Tokugawa Yoshimune (徳川吉宗)

Yoshimune TOKUGAWA was the Eighth Seii Taishogun (literally, "great general who subdues the barbarians") in the Edo bakufu (Japanese feudal government headed by a shogun). He was the fifth lord of the Kishu Domain. He was a lord of Kazurano Domain in Echizen Province.

Brief Personal History

Yoshimune TOKUGAWA was born as the fourth son of Mitsusada TOKUGAWA, the second lord of Kishu Domain which was one of the Tokugawa gosanke (three privileged branches of Tokugawa family). After his father and two older brothers died, he succeeded the position as lord of Kishu Domain and successfully worked towards the domain's financial reconstruction. The death of the seventh shogun Ietsugu TOKUGAWA left no male heir descended from Hidetada of the Tokugawa shogun family. Tenei-in, the legal wife of the sixth shogun Ienobu, later designated Yoshimune as heir, and he was adopted by the shogun family for the first time from the Tokugawa gosanke, assuming the position of the eighth shogun of the Edo bakufu. Making good use of his experience as lord of the Kishu Domain, Yoshimune reformed the bakufu's political system called Shotoku no Chi, which had been adopted in the reign of Ienobu. He put great effort into the restoration of the bakufu's authority, and enacted the Kyoho Reforms through measures such as tax increases and cost-cutting to reform the bakufu, public policies such as the development of new rice fields, the enactment of Kujikata Osadamegaki (the law of the Edo bakufu), and the installation of opinion boxes to gain the views of the public. He maintained his political power as ogosho (retired shogun) even after handing control of the shogunate over to Ieshige TOKUGAWA, and he was also called the Rice Shogun (Hachiboku Shogun) because he conducted reforms concentrating on rice prices which were directly connected to public finances.

He is called Chuko no So (the instigator of a restoration) because he rebuilt the failing economy of the bakufu through his financial reforms, and he is said to be one of the representative wise rulers of the Edo period.


Yoshimune TOKUGAWA was born on November 27, 1684 as the fourth son of Mitsusada TOKUGAWA who was the second lord of the Kishu Domain among the Tokugawa gosanke (as his parents' second son died at a young age, he sometimes counted as the third son). His mother was called Joenin (Oyuri no Kata), a maidservant of the Kishu Tokugawa family and a daughter of Toshikiyo KOSE. It is a famous legend that Oyuri no Kata, a maidservant who attended the bathroom of the ladies chambers at Wakayama-jo Castle attracted Mitsusada TOKUGAWA's attention and had an affair with him in this bathroom. Maybe due to the issue of his mother's position in society, he was raised at the Karo's (chief retainer) house during his early years and was ultimately taken to the castle.

Lord of the Kishu Domain

When he was granted an audience to Tsunayoshi TOKUGAWA, the Fifth Seii Taishogun, at the age of 14 in 1697, he was given Nyu-gun County in Echizen Province with 30,000 koku of rice produced annually, and became lord of Kazurano Domain. Although Yorikata (Yoshimune's former name) remained in a room next to the room where his older brothers and father Mitsusada were having an audience with Tsunayoshi, he was granted an audience with Tsunayoshi due to the consideration of roju (senior councilor) Tadatomo OKUBO. It is said that he ruled over the Kazurano Domain by dispatching vassals while residing in the town of Wakayama-jo Castle.

After Tsunanori TOKUGAWA (the third lord of the Kishu Domain), his eldest brother, died in 1705, Yorimoto TOKUGAWA, his second elder brother, took over as head of family. However, because his father Mitsusada died in the same year followed by the death of Yorimoto half a year later, he succeeded the position of the fifth lord of the Kishu Domain at the age of 22. In becoming lord of the domain, he was granted a henki (a portion of the name of a person of high rank, which is given to a retainer to show subordination) from shogun Tsunayoshi, and his name was changed to Yoshimune.

He got married to Princess Satoko, daughter of Nihon (second ranked) Imperial Prince Fushimi no Miya Sadayuki, in 1706 but was widowed when she died in 1710.

After he returned to the Kishu Domain in April 1710, Yoshimune began the reformation of the domain's administration. He simplified the structure of domain administration and strived to reconstruct its finances through cost-cutting. He demonstrated great ability in reconstructing the domain's financial situation that had deteriorated as a result of factors such as 100,000 ryo borrowed from the Edo Bakufu to pay the funeral expenses of his father and elder brother, taxes imposed on borrowing money from vassals, the suspension of domain bills, and relief costs for natural disasters that caused great damage throughout the domain. In addition, he installed an opinion box in front of the main gate of Wakayama-jo Castle to gain the views of the public, and tried to improve public morals by promoting studies and martial arts, granting rewards for virtuous acts, and so on.

He had his eldest son, Chofuku-maru (Ieshige) and second son, Kojiro (Munetake TAYASU) with a maidservant while he was the lord of the Kishu Domain.


