Ii Naosuke

In this Japanese name, the family name is Ii.
Ii Naosuke
Lord of Hikone
In office
Preceded by Ii Naoaki
Succeeded by Ii Naonori
Personal details
Born (1815-11-29)November 29, 1815
Edo, Japan
Died March 24, 1860(1860-03-24) (aged 44)
Edo, Japan
Nationality Japanese

Ii Naosuke (井伊 直弼, November 29, 1815 – March 24, 1860)[1] was daimyo of Hikone (1850–1860) and also Tairō of Tokugawa Shogunate, Japan, a position he held from April 23, 1858 until his death on March 24, 1860. He is most famous for signing the Harris Treaty with the United States, granting access to ports for trade to American merchants and seamen and extraterritoriality to American citizens. He was also an enthusiastic and accomplished practitioner of the Japanese tea ceremony, in the Sekishūryū style, and his writings include at least two works on the tea ceremony.

Under Ii Naosuke’s guidance, the Tokugawa shogunate navigated past a particularly difficult conflict over the succession to the ailing and childless Tokugawa Iesada. Ii Naosuke managed to coerce the Tokugawa Shogunate to the last brief resurgence of its power and position in Japanese society before the start of the Meiji period. Ii was assassinated in the Sakuradamon incident by a group of 17 Mito and 1 Satsuma samurai on March 24, 1860.[2]

Early life

Ii Naosuke was born on November 29, 1815 as the 14th son of Ii Naonaka, the daimyo of Hikone by his concubine. Since Naosuke was the 14th son, he was not in line for a prominent position and early in his life was sent to a Buddhist temple where he lived on a small stipend from his family. Fortunately for Ii, even though he was sent to the monastery, his 13 elder brothers were either adopted into other families who needed an heir, or died before they succeeded their father. Accordingly, when his father died in 1850, Ii was called back from the monastery and became the daimyo of Hikone, a fudai domain, and took the family name of Ii. As the daimyo of Hikone, Ii was one of the daimyo who were eligible for a position in the bakufu, the council of the Shogun’s advisors.

Ii became involved in national politics, rapidly rising to lead a coalition of daimyo. In 1853 Ii put forward a proposal concerning the Japanese negotiations with Commodore Matthew C. Perry. Realizing that Japan was “faced with immediate military danger”[3] Ii argued that Japan should use their relationship with the Dutch to allow them to buy enough time to develop armed forces, which could resist invasion. Ii recommended that only the port of Nagasaki be opened for trade with foreigners[4] Ii, like Hotta Masayoshi, refused to remain silent while shogunal advisor Abe Masahiro appeased the anti-foreign party[5] Ii led the fudai daimyo in their effort to bring about the downfall of Abe Masahiro and replace him with Hotta Masayoshi. This alienated many reformist daimyo, leading them to strengthen their association with the Imperial court[6]


In 1858 after Hotta Masayoshi’s disastrous attempt to obtain the emperor’s approval for the Harris treaty the Tokugawa Shogun, Tokugawa Iesada (徳川家定), chose Ii Naosuke to be the Tairō (Great Elder); a decision influenced by the Kii Party.[7] The position of Tairō, a post traditionally held by members of the Ii family, was rarely filled; in fact there had only been three Tairō between 1700 and Ii Naosuke’s rise to power 158 years later. Ii’s promotion to the post of Tairō annoyed many of the shinpan daimyo (daimyo related to the Shogun, they were unable to be members of the bakufu, but in the event of the Shogun dying heirless the next Shogun would be chosen from one of the shinpan families) including Tokugawa Nariaki. As the Tairō Ii Naosuke had both prestige and power second only to the Shogun; Ii also enjoyed the full backing of the Fudai daimyo. An intelligent and capable politician Ii Naosuke was determined to restore the power of the bakufu in Japanese policy making, both in a domestic and a foreign role.

Ii Naosuke regarded the Harris treaty, which Hotta Masayoshi had negotiated with the American envoy Townsend Harris as in Japan’s best interests. In accordance with the protocol he asked the three house lords of the gosankyō for their views in writing. However Ii faced a problem in the form of an obstructionist policy from members of the Hitotsubashi faction led by Hitotsubashi Keiki’s father Tokugawa Nariaki.

Ii was unwilling to sign the Harris treaty without approval from Emperor Kōmei in Kyoto. However the daimyo of the Hitotsubashi faction were preventing him from presenting the treaty to the emperor by withholding their approval.[8] At this time Harris started putting pressure on the shogunal officials to sign the treaty. Ii decided not to risk aggravating the Americans and on 29 July 1858, encouraged by the full backing of the bakufu officials, Ii ordered the Harris treaty to be signed.[9] Soon after this Ii negotiated a number of similar unequal treaties with the Dutch, the Russians, the British and the French. The recovery of Japan’s sovereignty and power, which were lost due to the treaties conducted by Ii Naosuke, were the basis of a large part of the policies formed during the Meiji period.

