil war by being pretty checked out as shogun). Mitsuuji is out to get his hands on the family sword of the Ashikaga family, which have been stolen by one of their treacherous retainers, Yamana Souzen (also an actual historical guy). As cover while he is plotting his devious revenge, Mitsuuji lives in Kyoto in the manner of a happy-go-lucky aristocrat, partying it up in a manner that’s intended to evoke a heightened version of the Tale of Genji. Mitsuuji gets into all kinds of hijinks along the way, partying with the women of Kyoto and just generally living it up.

The text was massive–first published in 1829, it spans 52 volumes, and was illustrated by the popular artist Utagawa Kunisada. The author was one Ryutei Tanehiko, pen name of Takaya Hikoshiro, son of a samurai family who were hatamoto, or direct bannermen to the shogun. That connection led to more than a few suspicions that the story of Inaka Genji, with its elaborate parties and women of loose morality, was actually a spoof of Tokugawa Ienari’s court.

Indeed, taking a contemporary story and setting it in an earlier period of Japanese history was a classic way for authors during the Tokugawa years to get around censorship–after all, if a text is set in the 1400s, how could it possibly be criticizing events in the 1800s?

Still, this clever excuse could only work so long. After Tokugawa Ienari’s death, conservative crackdown led by officials looking to clean house turned its eyes on those seen as undermining the dignity of the shogunate. Suspicion regarding the true nature of Inaka Genji led to the text eventually being banned for slandering the shogunal house.

Ryutei Tanehiko would end up under house arrest and would die shortly thereafter–though after said conservative crackdown ended, his publisher found new authors to continue writing volumes into the 1850s, because the stories were just that damn popular.

Inaka Genji was not the only contemporary text to satirize the shogun’s court, either; Keisei Suikoden, published around the same time, followed a very similar pattern. This too was a kusazoshi riffing off an earlier work–in this case, the Shuihuzhuan, or Water Margin, one of the four great novels of imperial China. If you’re not familiar with it, the story revolves around a group of 108 righteous bandits, who team up to face down corrupt and debauched officials in China’s Song dynasty about 1000 years ago.

Keisei Suikoden takes that basic narrative and moves it over to Japan in the late 1100s, during the earliest years of samurai rule–interestingly, it also gender-flips much of the cast, so that it’s a group of women bandits facing down said officials.

And there’s a lot we could unpack here, but that’s something to save for another episode I think–the important thing here is that this text too was read as a not-so-veiled criticism of Ienari’s rule.

The important thing here is that even in his own lifetime, Ienari’s reputation was not the greatest. And while, frankly, I don’t think that reputation was made up out of whole cloth–there’s enough circumstantial evidence, like the whole O-miyo incident, to be pretty compelling–I do think Ienari’s reputation was somewhat the victim of the circumstances he lived in.

What do I mean? Well, remember, this is very much not an age of transparent government. The goal of the Tokugawa shoguns was to keep the people in awe of them, not to keep them informed of the goings on of state–which were, after all, not the concern of mere commoners. So information about goings on in the shogun’s palace was tightly controlled–not much really slipped out about what actually happened there.

Which in turn meant that when something did happen–when, say, a crazy story about a seductive daughter of a corrupt priest got out–people ate that stuff up. How could they not? And those scant morsels of scandal came to be what people knew about Tokugawa Ienari.

None of this is intended to suggest he was somehow secretly a good ruler, don’t get me wrong. If nothing else, it’s pretty clear that the financial situation of the shogunate got substantially worse under him–the state’s emergency reserve of gold and silver, valued at over 1 million gold ryo in 1798, had plummeted to 650,000 by 1830. And it’s not like that went into reform programs intended to, say, bolster coastal defenses as foreign incursions into Japanese waters got increasingly bold in the early 1800s–or to shoring up the agricultural base of the economy. That money was spent to no real effect.

However, I don’t think it’s fair to paint Ienari as a pure incompetent–there are moments where hints of political intelligence shine through. For example, remember all those kids he had lying around? Well, Ienari was also famous for cleverly arranging marriages for them–for example, if you’ve been to Tokyo University’s Hongo campus, you’ve probably seen its famous red gate. That gate is from the old fortified compound of the Maeda family. They were required to build one when the Maeda clan daimyo married one of Ienari’s daughters, because that was an event that legally mandated a certain amount of pomp to celebrate.

Through marriage politics, Ienari was able to spread his influence throughout some of the most influential families in Japan–securing a series of marriage alliances in the offing. That’s pretty clever, and everything I’ve read suggests that doing this was Ienari’s idea.

But on the whole, it’s hard to escape the impression that Ienari was simply the wrong man for the job of shogun in the latter Tokugawa years. It’s easy to pin everything that went wrong on him, particularly through the lens of that Confucian political morality we discussed at the start of the episode. And with works like Inaka Genji and Keisei Suikoden defining his image, that’s exactly what started to happen. By the early Meiji years, the idea that Ienari’s failures as a shogun led to the failure of the system itself was deeply embedded in discourse about the end of feudalism. You even see it replicated in some of the earliest English-language works on Japanese history, like George Sansom’s A History of Japan.

I don’t think that’s entirely fair, though. Ienari was not a great shogun–but the problems of the shogunate were far deeper than one guy with a taste for women and parties. It’s easy to make one person’s moral failings a stand-in for the failings of the system as a whole, but in the end, it’s never quite that straightforward.