The Life of Tokugawa Yoshinobu
When Commodore Matthew Perry brought his squadron of “black ships” into Tokyo Bay, the world imagined that at last Japan had been “opened up” After two and a half centuries of determined self-isolation from the rest of the world, it seemed the process of modernization was inevitable.
In Ryotaro Shiba’s account of the life of Japan’s last shogun, however, Perry’s arrival was merely the spark that ignited the cataclysm in store for the Japanese people and their governments. It came to its real climax with the fall of the Tokugawa shogunate in 1868, the event that forms the centerpiece of this book. The Meiji Restoration—as history calls it—toppled the shogunate, and brought a seventeen-year-old boy emperor back from the secluded Imperial Palace in Kyoto to preside over what amounted to a political and cultural revolution. With this, Japan's extraordinary modernization began in earnest.
The facts Ryotaro Shiba provides us with in this account of Tokugawa Yoshinobu are unquestionably true. Yet The last Shogun, when published in Japan, was, like the rest of his work, published as a novel because Shiba uses a number of fictional narrative devices. In its accuracy, however, it is a faithful depiction of events of that now far-off time, and can safely be called history.
The life story of Tokugawa Yoshinobu (1837-1913), the 15th and final successor to the powerful Tokugawa shogunate, is intrinsically interesting and well written to boot. Narrated by Japan’s popular and prolific Ryotaro Shiba, and translated into a spare and engaging English text by Juliet Winters Carpenter, The Last Shogun is a mesmerizingly good read. With isolationist Japan coming under increasing foreign pressure to open its bolted doors and civil war threatening from within, Yoshinobu lived, schemed, and ruled during a time of great historic consequence. His rise to power is recounted with narrative flair, from his birth in the least prestigious of the three Tokugawa family branches, through his rigorous early training (his father made him sleep with a sword at either side of his head to ensure that he wouldn’t toss and turn), and into his shogun years. From there, Shiba details the military crises of a dying regime and how Yoshinobu attempted to stem the assaults of a new era. With the behind-the-scenes machinations of intrigue, the progression of internal and external pressures, the political personalities of the times, and the rich cultural flavor of an insular Japan, the story is gripping enough for a long plane flight—yet it’s more than just a way to pass the travel time. Reading Ryotaro Shiba’s account of Yoshinobu’s life provides a wonderful backdrop for a present-day visit to Japan, painting a scene that’s drenched in the ambiance of Japanese traditions while offering an understanding of Japan’s complex history in the form of a rich and compelling James Micheneresque narrative. —This text refers to the hardcover edition.
As the late Shiba admits, the story of Tokugawa Yoshinobu (1837-1913) the 15th and last shogun of Japan, is not one that “lends itself easily to retelling” even for those very familiar with the history of the shogunate—the military, as opposed to the civil, government that ruled Japan. Yoshinobu seems to have anticipated that the political system that would make him shogun was an unwieldy relic—a prediction that was validated by his tenure of only two years. His reluctance seemed straightforward enough, yet numerous political assignations and assassinations, the threat and allure of the West as embodied in U.S. Commodore Matthew Perry’s ship anchored in Edo Bay, and the warring factions of the crumbling shogunate prompted several abrupt about-faces, which surprised even his closest advisers. This is the first complete work of the historical novelist and newspaper reporter Shiba (1923-1996) to be translated into English. Immensely prodigious and popular in Japan, Shiba writes with an easy if occasionally lugubrious style— “Keiki was as uncomfortable as if he had caught a whiff of his father's viscera.” His confident omniscience, complete with reconstructed dialogue, may not travel well, but his curiosity about and keen observation of the human condition will. He manages to make his subject’s convoluted twists and turns quite palatable to Meiji-era neophytes. —This text refers to the hardcover edition.
This work illuminates the life of one of the most significant figures in Japanese history, Yoshinobu, the 15th and last Tokugawa Shogun. For over two centuries the Tokugawas were the real rulers of Japan, though during this era a faction that even included Tokugawa members supported the overthrow of Shogunal rule and the restoration of political power to the emperor. Yoshinobu assumed the Shogunate in 1867, during the time of uncertainty and faltering confidence that followed the opening of Japan to the West. During the year that he was Shogun, Yoshinobu expanded foreign contacts and reshaped the government along Western lines, but when challenged by the faction seeking to restore power to the emperor, Yoshinobu retired to his native city to pursue his varied interests. Shiba’s narrative historical studies are very popular in Japan, and this is his first completed work to be translated into English. Recommended for academic libraries and public libraries with significant holdings in Japanese history. Robert James Andrews, Duluth P.L., MN
Although the author succeeds in telling an interesting story...the reader is left with very little information about Yoshinobu’s life after his resignation. The imaginary dialogue seems too brief and somewhat contrived. But one cannot quibble too much since there are so few books translated into English about this fascinating era.
—The Washington Post Book World, Kunio Francis Tanabe
About the Author
RYOTARO SHIBA is one of Japan’s best-loved writers of all times. Working as a newspaper reporter, he began to write historical novels, and in 1959 received the Naoki Prize for his novel “The Owl Castle”. His many works, which often present new interpretations of turbulent times such as the Meiji Restoration, have had enduring success with Japanese readers. He was named a member of the Japan Art Academy in 1981, cited as a person of cultural merit in 1991, and was conferred with the Order of Culture in 1993. Shiba died in 1996.