Tokugawa Mitsukuni (徳川光圀)

Mitsukuni TOKUGAWA was the second lord of the Mito Domain in Hitachi Province. He is also known as Komon of Mito.

His okurina (posthumous name) was 'Giko,' his azana (nickname) was 'Shiryu' and his haiku pen name was 'Bairi'
His shingo (title as a god) is 'Takayuzuru Umashimichine no Mikoto.'

He was the third son of Yorifusa TOKUGAWA, the first lord of the Mito Domain and his sokushitsu (concubine) of the Tani clan. He was Ieyasu TOKUGAWA'S grandson. He reformed the religious establishments, banned martyrdom, and explored Ezo by building a ship called Kaifumaru while he was in office. He launched a historiographical project subsequently called "Dainihonshi" (The Great History of Japan). He conducted a number of cultural projects, including studies on Japanese classical texts and the preservation of cultural properties. As an elder of the Tokugawa clan he held sway over political affairs at the time of Seitaishogun (Great General) Tsunayoshi TOKUGAWA.

His memoirs and biographies written while he was still alive gave rise to the legend of his being a wise ruler. From the late Edo period to modern times there emerged travelogues about Komon in which a namesake fictional figure with hooded grey hair travels across the country to protect commoners and peasants from their tyrannical rulers. Komon of Mito gained popularity as the subject matter of popular Kodan storytelling and Kabuki plays. His tales were adapted for movies and television dramas during the Showa era. (See the section on Komon of Mito). TV serials on Komon are still running today. Mitsukuni dispatched his retainers to various places in Japan to gather information required for the compiling "the Dainihonshi." He went on inspection tours of the Mito Domain after retirement. Such episodes seem to have given rise to the image of his travels across the country. However, the places he actually visited were limited to Nikko, Kamakura, Kanazawa Hakkei, and Boso. There is no historical record that indicates his itinerary beyond the present Kanto region.

Mitsukuni as an empirical figure has been studied without recourse to the Mitsukuni legend. The cultural projects that he conducted in diverse areas have been highly regarded. As some scholars have pointed out, however, they caused the domain to fall into financial difficulty after he retired from office.


On July 11, 1628 Mitsukuni was born as the third son of Yorifusa TOKUGAWA, the lord of the Mito-Tokugawa family in the residence of the latter's retainer Yukitsugu (Jinbe) MIKI in Saku-machi, town of Mito-jo Castle (Miya-machi, Mito City, Ibaraki Prefecture). His mother was Hisako TANI, a daughter of Shigenori TANI, who was a retainer of the domain. "Togen Iji" (Memoirs of Mitsukuni TOKUGAWA) mentions that Yorifusa ordered Mr. and Mrs. Miki to terminate Hisako's pregnancy. Mr. and Mrs. Miki, however, disobeyed their master and secretly allowed Hisako to give birth. Yorifusa was not legally married when he made Hisako pregnant. Later in his life Mitsukuni wrote in his memoirs "Giko Iji" (The Memoir of Giko) that his mother Hisako was the daughter of a senior lady-in-waiting who served in the interior. Hisako found favor in Yorifusa's eyes and became pregnant. Yet this displeased Yorifusa's concubine, Okatsu (Enriin, a daughter of the Sasaki clan). Yorifusa, therefore, gave orders to terminate Hisako's pregnancy. Yukitsugu MIKI's wife, Musa, who also served as a senior lady-in-waiting in the interior, discussed the matter with Yorifusa's mother figure, Eishoin (Okatsu, Eishoin). She secretly allowed Hisako to give birth in her house. Mitsukuni's older maternal half-brother, Yorishige MATSUDAIRA was apparently born under similar circumstances.

"Nishiyama Ibun" (Memoirs of Nishiyama) mentions that young Mitsukuni was raised as a son of Mr. and Mrs. Miki. Gento INOUE, Mitsukuni's physician described an episode in "Gento Hitsuji," suggesting that Yorifusa saw the new-born, Mitsukuni. Mitsukuni's prodigy left many episodes in such biographical sources as "Togen Iji," "Giko Iji," and "Gento Hitsuji."

In 1632 Mitsukuni and his older brother (Yorishige) whose existence became manifest were received into Mito Castle. In December 1633 Mitsukuni was chosen as the heir. The following month he moved to the domain residence in Koishikawa, Edo, to be trained as the heir. Sources do not necessarily agree as to when and how he was informally appointed as the heir. However, the appointment was made when Yorifusa's attendant and chief retainer Nobuyoshi NAKAYAMA (Bizen no Kami or provincial governor of Bizen) went to Mito. It was also intended by Iemitsu TOKUGAWA, the third Seitaishogun, and Eishoin. In 1634 Mitsukuni and Eishoin were received in an audience with Shogun Iemitsu at Edo-jo Castle. Having undergone the coming-of-age ceremony, he was invested by Iemitsu with imina (an official name) to be rechristened Mitsukuni (光国).