Due to the frail health of the Shogun, Tokugawa Iesada, the members of the Hitotsubashi faction wanted to force Ii to support Hitotsubashi Keiki as the heir to the ailing Shogun. Hitotsubashi Keiki was the reformist candidate, supported by the reformist faction, headed by his father Tokugawa Nariaki; his supporters pointed to his experience and skill in handling policy decisions. Ii was aware that Japan needed strong leadership, but unlike the reformist daimyo, Ii was not prepared to accept strong leadership from outside the traditional forms of government. The bakufu, led by Ii, wanted the 12-year-old daimyo of Kii, Tokugawa Yoshitomi, to ascend to the position of shogun. The bakufu supported such a young candidate because they felt that it would be easier for them to influence and control a young and inexperienced shogun.

To end meddling in bakufu affairs, shortly after he signed the Harris treaty Ii settled the matter of the shogunal succession by claiming that the shogunal succession was a matter for the Tokugawa house alone and neither the shinpan daimyo or the Emperor had the right to interfere. As head councilor of the Tokugawa house Ii was now free to influence the decision in favor of whichever candidate he preferred without any interference. In this way Ii was able to ignore the Daimyo who supported Hitotsubashi Keiki, the reformist candidate for the office of Shogun and crowned the fudai daimyo‘s candidate, Tokugawa Yoshitomi who changed his name to Tokugawa Iemochi, as the 14th Tokugawa Shogun.

Ii’s decision made him very unpopular with Imperial loyalists, especially with the Mito samurai. Towards the end of 1858 the reformists went to the emperor with the hopes of restraining Ii. In response to the attempt by Tokugawa Nariaki and his supporters to denounce him in the emperor’s court Ii had a shogunal decree passed which allowed him to conduct the Ansei Purge. During the rest of 1858 and into 1859 Naosuke purged over 100 officials from the bakufu, the imperial court and the lands of various daimyo. Eight of the officials who were purged were executed; the remainder were forced into retirement. During the Ansei purge Ii Naosuke was able to force Hitotsubashi Keiki’s supporters to retire and place Hitotsubashi and his family under house arrest. Ii Naosuke was also able to remove officials who had expressed unhappiness with his handling of the Harris treaty and the shogunal succession from public life.

Kōbu gattai and the Kazunomiya marriage

In early 1859 Ii Naosuke’s agent in the Imperial Court, Nagano Shuzen, approached him with the idea of Kōbu Gattai. Kōbu Gattai is the policy of binding Kyoto and Edo closer together to shore up the failing shogunate with the prestige of the imperial court. This policy was to be carried out by means of a marriage between the Shogun and the Emperor’s younger sister, Princess Kazunomiya. Naosuke broached the topic to the Imperial court through his Envoy Manabe Akibuke. Manabe was tasked with gauging the measure of acceptability for the proposed marriage between Shogun Iemochi and Princess Kazunomiya. Prominent court official Konoe Tadahiro responded favorably to the proposal, insinuating a marriage between the shogun and Princess Kazunomiya was possible if her present engagement failed. However, in March 1859 Konoe was forced to retire from the court by Naosuke’s Ansei purge, and the idea of Kōbu Gattai faded into the background until 1861, after the death of Ii Naosuke. In 1861 due to the further deteriorating status of the shogunate the marriage between Tokugawa Iemochi and Princess Kazunomiya finally took place, though their marriage was cut short by Iemochi’s death in 1866.

Death and consequences

Edo Castle's Sakurada Gate (Sakurada-mon) – photographed by Felix Beato, 1863–1870.
Edo Castle's Sakurada Gate (Sakurada-mon) – the location chosen by Ii Naosuke's assassins for their attack in Ansei 7 (Mar ch 1860).

Although Ii’s Ansei purge was very effective in silencing the officials and his high ranking opponents, it did not have the same effect on lower ranking samurai. Ii Naosuke’s 20 month dictatorial reign as Tairō came to an abrupt end in the third month of Ansei 7 (March 24, 1860).[10]

In the Sakuradamon incident, Ii was attacked by a band of 17 young samurai loyalists from the Mito province and cut down just in front of one of the gates of the Shogun’s Edo castle entering to meet with the shogun. The assassination of Ii Naosuke, who was seen as the symbol of the bakufu’s power and authority, was construed as crushing any hopes for the resurrection of the shogunate's power.[11]

