TOKUGAWA Tsunayoshi was an iconic ruler of Japan during the age of the samurais. Nicknamed Dog King, he is remembered as a maker of laws that beheaded people for killing or straying puppies, and was criticized for devaluing human lives.

But recent studies have reevaluated Tsunayoshi’s policies as perhaps a major contributor to developing Japanese people’s ethical values now.

Show host Kyota Ko narrates a story for all canine- and humanity-lovers.

Hello world, you are listening to the Metro-classic Japanese. My name is Kyota Ko. Today, I’d like to bring to you a story that’s perhaps a bit famous among canine lovers – there was a set of laws in Japan between the years 1685 and 1809 that administered corporate punishment if you deliberately murdered a dog. 

The “Dog King” and the mixed reviews of his Mercy on Lifeforms Act

The laws were passed by a dictator, the 5th Shogun TOKUGAWA Tsunayoshi, or in other words the 5th ruler of Japan under a 250-year long regime of peace called the Edo Period. These laws are called 生類憐みの令 in Japanese and I think everyone in Japan grew up learning about it in school.

I looked up on Google for a good English translation of these laws and it only gave me very descriptive translations like “edict forbidding cruelties to living things” or “law to protect animals.”

I didn’t like the sound of any of these, so I’ll just name it the Mercy on Lifeforms Act. It was a set of laws that aimed to protect not only dogs but all lifeforms including cats, horses, turtles, birds, and also human beings. But TOKUGAWA Tsunayoshi was nicknamed Dog Shogun for some reason, and that’s how he’s remembered today, but it wasn’t like he was crazy about dogs. 

To our more modern-day minds, trying to spare lives sounds very ethical, but in late 17th century Japan, the Mercy on Lifeforms Act was badly criticized as an unpractical policy. However historians nowadays praise the Shogun Tsunoyoshi for perhaps laying the foundation of Japan becoming as ethical and peaceful as it is now. 

So why the mixed reviews? Let’s find out today.

The setting: 17th century Japan

First of all, let’s put you in the picture. What was Japan like in the late 17th century? People were wearing kimono, the traditional Japanese outfit, men had man-buns and it looked like they had a hot dog on their heads. Samurais walked around with two swords on their waists – that made it clear to everyone that they were the ruling class because civilians were not allowed to be armed. 

Japan used to be divided into several dozen regions each governed by a samurai lord. And each samurai lord led a group of samurais and a fleet of soldiers to fight over territory against other samurai lords for over a hundred years. This went on pretty much throughout the 16th century. So samurais had all been living bloodthirsty lives for a long time. 

They would practice their combatting skills with spear, bow and arrow, doing all those on horseback, and study warfare so that they could increase their chances of survival and making major accomplishments in battle. That’s how they made a name for themselves and got raises. 

But Japan was united under one samurai lord called TOKUGAWA Ieyasu in the early 17th century. He was the first Shogun of the TOKUGAWA Shogunate so he was the great grandfather of Tsunayoshi, the Dog Shogun. This marked the beginning of what we call the Edo Period. Edo was the name of Tokyo at this time and Edo became the center of politics because that’s where the Tokugawa family lived. 

The Tokugawa Shogunate was a dictatorship ruled by the most powerful samurai family, the Tokugawa family, and the government was run by other lesser samurai families working under the Tokugawa Shogun. These lesser samurai families each governed a particular region of Japan, so the Tokugawa family was like the White House and each other samurai family was like the governor of a state.

They had been kept under control by means of power during the first 50 years of the Shogunate. 

Transitioning from the age of swords to the age of ethics

So every time a lesser samurai family caused even a minor problem, the government took that as an opportunity to axe the whole family, thereby showing who was the boss. This was important because, for the lack of a better analogy, each samurai family was like a Marvel comics villain and the Tokugawa family was like Thanos, the most powerful villain ever.

So all the other villains had to serve for Thanos, but not because they’re motivated to. If they saw a chance, they might try to overthrow Thanos. 

So the early Tokugawa Shogunate deliberately tried to fire off samurai families that were not related to them. In fact in the first 50 years of the Shogunate, 131 samurai families were axed. The region they governed were given to samurai families with blood ties with Tokugawa or to more obedient samurai families.

But that approach led to generating many unemployed samurais, who were called Ronin. That is to say there were many unemployed men who were really skilled in killing people roaming around looking for ways to feed themselves all over the country. Some actually turned into bandits and safety became a major concern. 

