Mito lord and reactionary reformer

Tokugawa Nariaki (徳川斉昭, 1800-1860) was the ninth daimyō of the Mito domain (modern-day Ibaraki Prefecture) and father of the fifteenth and last Tokugawa shōgun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu. An active reformer in the domain’s government and a leader in the sonnō jōi (“Revere the emperor, expel the barbarians”) movement, he was an outspoken opponent of Ii Naosuke (井伊直弼, 1815-1860) in the 1857/58 dispute over shogunal succession and the signing of trade agreements with foreign powers. He is also known and venerated under his posthumous name, Rekkō.

In 1829, Nariaki became lord of the powerful senior collateral domain of Mito, one of the gosanke (御三家, lit. “three houses of the Tokugawa”), the three branches of the Tokugawa clan descended from clan founder Tokugawa Ieyasu’s three youngest sons, Yoshinao, Yorinobu and Yorifusa. Nariaki, backed by the reform-minded faction in his domain, came to power after a succession dispute in the domain. He immediately embarked on a programme of administrative reforms, bestowing influential positions onto fellow reformers, such as Fujita Tōko (藤田東湖, 1806-1855) and Aizawa Seishisai (会沢 正志斎, 1781-1863), two proponents of Mitogaku. In 1841, he established the Kōdōkan, a school aimed at fostering both, Western learning as well as the sonnō jōi cause. As foreign vessels appeared increasingly in Japanese waters, he initiated military reforms. He had temple bells forcibly collected to have them melted down and used to produce cannons for coastal defence.

Despite hailing from the ruling Tokugawa clan, he propagated strict loyalty to the emperor. He urged the domains to preserve the social status quo to maintain unity and harmony, policies that were by Mitogaku’s Confucian teachings. Nariaki’s unswerving sonnō jōi stance aroused the shogunate’s acrimony, resulting in his removal as daimyō and confinement into house arrest in 1844. He also relinquished his position as family head to his eldest son, Tokugawa Yoshiatsu (徳川慶篤, 1832–1868). The confinement order was finally lifted in 1849.

In the wake of Matthew C. Perry’s visit to Japan and the ensuing political turmoil it created, Nariaki was invited by the senior councillor (老中 rōjū) Abe Masahiro (阿部 正弘, 1819-1857) to serve the shogunate as an adviser on maritime defences. Abe hoped that his employment of Nariaki, who was popular among anti-shogunate forces, would lead to an eventual conciliation among the imperial court, the shogunate and the daimyō, thus strengthening the Tokugawa regime. Unfortunately, Abe died in 1857, and his plan never materialised.

In the succession dispute of 1857/58 following the death of the thirteenth shogun, Iesada, Nariaki sided with the Hitotsubashi faction, which backed his seventh son, Yoshinobu, who had been adopted as head of the Hitotsubashi house. Thus, Nariaki was in opposition with II Naosuke, who supported Tokugawa Iemochi. After Ii had become tairō (大老, lit. “great elder”) and de-facto regent, he installed Iemochi as the fourteenth shogun in 1858, Nariaki and Ii clashed again over the Harris Treaty, which had been signed without imperial approval. In the following Ansei Purge, the shogunate retaliated fiercely against its opponents, condemning Nariaki to lifetime confinement in Mito.

Nariaki died on September 29, 1860, of a heart attack. Rumours that he might have been killed by Hikone samurai to avenge Ii’s assassination by Mito and Satsuma samurai could never be verified. He is enshrined in Tokiwa-jinja near the Kairaku-en.


  • Flueckiger, Peter; Imagining Harmony: Poetry, Empathy, and Community in Mid-Tokugawa Confucianism and Nativism, Stanford University Press 2010
  • Goto-Jones, Christopher; Modern Japan: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press 2009
  • Harootunian, Harry D.; Things Seen and Unseen: Discourse and Ideology in Tokugawa Nativism, University of Chicago Press 1988
  • Sansom, George; A History of Japan, 1615-1867, Stanford University Press 1963
  • Yamakawa, Kikue; Women of the Mito Domain: Recollections of Samurai Family Life, Stanford University Press 2002

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