What was the context behind the Sonnō Jōi (尊皇攘夷, "revere the emperor and repel the barbarians") movement?

To my understanding, the Edo Shogunate was a typical feudal society with strict societal structures (class system from Neo-Confucianism and all the autonomous Hans). Ideally this should keep the people loyal only to their direct overlords, in the sense that a serf would be loyal only to his/her local lord/daimyo instead of the king/shogun/emperor. So how did the Sonnō Jōi movement gain popularity? My assumption is that this (the respect for the emperor) could be rooted in nationalism as reflected through the Jōi ("repel the barbarians") part of the phrase as well as the Kokugaku (國學, "national/domestic studies") school that gained popularity in the same period. But where did this sense of nationalism in turn come from then, as the notion of nationalism is also alien to a typical feudal society? The "Japanese Nationalism" entry of Wikipedia only traced it back to the Meiji period. (Maybe I should create an individual question for Japanese nationalism?)

Edit from comment: I looked up the Wikipedia entry for Sonnō Jōi but it didn't really explain how the movement gained popularity other than stating that the idea came from Neo-Confucianism and listing several significant figures in promoting it. Besides, wouldn't the Neo-Confucians be more inclined to promoting the Shogunate since the shogun was the actual person in charge and that the shogunate itself promoted Neo-Confucianism? To me it would make sense if the participants of the movement used the emperor only as a figurehead against the shogunate but they were proven to be quite genuinely loyal during and after the Meiji Restoration.

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    – MCW
    Commented Sep 4, 2020 at 16:49
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    I'm skeptical of the assumptions found in "Ideally this should keep the people loyal only to their direct overlords, in the sense that a serf would be loyal only to his/her local lord/daimyo instead of the king/shogun/emperor. " Not my time or period but this doesn't accord with what I know of human psychology, or the limited amount I know of Oriental governance. This is only 1 of the five great relationships. We have some people more skilled in Japanese history than I, so I'll defer to them.
    – MCW
    Commented Sep 4, 2020 at 17:09
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    In short, Japanese nationalism was a post-Restoration concept which was created to make sense of the state once the domains were abolished. No one started out on sonno joi to abolish the domains; it was thought the new system would take direction from the Emperor without the intermediary of the shogun. Four lines of political philosophy: emperor & shogun and isolation % openness, competed: some people favored emperor-led isolation, others shogunate openness, etc. Very complex. For the average Japanese, the Emperor bestowed court titles and such but during Edo was not otherwise involved.
    – gktscrk
    Commented Sep 4, 2020 at 17:48
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    I do not know if you can call a system "typical feudal" where the emperor is mostly a religious symbol, where the class system is more like a caste system, and where the classical nobility is practically overruled by a military centered government. If your point was that national identity / unified Japanese nation was a foreign concept to the Edo era, I agree and I think focus on that more.
    – Greg
    Commented Sep 6, 2020 at 11:29
  • @gktscrk Good points. I think it is best to look at a situation where a long-standing power balance (between the shogun and the local daimyos) were constantly eroding due to bad economy, the general decline of the leading samurai class, and the extreme advantage that one can get if directly opening up to foreign trade and foreign technology. The shogunate had no upper hand over the domains anymore, and the samurai became poor compared eg the trader class. Therefore one central political problem was how to deal with foreign contact without becoming a colony or puppet to them.
    – Greg
    Commented Sep 6, 2020 at 11:38

1 Answer 1


I was hoping I'd have more of a chance to write something thorough, including sources, but I'll have to make this short. I'm basing this answer primarily on my understanding of Japan both pre- and post-Restoration on the works of Ryotaro Shiba, four of which have been translated and actively consider this period ('Clouds above the Hill', 'Ryoma!', 'Drunk as a Lord', and 'The Last Shogun'). I've previously expanded on Shiba's historical accuracy here.

The hierarchy in Japan was top–down; the shogun was the head of the shogunate, and everything was linked to him during the Edo period. This also meant that the "inner daimyo" (those who fought for the Tokugawa at Sekigahara) were favoured above the "outer daimyo" (those who fought against the Tokugawa at Sekigahara)—or, at least, the "inner daimyo" had the more central territories for themselves. I've described some of the methods that the shogun used to keep the daimyo in line economically here along with a brief description of the setup: one centre for foreign politics, and three hundred local centres of power.

This overall structure lead to stagnation in most han by the 19th century though some reformist lords did exist (e.g., Kanso). Also, while during the Sengoku Jidai many daimyo had engaged in fighting, the situation was very different by the middle of the 19th century almost none of them did so. The Tokugawa's attempt to turn the daimyo and their upper ranking samurai into effective administrators had worked quite well:

This was something extraordinary for the times. During the Boshin War, many domains had joined the imperial forces, but there was not a single instance of the lord himself leading the domain troops. Now here was the former lord of Sasayama saying he would join the military himself.
—Shiba, 'Clouds above the Hill, Vol. 1'

At the same time, while the Tokugawa had fixed societal classes early on in the 17th century, the old truth of merchants making money and other classes, especially the samurai, losing it was as true in Japan as elsewhere. This gave a basis for societal upheaval as well as monetary supply from the non-established classes.

If one investigates where the sonnō jōi movement started, this is in the "outer domains'" lower classes. These people (including lower samurai ranks, as many of the domains had various samurai rankings: nearly all of the top Restoration leaders came from the lower, foot samurai, classes) had the most to gain from societal differences, because not only were they comparatively worse off than the upper samurai, but also their domain was seen as "worse off" compared to other domains.

Yet, in many ways, until the concept of "the Japanese nation-state" was derived during the years leading up to the Restoration (and, indeed, after), many of the people rebelling against the shogun were hoping to flip the situation: the daimyo had no incentives to raise the Emperor up above themselves as a 'new shogun' (which eventually happened, even if tradition limited his power). After the Restoration, all of the military and civil administration was under the Emperor's power (in theory)

Regarding the situation of the loyalty of former samurai to their han after the Restoration, the below quote is illustrative (especially as it describes a time approx. fifteen years after the fall of the Shogunate: old loyalties ran deep even if there was no longer a formal connection between the lord and his former subjects):

This shows in what high regard the former lords of the old domains were still held at this time. After the Restoration, civil officials and military officers worked directly under the emperor. They were “the emperor’s officers” in theory. But the civil and military officials who were former samurai were in a delicate situation. As a matter of etiquette, they still maintained the manner of loyal retainers toward their former lords’ families.
—Shiba, 'Clouds above the Hill, Vol. 1'

When one wants to understand the position of the Emperor (or, the Imperial Court) vs the Shogun in the popular mind, looking into the development of shinto and kokugaku is probably the best way to go. Kokugaku is an exceedingly interesting topic, though I'm not the greatest expert on it myself.

However, one of the most obvious sources of power in the land was the Emperor: he could bestow court ranks and also authorize daimyo to carry out special missions. This is well evidenced in the early 1860's where control over Kyoto (and the Imperial Court) was the key—whoever controlled the city could issue edicts against the opposition, essentially outlawing them.

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