As a fierce warlord and a ruler, the shogun ran feudal Japan with fear and respect. He was not a king, for Japan had an emperor who held separate court in Kyoto, the ancient religious capital. But the emperor had little power over day to day affairs, and lived a life cut off in genteel seclusion. After years of internal warfare, a leader emerged as the first shogun in 1600. The Tokugawa would go on to rule until the Meiji Restoration in 1868.
But how did the first shogun tame the warring clans into the longest internal peace that would lead to the decline of the samurai? He did it with a road.
A daimyo was a lord. He served under the shogun and swore fealty in much the same way a knight swore obedience to his king. The daimyo, a samurai warlord in his own right, would be given a vast land grant, or han, in exchange for that loyalty to the shogun. Under him would be his personal armies, members of his clan, high-ranking samurai-all at his disposal. This could be worrisome to a shogun who wanted to keep his minions in check. He instituted an ingenious, exhausting system, ensuring the lords would be too busy to concoct sedition. All daimyo were required to travel along the great Tokaido Road in a monstrous procession with everything they owned, from their wives to the last pot and pan. This compulsory trip to Edo Castle took place every other year. All lords were expected to spend the year in service to the shogun at his court-in essence they submitted to becoming hostages.
It was a kind of forced-tribute. The cost to transport an entire household including armies was horrendous. Soon, the daimyo were hemorrhaging money. It took immense planning, many didn’t want to leave their han open to enemies. They resented the shogun’s intrusion and feared consolidation by Edo around the corner. The journey was slow. The main road leading to Edo, called the Tokaido was clogged on any given day with a stream of clan flags waving in the breeze. The servants who could not afford to ride in boxy palanquins walked on foot. No time to plan a war. No time to do anything but go back and forth to Edo, in a slow processional crawl.
It worked. Japan enjoyed peace and the daimyo had other things on their mind like courtesans and pleasure.
With no wars, and no fight, the samurai soon fell upon hard times. The daimyo fortune’s dried up with so many trips to Edo. But a few held out.
Tozama clans-considered outsiders rose up one last time to give the shogun a run for his money in what would become the Boshin war.