So by the 4th Shogun in the latter half of the 1600s, the Shogunate began transitioning from a militaristic government to a more civil one. They realized samurais were no longer looking to overthrow them anymore, so the Shogunate gradually switched to gaining support not by means of power, but through re-education, or in other words mind control. 

They promoted Confucianist values, which encourages courtesy of children towards parents, youngsters towards elders, friends towards friends and also workers towards their bosses. So you know, obey your bosses not because they’re stronger than you but because that’s manners. That’s virtuous. 

This is exactly where the modern day Japanese values come from. We feel it is common sense to try to always be polite to others. We look down on people who fail to do this. Our minds are still controlled by Confucianism which came into Japanese people’s lives all the way back in the Edo Period.

So Tsunayoshi took over as Shogun in 1680. He was very different from the stereotypical alpha samurai. He loved Confucianism, especially one of its ideals about not taking lives of other living things. 

This idea had been around in Japan for a long time because it agrees with Buddhism which was the official religion for a good chunk of time in Japanese history. There’s even a subcategory of Japanese cuisine called Shojin Ryouri which is a group of totally vegeterian dishes Buddhist temples devised a long time ago.

So the idea itself was nothing new and it was practiced among certain groups of people in Japan. 

Brutality towards animals and children

But really only certain groups held that as a value. Most people prioritized being pragmatic over being humane. 

Cattle and horses were often disowned when they got sick to save maintenance costs. Inns would throw out their customers if they got sick because they didn’t want the disease, whatever it was, to spread to the other customers. A part of the leg muscles of horses were often sliced because that apparently made the ride smoother. 

Kids back then had only like a 50% chance of growing up to be an adult, mostly because they got sick and there was no cure, but there were also a lot of abandoned children. Families who couldn’t afford their children anymore would abandon them. 

There were even a lot of homicides of newborns. Of course there were no contraceptives back then and when women in poor families became pregnant especially during a famine, they would kill the newborn right after birth by means I don’t wish to talk about here. It’s really upsetting just to think about it. 

The political commentator Ben Shapiro is against abortion and he argues very well against abortion, but you wouldn’t need Shapiro’s help to have strong reservations against what used to be done in Japan. 

Nowadays we castrate cats and dogs, we clip the wings of pet birds so that they won’t fly away, and abortion is a choice. We still do these things for convenience’s sake, but things were significantly worse in the Edo Period. 

Tsunayoshi rises to correct things

So our hero TOKUGAWA Tsunayoshi was not happy at all about how his people were treating other life forms. He had a son who unfortunately passed away at age 5, and it’s said that it was his son’s death that motivated him to try to save vulnerable lives. 

He issued several new laws and guidelines to the public during his reign, and I’ll give you a shortlist in a minute, but you’ll see an active effort to save lives.

So for example, he banned killing and abandoning of children. He banned abandoning of animals. So you can’t just throw your dependents out every time you’re financially challenged. Take responsibility, was the message. He encouraged better treatment of prisoners and the ill. They are still human beings, was the message.

He told people not to kill animals without a dire reason. You’re a terrible person if you cause the death of other people, dogs, cats, chicken, turtles, fish or insects. That was the message.

Most people tried to conform with the new set of principles, but what Tsunayoshi faced was the kind of problem parents face all the time. Some kids try to test your sanity every time you give them a new house rule.

You know, you tell them they can’t eat snacks after 8, and then when you see them in the kitchen in front of a pack of chocolate, you ask them “What are you doing?” And they answer “I’m not eating. I’m just looking at it.” Or you see them licking chocolate and you ask them “What are you doing?” And they answer “I’m not eating. I’m just licking.” 

So just like that, some total dickheads only technically conformed to the principles. Probably for example people claimed that the baby “accidentally” died or their children “mysteriously” disappeared.

So Tsunayoshi starts losing it, like any parent would. He added statements about punishments and he also had to be more specific with his words, like “If you brutally murder a dog, you shall be sentenced to death” or “If you kill any life form when you had the choice of not to, you shall be sentenced to death.” So guidelines became laws. 

And there were a couple of cases where a samurai got his head chopped off because he killed a dog with his sword. Many samurais probably felt humiliated by this, because one, their lives were being seen no greater than dogs, and two, taking lives were a part of their identity as the ruling class since forever.

So samurais certainly didn’t like the Mercy on Lifeforms Act, and it was the samurais who were the majority of people who got punished for disobeying the Act. 