The death of Tairō Ii Naosuke started a wave of loyalist terrorism across Japan, the poet Tsunada Tadayuki even wrote a poem praising Ii’s assassins.[12] Soon attempts were being made on the lives of other members of the bakufu and their informants. The wave of popular dissent also turned against officials with a connection to Ii Naosuke, no matter how distant it was. Shimada Sakon, retainer of the Kujō, (one of the Sekke families; the 5 regent houses, and among the most powerful in the court), Imperial regent, was killed by dissidents for supporting the Harris treaty and helping Ii’s confidant, Nagano Shuzen, expose members of the court who were targeted during the Ansei purge.[13]

The Shogun and the Bakufu were astounded and taken completely unaware by the death of Ii Naosuke. They didn’t even announce his death until several months after the assassination took place. Instead, during this time the Shogun and the bakufu first pretended that Ii was still alive and rendering service to the Shogun. Then they faked an illness and had him render his resignation to the Shogun before announcing his death. In this way Ii continued to serve the Shogun, even after death. Ii’s assassins were later granted a general amnesty by the bakufu, a precedent later used by Yamagata Aritomo, a key member of the Meiji restoration, to show that any action can be forgiven if it is performed for the betterment of the emperor.[14]

Accounts of the dramatic event were sent via ship across the Pacific to San Francisco and then sped by Pony Express across the American West. On June 12, the New York Times reported that Japan's first diplomatic mission to the West received the news about what had happened in Edo.[15]


Statue of Ii Naosuke at the grounds of Hikone Castle

After his death Ii Naosuke was quickly both vilified and defended. Even his enemies would admit that along with Tokugawa Nariaki, Ii was one of the most important political figures of the late Edo period of Japanese history. Due to the often-tyrannical means Ii used to maintain his power he was the subject of extremely negative press and was portrayed as a villain in much of the literature from his time, for example in the poems of Tsunada Tadayuki. Historians such as Miyauchi and Beasley consider that Ii was nonetheless a patriot who carried out all of his acts in the belief that they were for the good of Japan and the Emperor. They base this theory upon Ii’s 1853 proposal concerning the Japanese negotiations with commodore Matthew Perry, where Ii realized that Japan couldn’t stand up to the western powers and so suggested a policy of placation while the Japanese built up their armed forces (which was the tactic chosen by the Meiji government). In fact Ii’s successors could not overturn his policy decisions, and his attitude towards the foreigners became the cornerstone of Japanese policy well into the Meiji period.

After Ii Naosuke’s death the Ii family was disgraced for many years; recently, however, Ii’s actions have been looked at in a more favorable light and Ii Naosuke has taken his place as one of the most important political figures of Japanese history. On October 7, 2009, Naotake Ii, a family descendent of Naosuke attended a memorial ceremony with the people of Fukui in reconciliation over the execution of Hashimoto Sanai in the Ansei Purge.[16]

Gōtoku-ji, burial place

Ii is buried in the temple of Gōtoku-ji, in Setagaya, Tokyo.


  1. Gregorian calendar date of Saturday, March 24, 1860, is equivalent to the 3rd day, 3rd month of 7th year of Ansei (安政七年三月三日).
  2. McClain, James L. 2002. Japan: A Modern History, p. 119.
  3. Beasley, W. G. (1984) "The Edo Experience and Japanese Nationalism," Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 18, No. 4, p. 562.
  4. Miyauchi, D. Y. (1970). "Yokoi Shōnan's Response to the Foreign Intervention in Late Tokugawa Japan, 1853–1862," Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 4, No. 3, p. 271.
  5. Lamberti, Matthew. (1972). "Tokugawa Nariaki and The Japanese Imperial Institution: 1853–1858," Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, Vol. 32, p. 109.
  6. Hall, John Whitney. (1956). "The Motivation of Political Leadership in the Meiji Restoration, Yoshio Sakata," The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 16, No. 1, p. 41.
  7. Lamberti, p. 117.
  8. Lamberti, p. 118.
  9. Lamberti, p. 119.
  10. Tsuzuki, Chushichi. (2000). The Pursuit of Power in Modern Japan, 1825–1995, p. 44.
  11. Lee, Edwin. (1967). "The Kazunomiya marriage: Alliance between the court and the bakufu," Monumenta Nipponica, Vol. 22, Nos. 3–4, p. 290.
  12. Walthall, Anne. (1995). "Off with their heads! The Hirata disciples and the Ashikaga shoguns," Monumenta Nipponica, Vol. 50, No. 2, p. 143.
  13. Walthall, p. 149.
  14. Walthall, p. 166.
  15. "The Japanese in Philadelphia," New York Times. June 12, 1860.
  16. Kyodo News, "Fukui, Hikone 'reconcile' over 1859 beheading", Japan Times, October 8, 2009.
Preceded by
Ii Naoaki
15th Lord of Hikone

Succeeded by
Ii Naonori
Preceded by
Ii Naoaki
12th Tairō of the Tokugawa Shogunate
Succeeded by
Sakai Tadashige
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