Shimadzu Shigehide

Edcuational reformer who laid the groundwork for the modernisation of Japan

shimazu shigehide

Shimadzu Shigehide (1745 – 1833) was daimyo of the Satsuma domain and the 25th head of the Shimadzu family.

Shigehide moved to Edo at the age of 10 with his father Shigetoshi and spent the majority of his youth in the capital. He would return to Satsuma some seven years later after the death of his father to take over the running of the domain. Spending his formative years in Edo led to Shigehide being exposed to a high level of culture and the complexities of politics in the Shogun’s court.

The Shimadzu clan held high status for their long heritage stretching back to the Kamakura period (1185–1333), and while seated in a superior position for gatherings at Edo Castle, lacked actual political clout – something of which Shigehide was acutely aware. There were around 260 daimyo, classified into three categories; shimpan – relatives of the Tokugawa, fudai – trusted allies, and tozama – outsiders. The tozama daimyo had collectively opposed or submitted to the Tokugawa at the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600.

It was this that led Shigehide to seek marriage with a shimpan family to boost his status, and he eventually wed the daughter of Hitotsubashi Munetada. The marriage didn’t last long due to the premature death of his wife, and Shigehide remarried a courtier’s daughter. The relationship he built with the Hitotsubashi family proved useful and he was able to marry his third daughter Shigehime to Hitotsubashi Harunari, who became the 11th Shogun Tokugawa Ienari in 1787.

Shigehide was thus elevated to being the father in law of the Shogun, and as a result became hugely influential in Edo.

It is said that on returning to Satsuma, Shigehide was ashamed of the low level of education and strong regional accent and instigated a number of reforms to improve domain education. He established the Zoshikan and Embukan domain schools for literary and martial learning as well as the Meijikan astronomical observatory, later renamed Tenmonkan – currently the main shopping area in Kagoshima City. The domain schools he founded paved the way for some of the brightest individuals to come out of Satsuma, including future leaders of the country such as Saigo Takamori and Okubo Toshimichi.

Shigehide had a great interest in learning and foreign culture, and spent a huge sum of money on collecting western books, scientific instruments, and even animals. He studied both the Chinese and Dutch languages and was known to converse with both Dutch visitors to Japan at his mansion in Edo and ambassadors from Ryukyu in Chinese.

Shigehide wasn’t only obsessive about western culture – he was also a very enthusiastic patron of Noh theatre. This cultured lifestyle came at a cost, and despite efforts at reforming the domain economy, Satsuma was plunged into debt.

Shigehide ceded control of the domain to his son Narinobu who in turn was soon replaced by his own son Narioki following a purge of senior retainers. Despite being out of power Shigehide still wielded immense influence over Satsuma from Edo and is now thought to have had a more significant role in correcting domain finances than credited in the traditional historical narrative.

Shigehide lived until the age of 88 and was known for being highly enthusiastc and keen to learn about foreign culture. He had a profound impact on his great grandson Nariakira, who was able to apply the knowledge acquired by Shigehide in some of the earliest modernization projects in Japan.

This painting of Shigehide is by “Nobunaga’s Ambition” artist Tsuyoshi Nagano. It shows Shigehide in front of several western artifacts he imported with the domain schools in the background.

Alex Bradshaw

Alex is the Head of Overseas Business for Shimadzu Limited, and has lived in Kagoshima for over 15 years.

He has spent many years studying traditional swordsmanship, and has demonstrated martial arts for the Crown Prince of Japan as well as at many venerable shrines across Japan. He also practices calligraphy, zazen, and many other elements of Japanese culture and has translated several works on the subject.

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