In 1654 he married Hiroko KONOE (Taihime), the second daughter of Nobuhiro KONOE the former Kanpaku (Chief Advisor to the emperor). In 1657 he set up Shikyoku (the Office of Historiography) at his residence in Komagome, and started to compile "the Dainihonshi," which is a general history of Japan written in the style of a biographical history.

On September 12, 1661 he became the second lord of the Mito Domain in Hitachi Province with 280,000 koku. Giving his younger brother Yorimoto MATSUDAIRA Naka County, Hitachi Province (Nukada Domain) with 20,000 koku, he was left with 260,000 koku.

The inhabitants in Shimo-machi, Mito had difficulty in obtaining drinking water. Immediately after taking office, in 1662, Mitsukuni therefore commanded Tsunetaka MOCHIZUKI the machi-bugyo (city governor under the authority of the shogunate) to install a sewer system. The following year saw the completion of the Kasahara waterworks which ran from Kasahara to Hosoya, with a total length of about ten kilometres.

In 1663 Mitsukuni moved the Shikyoku to the Koishikawa Korakuen garden and renamed it Shoko-kan.

In 1679 he changed his "imina" to Mitsukuni (光圀) (when he was fifty-two years old).

On November 14, 1690 he retired from office in favor of Tsunaeda TOKUGAWA. In 1691 he kept himself in seclusion in Nishiyama-so Residence. In 1693 he commissioned Hoan HOZUMI (Soyo SUZUKI) the domain's physician to compile the Kyumin Myoyaku, a book on herbal medicine with recipes for 397 medicinal drugs. On January 8, 1695 he invited shogunal cabinet ministers and daimyo (territorial lords) to a Noh-dancing performance during which he struck down Mondayu FUJII who was his senior vassal in a private, locked room. Some argue that Fujii and Yoshiyasu YANAGISAWA were conspiring against Mitsukuni although his motive remains unclear.

He conspicuously lost his appetite when he was about seventy-two years old. On January 14, 1701 he died of esophageal cancer. He was 73 years old according to traditional Japanese reckoning (or he died at the age of 71 in the Western style of counting).

He apparently regretted that he became lord instead of his elder brother (Yorishige). He therefore adopted his brother's son (Tsunakata TOKUGAWA) to make him his heir. Yet Tsunakata died young so, Mitsukuni adopted the former's younger brother Tsunaeda who became his heir. He also had his biological son (Yoritsune MATSUDAIRA) by his concubine, who was adopted by his elder brother.

Mitsukuni's Personality

It seems that Mitsukuni had mixed feelings about the fact that rather than his elder brother (Yorishige), he was appointed as the heir when he was young. He as a youngster behaved like a juvenile delinquent, brandishing a sword in the street. He frequented Yoshiwara, a red-light district. He was also barbarous, committing "tsujigiri" (killing in the street to test a new sword). However, he was deeply impressed by Sima Qian's Biography of Bo Yi in "The Shiji" (Records of the Grand Historian) when he was eighteen years old. This made him a scholar. Yet he remained a man of strong and bold character even in his old age.

Known as a scholarly and curious person, he left many episodes.

He was allegedly the first Japanese to try "ramen" (Chinese noodles), "gyoza" (Chinese-style dumplings), cheese, milk wine and natto made of fermented black beans. At a time when a meat diet was avoided, Mitsukuni ignored the Shorui Awaremi no Rei (Instructions concerning compassion for all living creatures) issued by Tsunayoshi TOKUGAWA the fifth Shogun, eating beef, pork, and mutton. Furthermore, he captured fifty stray dogs whose fur he presented to Tsunayoshi.

He took interest in Western goods, putting on Dutch socks which were (the earliest) knitted tabi socks (in Japan) and was fond of drinking wine. He invited Zhu Shunshui and imported ginseng which he grew and parakeets which he raised. He employed two blacks to explore Ezo and made them his hereditary retainers. He also hired some Chinese (who might have been exiled from Ming China to Mito) who became his hereditary retainers or servants.

He loved salmon, especially its jaw meat, stomach, and skin. He moreover learned how to make handmade udon (Japanese wheat noodles) which he saw in Asakusa near the Yoshiwara red-light district and made them at home.

He had homosexual relationships which were not uncommon among his contemporaries.
He described politics as 'something which one must do in a heterosexual, rather than homosexual, fashion.'
While both parties derive pleasure from the heterosexual relationship, only one party feels pleasure, leaving the other in pain, in a homosexual relationship. He thus meant that politics should be pleasurable for both the ruler and the people.

It took well over 250 years to complete "the Dainihonshi" after his death. This project which later came to be known as Mitogaku (the scholarship and academic traditions that arose in the Mito Domain) was instrumental in forming, and theoretically influencing, historical science. In 1674 he went to Kamakura to visit the graveyard of his paternal, biological grandmother (Yojuin) and to attend the thirty-second anniversary of the death of his paternal grandmother figure (Okatsu no Kata). He compiled his diary entries right up to his trip to Kamakura as "Koshin Kiko" (1674) and "Kamakura Nikki" (1674).
Later, in 1685, he commissioned Tsunehisa KAWAI and other retainers to compile "Shinpen Kamakurashi" (Newly Edited Guide to Kamakura) based on 'Kamakura Nikki.'