The Tokugawa shogun family lineage (a male lineage through Ieyasu TOKUGAWA's third son Hidetada) died out in 1716 with the death of Ietsugu TOKUGAWA at only the age of eight. Yoshimune became the eighth shogun even though the highest ranked gosanke was the Owari family, and the reason is generally explained that because his age was the closest to Ieyasu among the members of the Tokugawa gosanke.

However, there was a genuine descendent of the male lineage of Hidetada TOKUGAWA named Kiyotake MATSUDAIRA who was lord of the Tatebayashi Domain and the uncle of Ietsugu. However, Kiyotake was not considered for selection because the Tatebayashi Domain had been experiencing an outbreak of uprisings due to high taxes, he had already been adopted once before, and also he was elderly with no male children (he had an adopted son-in-law). It is also said that Kiyotake himself did not have a strong ambition to become shogun.

The heads of the Owari Tokugawa family, which ranked higher than the Kishu Tokugawa family, died one after another at a young age, which made the age of Yoshimune closest to Ieyasu; some people suspect that it would have been plotted. In addition, it is also suspected that the leaders of the bakufu might have conspired it under the instruction of Hiroko KONOE (Tenei-in) who was the legal wife of Ienobu TOKUGAWA or Gekkoin who was the biological mother of Ietsugu.

When Yoshimune became shogun, he did not abolish the Kishu Domain. In previous cases, a domain would be abolished and its retainers would become vassals of the bakufu when a lord was called by Edo-jo Castle to assume the post of shogun, such as the fifth shogun Tsunayoshi TOKUGAWA from Tatebayashi Domain, and the sixth shogun Ienobu TOKUGAWA from Kofu Domain. However, Yoshimune kept his domain by giving it to Munenao TOKUGAWA, his cousin, claiming that gosanke was a sacred land granted by Tosho-Shinkun (literally, 'sacred lord of the east') Ieyasu. He then moved to Edo-jo Castle with only twenty-odd retainers as his attendants, including Hisamichi KANO and Ujinori ARIMA, whom he had chosen from the retainers of the Kishu clan excluding high-ranked retainers. These measures were accepted favorably by fudai daimyo (a daimyo in hereditary vassal to the Tokugawa family) and bakufu hatamoto (direct retainers of the bakufu) who were afraid that the retainers close to the shogun might hold political power.

The Kyoho Reforms

After becoming shogun, Yoshimune TOKUGAWA dismissed Akifusa MANABE and Hakuseki ARAI who had been sobayonin (lord chamberlains) since the era of the sixth shogun Ienobu TOKUGAWA, to restore rule from the sobayonin to the shogun.

Yoshimune appointed Tadayuki MIZUNO as roju, and began financial reconstruction, making good use of his experience of domain duties in Kishu Domain. Yoshimune executed the Kyoho Reforms, one of the three major reforms during the Edo period, by the stabilization of the bakufu's financial revenue by means of a fixed tax rate and agemai (tribute rice) system, the development of new fields, the reform of bureaucratic systems including the tashidaka system (a wage system established by the Edo bakufu), the appointment of Tadasuke OOKA as a part of the reforms, improvement in the administration of justice by establishing the Kujikata Osadamegaki to accelerate judicial hearings, the establishment of measures against fires by installing Edo firefighters, and reforms to the bakufu's worsening finances. His other reforms include the reorganization of the ladies chambers, considering public opinion in policy-making by means of installing opinion boxes, improving health care service by establishing Koishikawa Yojosho hospital, and partially lifting the ban on importing western books (one factor that later led to the active studies of Western sciences). He then amended the bakufu's policy that had been promoting studies since the era of the fourth shogun Ietsuna TOKUGAWA so as to promote martial arts. On the other hand, peasants were plunged into poverty by the goko-gomin (fifty percent for the government, fifty percent for citizens) system of annual land taxes, leading to frequent uprisings. However, the reform is highly praised as the most successful of the three major reforms during the Edo period. There are many opinions that the Edo Bakufu would have collapsed much earlier if there had not been reforms by Yoshimune.

To restrict the increasing number of joint suicides at the time due to the influence of ningyo jyoruri (traditional Japanese puppet theater) written by Monzaemon CHIKAMATSU, those couples who attempted joint suicide but failed were exposed to public view in busy areas.


On October 20, 1745, Yoshimune TOKUGAWA ceded the post of shogun to his eldest son Ieshige TOKUGAWA, but a speech defect which left him unable to govern meant that Yoshimune held onto actual power until his death. There were some movements in support of Munetake TOKUGAWA, the second son who was more intelligent than the sickly Ieshige, or Munetada TOKUGAWA, the fourth son, for the new shogun, but it is said that Yoshimune dared to choose Ieshige in order to avoid conflict between Munetake and Munetada over the post of shogun. Although Ieshige had a speech impediment, he had normal intelligence, and one opinion states that he was competent to perform government affairs.

