Tokugawa Yoshinobu: Japan’s Last Shogun

The Shōgun was the military dictator of Japan from 1185 to 1868 and the shogunate was the administration or government. During this period, the shoguns were the de facto rulers of the country and held almost absolute power over all of the territories of Japan through military means.

Prince Tokugawa Yoshinobu (October 28, 1837 – November 22, 1913), also known as Tokugawa Keiki, was the 15th and the last shogun of Japan.  He was part of an unsuccessful attempt that was aimed at reforming the aging shogunate. Tokugawa Yoshinobu resigned from his position in 1867 and went into retirement and mainly avoided the public until his death.

Tokugawa Yoshinobu, the last shōgun of Japan.

Tokugawa Yoshinobu was born in Edo and was the seventh son of Tokugawa Nariaki, the daimyo of Mito, one of the gosanke, the noble three houses of the Tokugawa clan which were eligible to be chosen as shogun. He was named Matsudaira Shichirōmaro (七郎麻呂) at birth. Shichirōmaro was brought up under strict tutelage and supervision. He was trained in the literary and martial arts and had a solid education in the principles of politics and government at the largest han school (schools that educate children of daimyos and their retainers in the domains outside of the capital) during the Edo period, Kōdōkan.  Shichirōmaro’s father instigated his adoption by the Hitotsubashi-Tokugawa family for his son to have a better chance of succeeding to the shogunate and changed his first name to Akimune. In 1847 when Akimune came of age, he became the head of the family, received court rank ans title and took the name Yoshinobu.

After the death of Tokugawa Iemochi in 1866, Yoshinobu succeeded him and became the 15th shogun. He was the only shogun to spend his entire tenure outside Edo. Tokugawa Yoshinobu’s ascension as shogun saw massive changes in the government reforms that would strengthen the Tokugawa regime. Assistance from the Second French Empire was organized with the dispatch of a French military mission to modernize the armies of the bafuku and the construction of the Yokosuka arsenal under Léonce Verny.

Prince Yoshinobu in his later years.

The Japanese army and navy were also strengthened with the assistance of the Russians and the Tracey Mission of the British Royal Navy. New equipment was also purchased from the United States. All may have seen that the Tokugawa Shogunate was gaining renewed power and strength. All however fell in less than a year.

Tokugawa Yoshinobu lived a relatively quiet life in retirement. He indulged in many hobbies such as archery, photography and painting and he focused on family as well. In 1902  the Meiji Emperor allowed Tokugawa Yoshinobu to re-establish his own house as a Tokugawa branch with the highest rank in the peerage, which is prince (kōshaku), for his loyal service to Japan.

Yanaka cemetery was established in 1872. The land was taken from the Tennoji temple and is the largest cemetery in Japan at the time, having about 7,000 graves.

Yanaka Cemetery, Japan.

Many historic Japanese are interred in Yanaka cemetery including Tokugawa Yoshinobu. Hi death marked the end of an era in Japan. He is interred in a gated section of the cemetery along with other members of the Tokugawa clan.