Royal Armouries

Diplomatic gifts from Tokugawa Japan

Arms and armour feature largely as gifts in Japan, because of their central importance in Japanese culture. When Japan came into contact with foreign powers, it was natural for armours and swords to be given as diplomatic gifts. The Royal Armouries collection features two such gifts, one from the very beginning of the period when Japan was ruled by the Tokugawa shoguns, and one from the very end.

The title of Shogun was coined in the 8th century. It was applied to a supreme military commander who was given overall military and political control over Japan, originally for the conduct of wars with the Ainu peoples of the east. The title in full was sei-i-shi (sent against the barbarians), modified to sei-i-taishogun (commander-in-chief against the barbarians), which was then later shortened to shogun.

Under Minamoto Yoritomo, in 1192, the title and its powers became hereditary, and from 1205 it was dominated by the ‘regents’ of the Hojo family. From 1336 to 1573 the Ashikaga family became shoguns, and ruled directly; from 1603 to 1867 the Tokugawa family, descendants of Ieyasu – victor in the Civil Wars – ruled as shoguns. Meanwhile the line of emperors continued, nominally as heads of state but in practice only as religious leaders.

Christianity was introduced into Japan during the 16th century by the Spanish and Portuguese. As a religion which appealed to the lower orders of society, it became very popular. The ancient religions in Japan – Buddhism and Shinto – had existed happily beside each other, and still do today. Christianity, however, demanded exclusivity, and proved a disruptive influence in the ordered Japanese society.

The appearance of other ‘western barbarians’ (the British and the Dutch) brought the continuing European religious conflicts into Japan. By 1623 the situation had become intolerable, and the second Tokugawa Shogun, Hidetada, banned Christianity and expelled all the European powers. Only the Dutch, who demonstrated that they were far more interested in commerce than religion, were allowing a continuing, if highly restricted, presence in Japan.

During the whole of the later Tokugawa period, Japan was isolated from the rest of the world, except for limited trade with the Dutch and Chinese. Society was allowed to stagnate within the confines of medieval institutions, largely as a means of keeping the people at peace and under Tokugawa control. Remarkably the system worked, and for the first time in history Japan remained at peace for over two centuries.

Meanwhile a technological revolution had occurred in the West, and in 1853 the American Commodore Matthew Perry and his ‘Black Ships’ forced the Tokugawa to acknowledge foreign powers. Once the isolation had been broken, the Tokugawa could no longer retain control, and the Meiji Emperor was restored to power in 1868.

May 2013

Thom Richardson

Deputy Master of the Royal Armouries

Two Japanese diplomatic gifts