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Remixing History: Tokugawa Japan

By Branch, June 14th, 2010

At the beginning of the Tokugawa period, Japan has movable type, flight, increased mining for coal as well as metal, texts on optics and the theory of the steam turbine. The requirements of unification still lead Toyotomi to decree fixed classes, to limit travel, to disarm farmers and control samurai by separating them from the means of subsistence. There is a growing group of artisans who deal with engineering and technology and some of the newly unemployed samurai migrate into that group. This trend will continue.

Tokugawa Iemitsu closes the country to most western trade after the Shimabara rebellion, cautious of western imperialism; this firmly sets the trend, present since Ieyasu, of representing other nations as an active threat to help solidify a national identity in support of the Tokugawa. As population expands, however, food production becomes insufficient. Instead of turning to intensive agriculture of marginal land, Tokugawa Yoshimune chooses to trade for food with Korea and China. The need to supply exports other than silver brings the growing group of technological artisans to the fore of the national economy. Restrictions on imported texts are greatly relaxed and, as the actual power of the merchant and engineer artisans rise, strain on the nominal class hierarchy intensifies.

The natural disasters and unrest during Ieshige and Ieharu’s rule creates unease within the government about the development of small arms by the engineer artisans. At Tanuma Okitsugu’s suggestion, government funding is focused on large land-to-sea weapons installations instead, billed as a coastal defense measure. Ienari’s rule sees the construction of a significant number of such installations, but also, under the increasing corruption of the government and failure of the social contract, the somewhat clandestine development of personal arms by the engineers. An unspoken agreement is reached that this will be permitted as long as there is no distribution of those weapons outside the engineers. Just as with the actual monetary power of the merchants, the presence of such effective weapons brings the engineer artisans into still more conflict with the samurai class and their less effective but more prestigious swords. The small but consistent influx of samurai into the engineer class puts an extra edge on this tension.

During Ieyoshi’s rule, an armed trade envoy from the Tlaxcalteca-Spanish state of Nahua (Mexico) is repelled with only one ship left unsunk. During Iesada’s rule, the Pueblo nation sends an envoy of their own and demonstrate some of the products and technology from the Americas This is tempting enough that Iesada’s government agrees to re-open trade. Despite the lack of destabilization from panic and rage attendant on this re-opening, the long running domestic tensions of the 18th and 19th C have still grown out of control. Yoshinobu’s reforms are too late to save the bakufu and the Meiji revolution happens on schedule.

The revolution does not have the impetus of a decade of foreign interference, and centers, instead, explicitly around domestic issues: the tension between the Emperor and the bakufu, the resentment of the tozama clans against the fudai clans, the class hierarchy in direct denial of the actual balance of social power, the economic upsets caused by even regulated contact with the global market. While the fighting is primarily between factions of the samurai class, both sides court support from both merchants and farmers for funding and extra bodies respectively. The existing large weapons installations are used only once, and the result is sufficiently appalling that both sides agree not to court the involvement of the engineers; despite this, a small number of individuals do join one faction or another, and the personal weapons they bring with them are decisive in more than one encounter.

The reforms Yoshinobu started are continued and accelerated in the hands of the new government, who understand, thanks to seeing the effectiveness of domestic weapons in the revolution, that Japan could be in great danger if it does not keep up with the technological developments of other nations. Consultants are hired from Europe, the Americas, the Ottoman Empire, and China to integrate developments from abroad into the work of Japan’s engineers, and Japan enters global trade at a run, and in a storm of domestic social change.

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