Munetake and Munetada were not adopted and established the Tayasu-Tokugawa family and Hitotsubashi-Tokugawa family respectively as bekke (branch families) (ryokyo [two privileged branches of the Tokugawa family]), while remaining within Edo-jo Castle as dependents (following the death of Yoshimune, the Shimizu-Tokugawa family was established, which formed the gosankyo [three privileged branches of Tokugawa family]).

Yoshimune died on July 12, 1751, six years after retiring as shogun. He died in his 68th year of life (66 in full years).

He was buried at Kanei-ji Temple (1 Chome, Sakuragi, Ueno, Taito Ward, Tokyo Metropolitan area.)

Personal Profile

According to a record by Motohiro KONOE, Hiroko KONOE's father, Yoshimune TOKUGAWA was tall at more than six shaku (about 180 cm). He had a dark complexion and was physically strong, and it is said that he competed in sumo wrestling with a sekitori (a sumo wrestler ranked in the top two divisions) on the order of his father Mitsusada.

Regarding his height, the ihai (Buddhist mortuary tablets) which are said to have been made the same height as each successive shogun are preserved at Daiju-ji Temple. Because his ihai measures only 155.5cm in length, there is the opinion that it is difficult to consider that he was tall at six shaku (about 180cm) in height (refer to 'Successive Shogun Ihai at Daiju-ji Temple'). However, according to the investigation carried out when his cremains were moved to another place, the difference between his actual height and the length of ihai is considerably large.

Interests and Proclivities

He proactively pursued and enjoyed martial arts such as falconry, and advanced the promotion of these martial arts.

He studied under Tsunenobu KANO and gave painting lessons to Tsunenobu's grandson Hisanobu KANO. Several of his paintings have survived (including Yaba-zu [a painting of wild horses]). He also devised the 'nijimi-taka' technique of painting using watery sumi (black ink).

He ordered the import of an elephant and had it brought by land from Nagasaki to Edo. This created an elephant boom in Edo.

There is also a record that homosexual young men served as 'yudono-ban' who, wearing a loincloth only, attended to the naked shogun in the bathroom.

It is said that he preferred plain women, as a story says that when he visited a village, he immediately fell in love with a physically unattractive woman whom no one wanted to marry and made her his concubine.

Policies and Beliefs


After succeeding the position of shogun, Yoshimune abolished most of the laws and ordinances which were enacted according to the 'Shotoku no chi' (political reforms) established by Hakuseki ARAI. It was because Yoshimune thought that the policies of Hakuseki were wrong, but he showed understanding of some policies and did not abolish the laws that seemed right to him. It is for this reason that the shogun vassals, who believed that Yoshimune hated Hakuseki, were surprised and could not understand Yoshimune's thinking. There is also a theory that Yoshimune disposed of Hakuseki's books and suppressed his academic work.

It is said that he respected Tsunayoshi TOKUGAWA, the fifth shogun, because he was enthusiastic with regard to the reformation of the shogunate like Ieyasu TOKUGAWA, the founder of the Tokugawa bakufu, but he criticized Ienobu TOKUGAWA, the sixth shogun, because he abolished the 'Shorui-Awaremi-no-rei' (ordinances of animal protection) that was an ordinance established by Tsunayoshi, on the same day that he assumed the post of shogun. However, it was not the case that he agreed with Tsunayoshi's policies, as he reinstated falconry which was prohibited during the time of Tsunayoshi.

It is also known that he conducted flood control and land reclamation, basic policies of the Edo bakufu, and planted cherry trees in Asukayama Park, a bank of Sumida-gawa River, and other places as a part urban improvement.


Yoshimune himself strived to live a simple life and cut costs, by wearing cotton kimono and having a meal twice a day, in the morning and evening, consisting of no more than 'one soup and three dishes.'
If a vassal wore gorgeous clothes, Yoshimune would not reply to him at all and give him a silent warning by gazing at his clothes.

He completely reformed Ietsugu's funeral ceremony which was scheduled to be highly luxurious according to precedent. He discarded a coffin and decorations which had been prepared, and replaced them with simpler ones.

He sent physically attractive maidservants back home and kept only those of plain appearance in the ladies chambers. It is said that this was intended to reduce the workforce, with the consideration that the beautiful women would not have difficulty finding a husband (however, there is an anecdote that Yoshimune preferred more homely women).