In 1692 he built a gravestone in Minatogawa, commemorating the military exploits of Masashige KUSUNOKI who died in the Battle of Minatogawa during the period of the Northern and the Southern Courts. (He was sixty-five years old). He wrote "Grave of Mr. Kusunoki, Great Loyal Vassal," which was engraved in the gravestone. In the very same place, Emperor Meiji built Minatogawa-jinja Shrine in 1872 and a bronze statue of Mitsukuni was erected in 1955.

The Status of the Mito-Tokugawa Family at the Time of Mitsukuni

The Mito Domain spent about one-third of its annual income in the compilation of the Dainihonshi.

Falling into financial difficulty, the domain undertook to improve its financial conditions under the rule of Mitsukuni's adopted son Tsunaeda after the death of Mitsukuni. His reform, however, failed as it caused a large-scale uprising that spread in the entire territory of the domain.
This led the roju (senior councillors of the shogunate) and fudai daimyo (feudal lords in hereditary vassalage to the Tokugawa family) to discredit the domain as well as 'Lord Tsunaeda as being incompetent to become Shogun.'
In 1716 an heir to Shogun Ietsugu TOKUGAWA was selected. The selected heir was Yoshimune TOKUGAWA, lord of the Kishu Domain although Tsunaeda was the eldest among the lords of the three Tokugawa families.

No member of the Mito-Tokugawa family had since become shogun. As advisor to the shogun, they were ordered to live permanently in Edo and hence they were no longer required to carry on 'Sankin-kotai' (a system in which the feudal lords were required to spend every other year in their residences in Edo). The lords of the Mito Domain were (commonly) called 'Tenka no Fuku-Shogun (Vice Shogun of the World)' as they always stayed with the shoguns. In the end, Yoshinobu TOKUGAWA, who was the seventh son of Nariaki TOKUGAWA, the ninth lord of the Mito Domain, was the first member of the Mito-Tokugawa family to become shogun after Mitsukuni the second lord. Genealogically speaking, moreover, he was not of the Mito-Tokugawas as he was adopted by the Hitotsubashi family and became shogun as Yoshinobu HITOTSUBASHI.

Giving rise to 'Mitogaku,' Mitsukuni's promotion of the sciences and arts must be highly esteemed as it has had a significant impact on later generations. It however worsened the domain's financial conditions. It also laid a heavy burden of taxation on the people and many peasants ran away. There is an opinion that the domain imposed an extremely high nengu (the annual tax dominated in rice payments) with a tax rate of eighty percent on income under Mitsukuni's rule. Consequently, Mitsukuni deviated from the ideal of "aimin" (care for the people) which 'Mitogaku' intended to achieve.
We cannot simply praise him as 'a wise ruler.'

The Mito-Tokugawa family made it a rule to take sides with the emperor should any conflict arise between the Tokugawa clan and the emperor (or the Imperial Court). They therefore agreed not to produce a shogun (according to "Gyakusetsu no Nihonshi" - A Paradoxical History of Japan, by Motohiko IZAWA). It was Yoshimune the eighth shogun who changed the family rule. He raised the status of the Kishu-Tokugawa family to which he belonged and established "gosankyo" (three privileged branches of the Tokugawa family) who had a similar function to the three Tokugawa families. He transformed the way the main branch of the Tokugawa family functioned or stood in relation to the three big families, so that the Mito-Tokugawa family had to change their family rule. That is why the Mito-Tokugawa family who could not have produced a shogun, actually did so.


* The following dates are indicated in the old calendar up to the second day of the twelfth month of the fifth year of the Meiji era (1872).


Mitsukuni's father was Yorifusa TOKUGAWA.

His mother was Hisako TANI, daughter of Shigenori TANI.

His seihitsu (legal wife) was Hiroko KONOE (Taihime), daughter of Nobuhiro KONOE.

His concubine was a woman of the Tamai clan.

His eldest son was Tsuneyori MATSUDAIRA.

His eldest daughter was the wife of Mitsunori TODA.

Compared with his father Yorifusa and his contemporary daimyo lords, he had a rather poor family relationship although he lived a long life. There is a view that it had something to do with his traumatic childhood.


Mitsukuni's graveyard lies on Mt. Zuiryu in Zuiryu-cho, Hitachiota City. So far it has been the biggest graveyard with regard to Confucian rites in Japan.


Mitsukuni's mausoleum called Gikobyo can be found in Jojozan Kyusho-ji Temple in Arajuku-cho, Hitachiota City where his mother was buried.

Hosai-jinja Shrine (shrine enshrining Mitsukuni)

Mitsukuni was enshrined as the chief deity of Tokiwa-jinja Shrine in Tokiwa-cho, Mito City.

[Original Japanese]