General

Where are they now?

by Reiji Yoshida

Not all stories end when the curtain drops. For a dynasty fallen from power, as with a celebrity out of the spotlight, life goes on away from the public eye.

The Tokugawa Shogunate — instituted by Tokugawa Ieyasu in 1603 — collapsed prior to the Meiji Restoration in 1868, but the long history of the Tokugawa families did not end with their political dominance. Indeed, within only a few years of being sidelined by the sacred Emperor Meiji, many Tokugawas had been awarded peerages and/or had taken spouses in the elite classes, including relatives of the Imperial Family and business magnates.

Tokugawa Yoshinobu, the 15th and last shogun, who ruled for only a year, was 30 when the bakufu (shogunal government) collapsed in 1867. He lived another 47 years, until 1913. When his government collapsed, Yoshinobu moved to Sunpu, in present-day Shizuoka Prefecture. There, he secluded himself, apparently afraid of being used as a political pawn as he had been while he was the shogun. Instead, he devoted himself to cycling, deer-hunting and archery, and became highly proficient at Western-style oil painting and photography.

In 1868, headship of the Tokugawa family was assumed by Ie sato, Yoshinobu’s adopted son who was given the rank of prince in 1884 when he returned to Japan after studying in England for five years. In 1890 he was appointed to the House of Peers, and served as its president from 1903-33.

The current head of the Tokugawa main family is Iesato’s great-grandson, Tsunenari. Now 62, he worked for most of his life at the shipping firm Nippon Yusen K.K., retiring in June this year. Most of his family’s wealth was lost following the Meiji Restoration, and many surviving treasures were damaged in U.S. bombing. Tsunenari is currently establishing a nonprofit foundation to preserve the family’s remaining cultural assets from the glory days of the shogunate.

Meanwhile, three other families of collateral lineage have kept the name Tokugawa. Traditionally called the gosanke, or Three Successor Houses, these families’ role was to supply a male successor if the main family had no heir. Unlike the main family, these families retained much of their wealth following the collapse of the bakufu.

Probably the best-known and most interesting figure of the branch families was Yoshichika Tokugawa (1886-1976) of the Owari family. A renowned hunter of bears in Hokkaido and tigers in the Malay Peninsula, he was also politically active and provided funds for the March Incident of 1931, an attempted rightwing coup d’etat. Then, in November 1945, he co-founded the Japan Socialist Party.

The end of the war, too, saw the peerage stripped of their titles, and many financially ruined by taxes. The Tokugawa families were no exception. “Japan’s defeat in the war, and asset taxes, deprived our family of 90 percent of its property,” Yoshichika wrote in a 1963 essay.

The farsighted Yoshichika had, however, been concerned about the Tokugawa families’ fortunes long before World War II, having noted what befell many prestigious samurai families after 1868. As early as 1931, he set up a public foundation to which he donated most of the Owari branch family’s cultural assets. He even donated his own mansions and land to the municipality in Nagoya.

As a result, all the Owari family’s treasures were preserved, and are now displayed at The Tokugawa Art Museum in Nagoya. This houses more than 13,000 items ranging from swords and armor to scrolls and pottery, and including many designated national treasures, important cultural properties and important art objects. Yoshinobu Tokugawa, 68, the current head of the Owari Tokugawa, is president of the museum and foundation.

As Yoshichika foresaw, another Tokugawa gosanke family, the branch family of Kii, now part of Wakayama Prefecture, lost most of their fortune before the war. Yorisada Tokugawa, who was born in 1892 and headed the family until his death in 1954, squandered most of his estimated 50 billion yen fortune (at current values) on high living, and reportedly sold most of the family’s land and treasures.

A gourmet who ate only the finest French cuisine, Yorisada nonetheless played a valuable role in introducing Western music to Japan. He built the first music hall in 1918, in Tokyo, and imported the country’s largest pipe organ from Britain.

One of Yorisada’s two grandchildren is Kotoko Tokugawa, an award-winning Tokyo-based architect. “We have lots of photos left by Yorisada, many of which he took in Europe,” she said in a recent interview. “I wish I could someday collect and write up what he told us.”

The third of the gosanke families once ruled Mito, now part of Ibaraki Prefecture. Seeking to preserve their cultural inheritance and avoid taxes, this family also created a public foundation and transferred its fine arts and other treasures to the Tokugawa Museum in Mito. The current and 15th head of the family, foundation president and museum director Narimasa Tokugawa, 44, said that before becoming a foundation director in 1986, he led “the life of a salaried worker.”

Today, he still works Monday to Friday as a manager in the corporate planning department of a Tokyo-based insurance company. On weekends he returns to Ibaraki to take up his family and museum responsibilities.

It’s all a far cry from the centuries of absolute power the Tokugawas wielded after Ieyasu’s victory at Sekigahara in 1600. But though their circumstances may be reduced, the mystique of their heritage will surely envelop them for generations to come.