Tsunayoshi (1646-1709) was the fifth in a line of 15 Tokugawa-family rulers. His 29-year rule was marked by an unusual number of natural disasters, including a volcanic eruption of Mount Fuji, and by that equally unusual outbreak of commerce — the arts, extravagance and indulgence now known as the Genroku Period.

The shogun himself is usually described as the most eccentric of his line. He was pictured as a despot who debased the currency and authored the notorious “laws of compassion,” which made mistreatment of animals a capital offense. In addition to such a dishonored public image was a disreputable private life.

The Dog Shogun: The Personality and Policies of Tokugawa Tsunayoshi, by Beatrice M. Bodart-Bailey.
378 pages

Though he managed to father two children, his tastes, it is said, lay elsewhere. This was not in itself unusual. Both Tsunayoshi’s father and grandfather (Iemitsu and Ieyasu) had their favorites. What was found uncommon were the extremes to which Tsunayoshi carried his preference.

It was said that Tsunayoshi appointed a very large number of attractive youths of all classes to posts as attendants and actually promoted 11 or more of them to the rank of daimyo.

One historical document, the “Sanno Gaiki,” is forthright on the subject: “The ruler liked sex with males … no matter how humble, if they were handsome, he appointed them as attendants.” Then it added a list of some 130 of the appointees.

It could not at the time have been considered remarkable that the shogun preferred boys to girls. What was scandalous was the large number involved and — worst of all — that the boys came from all classes and thus threatened the hierarchy of a shogunal government that placed the samurai firmly on top. This then is the picture that history has drawn of the fifth shogun.

It finds its fullest and fairest delineation in the splendid essay-portrait drawn by the late Donald Shively in “Personality in Japanese History” (1970) — a finely balanced account that gives the pros, the cons, and most of the dirt.

Now we have another account, one in all ways different. Indeed, Beatrice Bodart-Bailey’s view of Tsunayoshi’s personality and policies amounts, as has been said, to “a thoroughly revisionist work of Japanese political history.” In her June 24 “Personality Profile” of the author, Vivienne Kenrick stresses Bodart-Bailey’s familiarity with the period and her “masterful” re-examination of the primary sources.

Among these is a complete demolition of the “Sanno Gaiki,” the source of most of the evidence upon which the various calumnies are based.

There is no evidence for any more same-sex leanings than was ordinary for the period; the laws of compassion (which gave the shogun his popular canine sobriquet) were simply intended to counter widespread cruelty; the shogun was a fine fundraiser and reformer and was, indeed, among the most liberal of the shoguns.

If he was firm, well, you have to be to get things done. The bad reputation grew because it was nurtured. The records that historians of Tokugawa Japan have relied upon are almost exclusively written by samurai, and it was the samurai-class that had it in for Tsunayoshi. It was their prerogatives that they were defending against his reforms. Blackening his image was a way of undoing his work.

(Most modern history is now revisionist. A present, parallel Japanese example is the rehabilitation of the Taisho emperor. Far from being the retarded recluse of popular imaginings, he was a man of such liberal tendencies that the bellicose establishment had to squash him.)

Tsunayoshi is now revealed as a decent but maligned ruler. Bodart-Bailey compares his person and his situation with that of Louis XIV, his almost exact contemporary. Both saw themselves as absolute rulers and at the same time as reformists.

Just as the French nobility never forgave Louis XIV “for his prudent habit of entrusting the affairs of the realm to men who had risen from the professional classes by their proven ability rather than to those who were descended from the great families of France” (Saint-Simon’s observation), so the samurai nobility of Japan took their revenge on the memory of Tsunayoshi.

Bodart-Bailey’s account of this is so brilliantly researched and so sincerely persuasive that Tsunayoshi is not only rehabilitated but resuscitated as well.

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