Muneharu TOKUGAWA of the Owari Tokugawa family, the highest-ranked gosanke, tried to develop the economy by using differenct policy from Yoshimune by proactively promoting economic activities, but his extravagant lifestyle, which conflicted with the reforms by Yoshimune, caused ill feelings in the bakufu, and senior retainers of the Owari family including Masatake TAKENOKOSHI also became anxious about the policy of Muneharu, who was then ordered to retire and confine himself at home, with doors and windows locked. This punishment was not pardoned even after his death, and his gravestone was covered with a wire net which indicated a criminal until he was pardoned in 1764. Yoshimune was harsh on those who acted contrary to his policy, even though the person was his relative or a powerful fudai daimyo; another example is the punishment of Masamine SAKAKIBARA who was known for lavishly spending in pursuit of his pleasure such as redeeming Takao-dayu (courtesan).

Yoshimune offered Tenei-in, who nominated him as shogun, a considerable annual recompense of 12,000 ryo, and also offered Gekkoin, who had been hostile to him, an annual recompense of 10,000 ryo and built Fukiage Palace for her. He did not cut the expenses of the ladies chambers which were under the influence of Tenei-in.


Because he strived to adjust the price of rice in order to stabilize people's lives, Yoshimune TOKUGAWA was called the 'Rice Shogun' and 'Hachiboku Shogun' (after the character for 'rice' [米] separated into hachi [八] and boku [木]).

He recommended dairy farming.

After Yoshimune's death, hundreds of pieces of wastepaper were found in a nearby box. This paper was filled with rice prices of Asakusa written in small characters.

Yoshimune's Kyoho Reforms were mostly successful, and the financial affairs of the bakufu were reconstructed to a certain extent. Therefore this reform became the basis of later reforms such as the Kansei Reforms and the Tempo Reforms. The main causes of the financial reforms were agemairei (a system established within the Kyoho Reforms, which ordered daimyo to pay a certain amount of rice tax and instead allowed them to shorten the obligatory stay of 1 year in Edo to 6 months for sankinkotai [a system under which feudal lords in the Edo period were required to spend every other year in residence in Edo]) and tax increases. However, the bakufu had to treat agemairei as a temporary measure because it could have resulted in a loss of prestige to shogunate, and peasant revolts occurred frequently as a result of the tax increases. Consequently, both the Kansei Reforms and Tempo Reforms could not succeed these policies, and ultimately failed.

In "Gyakusetsu no Nihon-shi" (paradoxical Japanese history) written by Motohiko IZAWA, there is a description that 'Yoshimune was a wise ruler in many respects, but was completely foolish when it came to the economy.'
He said that this economical weakness was not attributed to the personal weakness of Yoshimune himself but rather attributed commonly to the general upper stratum of samurai society in those days, which was deeply steeped in Confucianism in which business was regarded with contempt. He also said that Muneharu was unique within the samurai world.

Because Yoshimune thought that the steep rise in rice prices was caused by a commodity futures trading based on speculation, he temporarily suspended the futures market. He was then faced with a crash in the price of rice, forcing him to reopen the futures market which caused the price of rice to increase. When the above are considered, some current researchers think that Yoshimune did not understand the risk hedge characteristic of the futures market at the time. However, the futures market that was established by Dojima Rice Market in Osaka with a permission of the bakufu in 1730 was the first futures market in the world, and some people think that it was impossible for a samurai, who was not a merchant, to understand such a new financial market.

Yoshimune's cost-cutting policy and Muneharu TOKUGAWA's free economic policy are compared in many television dramas and novels.

Contrary to that, the Genbun Koban (oval coin) minted in the first year of the Genbun era (1736) is recognized as the first reflation policy of the bakufu and is highly praised as one of a few examples of recoinage which exerted a favorable influence on the Japanese economy. Yoshimune was opposed to recoinage because previous cases of recoinage punished the public, however, the object of the coinage was not to gain marginal profits but to increase money supply for its own sake. The Genbun currency remained stable for 80 years.

Public Safety

Yoshimune TOKUGAWA had a deep connection to whaling, which was one of the core industries of the Kishu Domain, and twice had the kujira-gumi (a whaling group) of Kumano-nada Sea conduct large scale whaling expeditions combined with military exercises. He established a maritime safety network using signal fires stretching from kujira-yamami (a control tower on high ground used to search for and capture whales) to Wakayama-jo Castle.

After becoming shogun, he strived to ensure maritime safety by creating a position called 'Kujirabune Sayamawashi Goyo' to use kujirabune (traditional Japanese ship used for whaling) when a river flooded, to save victims and retrieve cargoes and rubbishes flushed into the gulf of Edo.

He established the 'Oniwaban' (the shogunate's guard of the inner garden) (ninja [professional spy in feudal Japan highly trained in stealth and secrecy]) for the first time as shogun in order to supervise domains and rebellions.


When Yoshimune was a lord of the Kishu Domain, Tadasuke OOKA served as bugyo (magistrate) of Yamada in Ise Province, which frequently had lawsuits with its neighbor domain of Kishu, and there is an anecdote about the relationship between Yoshimune and Tadasuke.

[Original Japanese]