Japan's Almost-18th Shogun Looks Back

A patriarch looks at cultural links with the `dark period' before 1868 - a letter from Tokyo

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

FROM his office window, Tsunenari Tokugawa gazes down at the wide moat and stone walls of the ancient fortress in the heart of Tokyo. Mr. Tokugawa might have had a view from inside the fortress had history taken a different turn more than a century ago.

He is the great-grandson of the last shogun, or military leader. Thus he descends from the Tokugawa clan that ruled Japan for more than two and a half centuries, during the feudal days when the country was closed to foreigners, the days of warlords and samurai.

Today, the fortress is the ``palace'' of the emperor whose supremacy was restored in 1868 after the toppling of the last shogun.

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But during the dynastic reign of 15 shoguns, the fortress was the mighty Edo (Tokyo) castle. ``The government itself was run by a family of just 200 to 300 members, and their loyal retainers,'' the shogun heir says.

Had the Japanese not decided to make a mad dash for modernity after the 1853 threat from the Black Ships of Adm. Matthew Perry, Tokugawa might have been the 18th shogun.

Instead, he is today a simple middle manager of a shipping company in a Tokyo skyscraper. ``I want to blend into Japan as a normal `salaryman,''' he says.

Still, Tokugawa acts as titular patriarch of a family that carries one of the most distinguished pedigrees in Japan. The twigs and branches of the family tree hold a reunion once a year, and a few still own shogun heirlooms.

Once a year, Tokugawa leads the family in a Shinto ceremony at the burial shrine of the first shogun, Ieyasu Tokugawa, who is famed for unifying Japan in the early 1600s and for being the source for the novel and TV series, Shogun.

``When I tell any Japanese that my name is Tokugawa, they realize that I am from the shogun family,'' he states. ``They are curious and disbelieving that the family has even survived.''

The family survived in part because the last shogun, Yoshinobu Tokugawa, had the wisdom to step down amid the turmoil caused by samurai revolt and the banging of ``unclean beasts'' (foreigners) on Japan's door.

To keep the West at bay, the Japanese decided to adopt many of its ways.

Although the fallen Yoshinobu was at first made an official enemy and his family hounded, he was later granted an aristocratic title and survived well into the 20th century. He became a noted painter and photographer.

The Tokugawa shogunate is best known for freeze-drying Japanese society, locking the nation's door, and putting the emperor in lacquer.

A suppressive rule also helped create Kabuki theater.

``It has been thought that there was a clean break between modern Japan and the dark period of the shoguns, when the country was closed,'' the Tokugawa scion says. ``But very recently, many books have suggested there was really a continuity - with no break.

``Certain cultural practices have persisted, such as loyalty, hierarchy, shame, and face. Perhaps these have strong roots in the Tokugawa time,'' he says.

Such Japanese qualities are both blamed and praised by outsiders for creating a tight, advanced economy.

``The backbone of the Japanese way of life was cultivated during this period,'' says Tokugawa. ``Have we changed? Maybe not.''

One thing has changed.

The 568 acres that were once the shogun's castle, if ever sold on Tokyo's hot real estate market, would have an estimated value equal to all of the land in Canada.

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