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Tokugawa Yoshimune versus Tokugawa Muneharu: Rival Visions of Benevolent Rule


This dissertation examines the political rivalry between the eighth Tokugawa shogun, Yoshimune (1684-1751, r. 1716-45), and his cousin, the daimyo lord of Owari domain, Tokugawa Muneharu (1696-1764, r. 1730-39). For nearly a decade, Muneharu ruled Owari domain in a manner that directly contravened the policies and edicts of his cousin, the shogun. Muneharu ignored admonishments of his behavior, and he openly criticized the shogun's Kyoho era (1716-36) reforms for the hardship that they brought people throughout Japan. Muneharu's flamboyance and visibility transgressed traditional status boundaries between rulers and their subjects, and his lenient economic and social policies allowed commoners to enjoy the pleasures and profits of Nagoya entertainment districts that were expanding in response to the Owari lord's personal fondness for the floating world. Ultimately, Muneharu's fiscal extravagance and moral lenience--benevolent rule (jinsei), as he defined it--bankrupted domain coffers and led to his removal from office by Yoshimune. Although Muneharu's challenge to Yoshimune's political authority ended in failure, it nevertheless reveals the important role that competing notions of benevolence (jin) were coming to play in the rhetoric of Tokugawa rulership. Yoshimune's response to Muneharu demonstrates the capacity of the Tokugawa political system (bakuhan taisei) to change in subtle yet significant ways. This flexibility provided the bakuhan taisei with the durability needed to survive for nearly three centuries.

Through an original analysis of primary texts such as Omu rochu ki, Yume no ato, Kyogen emaki, and Muneharu's Onchi seiyo;, this dissertation demonstrates that competing concepts of benevolence were becoming increasingly important to the rhetoric of rulership in Tokugawa Japan. Muneharu demonstrated his benevolence through lenient economic and social policies that fostered the wealth and well-being of his subjects. He criticized the shogun for lacking such benevolence and thus lacking legitimacy as a ruler. This dissertation contends that Muneharu's formula of political legitimacy represented a genuine threat to the shogun and the premises of the bakuhan taisei. While Yoshimune safeguarded the stability of the shogunate by rejecting Muneharu's specific formula of benevolent rule, the concept was nevertheless becoming a central part of eighteenth-century Tokugawa political rhetoric. By defining rulers in terms of their posture toward their subjects, the concept of benevolence stretched, and ultimately transformed, the Tokugawa political system.

The durability of the Tokugawa political system is impressive. Historians often attribute its terrific lifespan (1603-1868) to the inertia they see in eighteenth-century politics. Yet this dissertation's closer examination of the rivalries between Yoshimune and Muneharu, between premodern and early modern notions of rulership, and between birthright and benevolence reveals that Tokugawa politics were, in fact, undergoing important changes in the first half of the eighteenth century. The ability of the bakuhan taisei to adapt to the demands of changing social, economic, and political realities was born of its non-constitutional structure, which maintained the viability of the shogunate and the broader bakuhan taisei for nearly three centuries. This dissertation argues that Yoshimune's resolution of those rivalries helped the shogunate survive the challenges of early modernity into the nineteenth century. Yet resolution did not bring rigidity or stasis--the political system retained its plasticity. Indeed, without the flexibility to meet the challenges and changes of early modern society, the bakuhan taisei would have been "dead" in the middle of the Tokugawa period.

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