A Book Review of “The Last Shogun”

Shiba Ryôtarô, The Last Shogun: The Life of Tokugawa Yoshinobu. Juliet Winters Carpenter, trans. New York, Kodansha International, 1992. ISBN: 1-56836-246-3 (hardcover)

Review by James Au Kin-pong

Most would agree that Meiji restoration in the last 1860s serves as a pivotal moment which paves the way for Japan’s growing success to be a superpower comparable to Western nations including the United States and France. But few visualize clearly how transition of power from Tokugawa shogunate – the feudal military government which has ruled for more than 260 years – to Meiji emperor can be somehow made so smoothly without causing major pandemonium. Dating back to early nineteenth century, Edo bakufu did not only face inner fiscal crisis, but was threatened by the West’s superior military power. Having witnessed how her counterpart China had been beaten by the British armies in Opium War, almost all Japanese were desperate for ways to avoid falling victim to a colony of the West.

It is in this chaotic era where Tokugawa Yoshinobu (1837 – 1913), the fifteenth and the last shogun (samurai), was born and raised. Most historians perceive him as a key figure who contributed to Japanese speedy modernization, after his active resignation as shogun to the emperor and stepped down on 9 November, 1867. Yoshinobu’s personality and talents were however re-presented to readers, thanks to the detailed delineation of Shiba Ryôtarô (1923-1996), a celebrated historical novelist, in his work The Last Shogun first published in Japanese in 1967 and later adapted in 1998 into Japanese drama.

Shiba wrote meticulously about Yoshinobu’s upbringing: Born to be the son of Mito Daimyo, he received Confucius education and developed to be a logical and fluent speaker. Since the blood tie between the Mito clan and Tokugawa shogunate was weak compared to other Daimyo, and as Mito scholarship encouraged the principle of Sonno – to revere the emperor –, Yoshinobu had been despised, and suspected to be a traitor, even though he became the adopted son of the Hitotsubashi family, one of the three branches of Tokugawa clan.

Yoshinobu was not ignorant, as Shiba demonstrated, of his treacherous situation. His enriched reading of Chinese historical classics such as Tzu-chih t’ung-chien (“Comprehensive Mirror for Aid in Government”), Shih-chi (“Historical Records”) and Sun-tzu (“The Art of War”) endowed him with capability to foresee whatever would be awaiting him. With the waning power of shogunate further shaken by few tumults demanding to expel the barbarians, and some sanctioning reforms and opening more ports in the wake of the arrival of American Navy Commodore Matthew Perry in 1853, Yoshinobu had to make a difficult choice. Fully aware the military strength of the West, and knowing that only through unity, but not through civil war could Japan turn to be strong again, he was determined to prevent the war ignited by the alliance of Satsuma and Chōshū from claiming more lives. On 7 November, 1867, Yoshinobu gathered all Bakufu officials in Kyoto, and renounced his power. In the speech, he said, “Ieyasu founded the shogunate in order to [preserve peace and order in the land]. Now, to the same purpose, I renounce power. My purpose is the same as that of our hallowed ancestor” (207). From this, together with his formerly repetitive refusal to be shogun, we can see how Shiba portrayed to us a liberal man who has no attachment to power.

Such a consistent portrayal is further exhibited near the end of the story when the narrator tells us that Yoshinobu thought the emperor and the emperor system should dissolve “when the anarchist leader Kotoku Shusui was arrested with eleven of his followers on suspicion of plotting to assassinate the emperor” (246) in 1910. Viewed in this light, Yoshinobu perhaps is not just a capable man, but also a historical, and philosophical thinker who always possesses deep, comprehensive insight into an invisible future.

Shiba’s The Last Shogun provokes a very intriguing question: Should it be read as a fiction, or as a secondary historical source? Chinese historicists and sinologists acknowledged that Chinese historian Sima Qian (c. 145 or 135 – 86 BC)’s Shiji (“Historical Record”) carries high literary and historical values. Its successors in Japan later roughly referred to Shiji and created Nihon Shiki (“The Chronicles of Japan”), the oldest history book in Japan with a number of myths. In this regard, fiction and “facts” cannot be clearly divided and defined. Even when focusing on western literary discourse, we discover that scholars like Hayden White proposed the idea of “emplotment”– an act of creating a plot in the chronicle –, a means to facilitating the explanation of history, which ultimately implies that narrative is essential for the study of history.

Looking back to Shiba’s work, we can indeed trace a message that Shiba was trying to tell us through his narrative: Located in an age where interaction with the rest of the world is inevitable, one should follow the historical trend and seek changes just as Yoshinobu did, instead of defying it, or the indemnity or the number of death can be unforeseeably high.

[Featured image of Tokugawa Yoshinobu]

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