Chris's Reviews > The Last Shogun: The Life of Tokugawa Yoshinobu

The Last Shogun by Ryōtarō Shiba
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Jan 31, 2008

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bookshelves: history, japan
Read in January, 2007

When this book was originally released, it was published as "historical fiction," since it followed a much more narrative style than most history books usually do. There's narrative, quotes, and reactions which the writer, having not been in the room, could not have known about it. Still, he believed that it would be the best way to take this person, this last of the Tokugawas, and humanize him. Because one of the things that's always been a problem with Japan is that the higher one is in the power hierarchy, the less human they are encouraged to be. So while the Shogun wasn't quite up to the level of inhumanity that, say, the Emperor was, he was always seen as someone who is drastically more important than the average man, and certainly due a bit of deference.

Unfortunately for the Shogun, good historians must not show deference. Their job is to illuminate their subject under the harsh light of truth and see them for who and what they really were. Shiba does a fairly good job with that, although I do have to say that he does seem to have a fondness for his subject. I've read other books about the events of the Meiji Restoration, and Yoshinobu doesn't quite come off the tragic hero that Shiba wants him to be.

Still, he is not without his flaws. He's impulsive, has no patience for nonsense and empty ritual, and tried very hard to be his own man. He was inquisitive, quick-witted and had a mind like a steep trap. Honestly, he probably would have been much happier as a scientist or an explorer than as a politician. Unfortunately, that decision was out of his hands nearly from the moment he was born.

He was guided, pushed, prodded and cajoled every step of the way, by his family and other members of the political elite in the late Edo period. Normally this would be a bad thing, but the young Yoshinobu - called Keiki at the time - proved to be worthy of each push. Every step higher simply meant that he had to try harder. And he did, all the way to the top. And then he had to do the hardest thing any leader in history has done:

Give up all his power.

There was a struggle in the 1860s between the Imperial Court and the Shogunate as to who really ruled Japan. The heads of the provinces played dangerous games with each other, shifting alliances back and forth so fast you could get whiplash. On top of that, there was the ever-growing number of shishi - sometimes called "Men of High Purpose," but probably better labeled as Angry Young Samurai who wanted the Shogunate overthrown and were willing to sacrifice any number of lives to make it happen.

On top of that, the country had been cracked open by the United States, and there was international disagreement over who to approach as the ruler of Japan. Some countries naturally thought the Emperor was the go-to guy, others went to the Shogun, causing no end of trouble. Even better, when the Shogunate had to delay action to foreign powers, they tried to play the kind of subtle, oh-so-Japanese game of misdirection that would have been perfectly understood by a Japanese feudal lord ("Open the port? Well, we'd love to, but we need to get the Emperor's approval first. We'll get right on that.") but which backfired horribly against the more direct-minded Western powers ("Shit! They said they wanted to come to Kyoto and talk to the Emperor about opening the ports! Dammit, dammit, dammit!")

Maybe not in those words. But you get my meaning.

Basically, the country was headed towards a replay of the Warring States Period, when Japan was at war with itself. The first time that happened, a Tokugawa grasped the reins of power to unite the country. This time, a Tokugawa let go of power, and achieved the same end.

Yoshinobu gave the Emperor absolute political control of the country, and basically said, "It's all yours now, good luck." He had to then sneak out of Kyoto (if you can call leading a column of several thousand men out of Nijo Castle "sneaking") and then sneak out of Osaka Castle, where his men were determined to retake Kyoto whether he wanted them to or not.

The ex-Shogun lived out his life doing what he enjoyed - learning about the world, while staying at home. He refused to meet with most of his former contacts in the Shogunate, and only went to Tokyo once after his abdication. He lived a long life, mentally acute until the end, and died in 1913.
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