If not for During the Meiji Restoration, Iehiro Tokugawa may be running Japan. Instead, the new head of one of Japan’s most prominent dynasties, which reigned from 1603 to 1868, watches over its remains every day in a spacious stone courtyard on a side street in Tokyo’s Yoyogi Uehara neighborhood. The shogun greeted the banyan tree in fluent English, without any sense of ceremony, with a warm smile on his face.
Mr. Tokugawa, who took over from his father last month for the first time in more than half a century, played an incongruous role in a family perhaps best known for banning its subjects from traveling abroad. A consummate internationalist, he grew up part-time in New York and completed masters degrees at the Universities of Michigan and Columbia. He is a prolific translator of books ranging from tomes on China to polemics on George Soros. Mr. Tokugawa worked at the United Nations for many years, including in Rome and Hanoi, where he met the Vietnamese woman who would become his wife.
The Tokugawa family now has no formal political power. (Mr Tokugawa ran against a liberal opposition party for a parliamentary seat in 2019, but lost.) The 19th shogun’s main role is to carry on the family legacy. Artefacts need to be cataloged and preserved. But his most important task was to shape public understanding of the history of the Tokugawa shogunate. “The image of the Tokugawa shogunate is malleable and changes over time,” said historian Michifumi Isoda. This image continues to shape how Japanese see themselves — and how the world sees Japan.
Ieyasu, the first Tokugawa shogun, rose to power during the Civil War. He and his successors introduced a strict class structure and a complex system of internal controls that sidelined the emperor and maintained peace among Japan’s many states. daimyo, or local lords. But when Matthew Perry sailed America’s black ships into Japanese ports in 1853, low-ranking samurai and commoners were outraged at their lack of opportunity. Fearful of ending up in the hands of technologically superior Westerners, they banded together to “restore” the Emperor to end Tokugawa rule.
Several accounts of the Tokugawa period have since emerged.People define the period in terms of so-called backwardness – Japan is for the country, Or a closed country, cut off from the world. Another sees this era as a dark age of oppressive “feudal” rule under the samurai sword. For some of the ultra-nationalists who led Japan to disaster in World War II, the shogunate represented an unspoiled nation, the embodiment of the spirit of the East before the arrival of Western modernity.
To Mr Tokugawa, many of these ideas are tinged with mythology.Contemporary historians question the notion that the Tokugawa era was completely closed (even Sakuni is a translation of a description by a German observer in the early 19th century). Trade continued briskly with the Chinese and Koreans, as well as Dutch merchants stationed in Nagasaki. “Japan was controlling traffic,” Mr. Tokugawa said, “but we didn’t cover our eyes or ears like the monkeys in the sun,” he said, referring to the famous carving at the temple where Ieyasu is buried.
Perhaps the most misleading myth, however, has to do with change. When contemporary observers invoke the old tropes of Japan’s immutability and stagnation, they are often drawing on images of Tokugawa traditionalism or isolationism. This misses the dynamism of the ostensibly static Tokugawa era. In fact, it was a time of marked social change, with the growth of great cities and the flourishing of popular culture by a vibrant merchant class. Even Tokugawa’s ideas, political philosopher Masao Maruyama once wrote, “can be seen as a constant progression toward modernity.”
Today, the changes in Japan are also Tokugawa, not Meiji, bubbling beneath the surface. Because of Japan’s stubborn seniority system, it is often overshadowed by gray-haired men in leadership positions. “Change happens in due course as the guards change,” said Mr. Tokugawa, 58. He is relatively young.
This shift may come soon. Takeshi Shibusawa, a descendant of a great Meiji reformer and government adviser, spoke of the “clay layer” of grown-up managers and leaders of the postwar period whose passing would reveal a different Japan underneath. Mr. Tokugawa exemplifies this point. “He’s a man with a new Japanese mindset, but from an old family,” Mr Isoda said. “He is not the Japan of the past, he is the Japan of the future.”■
Read more from our Asia columnist Banyan:
After suppressing critics at home, Narendra Modi takes action against foreign media (16 February)
Democracy is making a comeback in Asia (February 9)
China’s Maritime Neighbors Are Fighting Back (February 1)
Correction (February 27, 2023): The political philosopher quoted is Masao Maruyama, not Masao Murayama. This has changed. sorry.