The criticizing starts

Another huge problem was that after Tsunayoshi prohibited people from killing dogs, they multiplied like crazy. It’s said that there were around 100,000 dogs walking around the city of Edo at one point. 

Dogs used to be fed leftovers. There were no fridges back then so it was better to consume everything within that day. 

*Nishina, Kunio; Iseya Inarini Inunokuso; Soushisha; 2016.

But people stopped feeding them, because if you were seen as an owner of a bunch of dogs, you might get punished if you stopped taking care of them. You can also be punished for abandoning them. As a result, there were many hungry dogs roaming around town and safety became a concern. And many dogs starved, too, which kind of defeated the purpose of the Mercy on Lifeforms Act.

So Tsunayoshi decides to build a huge dog shelter as big as 138 football fields in Edo City and put all the 100,000 or so stray dogs in there. As a result, the number of dogs in Edo is said to have gone down to just 500 dogs and it prevented people from getting assaulted by wild dogs and also rabies from spreading.

But these dogs were fed white polished rice  and fish everyday at a time when peasants couldn’t afford to eat white rice, so it got a lot of criticism, for valuing the lives of dogs over people. Tsunayoshi got to be nicknamed the Dog King. 

And guess who got to run around to capture those dogs? Samurais. Because basically they were public officers and workers. So you could imagine how embarrassed they must’ve felt. Their ancestors were fighting bravely in important battles while they are running around town chasing dogs and puppies. 

There was also an incident where a samurai abandoned a puppy one night. He got arrested and was pulled around the entire city of Edo being publicly announced what outrageous deed he had done, and then got his head chopped off, and then his head was put on display for three days for the public to see. 

It was intended to be a message to everyone about what would happen if you disobey the dictator, but it was taken as more like “This is what will happen to you if you mess with a puppy.” And fellow samurais probably felt that sense of frustration and discrimination when a video of a puppy rolling around in bed gets a million likes on Instagram while a video of yourself rolling around in bed gets like two. 

So Japanese historians now think that perhaps the samurais who kept record of events related to the Mercy on Lifeforms Act really despised Tsunayoshi and therefore deliberately wrote ill about the policy. 

Tsunayoshi had been remembered as an incompetent dictator who enforced his Confucianist ideals and his love for dogs onto his people, but this is most likely untrue because he was initially just issuing guidelines about being ethical but some assholes ignored them so he had to make additional laws and introduce punishment as countermeasures.

It’s also not true that he was crazy about dogs. His ideal to value life extended to all live forms, not just dogs. 

The effects of Tsunayoshi’s policies

So Tsunayoshi was in his death bed in 1709, and with his last breath told his successor “Keep the Mercy Act going.” And all his staffers were like. “Yes, yes. We will.” But then in the same year he died, the dog shelter was torn down and most of the laws prohibiting the killing of animals were taken back. T

sunayoshi’s policies started out as ethical guidelines but eventually ended up being unpractical laws because he pushed his Confucianist values to an extreme. 

But it’s thought that it is from Tsunayoshi’s time that people may have started to think twice before handling a form of life in any way. The spirit of the Mercy on Lifeforms Act stayed. And laws banning the killing and abandoning of children were kept after Tsunayoshi’s death.

The Tokugawa government gave out subsidies to people who fostered abandoned children. However *studies claim that the laws themselves didn’t have a real impact on saving children because the reason they were abandoned or killed was poverty. It was more of a financial problem than an ethical issue.

*Kitou, Hiroshi; Bunmei to shiteno Edo system Nihon no rekishi 19; Kodansha; 2010.

But these studies also say that there was a shift in the sense of guilty people held towards straying a child before and after the Mercy on Lifeforms Act. Even in the 1800s, the number of orphans increased every time there was a famine, but the letters from the anonymous parents of the abandoned children would say things that suggest the parents felt gravely sorry for not having the guts and benevolence to sacrifice their own lives for the sake of their own child.

Politics is really difficult. There’s no silver bullet to social problems because things are never simple. There are supposedly bad political decisions made all the time that don’t result in bettering the country immediately, but if there were good intentions behind them, I feel we need to recognize them and the few good things they do, and then it’s our job to think of ways to do a better job.

I think any political measure is more likely to fail in more aspects than it will succeed in. And the leader who had the guts to take the plunge and  the blame for everything that would go wrong and to take the risk of being remembered as a poor ruler on Wikipedia or nicknamed the Dog King should receive some recognition. He or she took the first step to put an ideal into shape.

I believe Tsunayoshi’s drastic measures had some impact on how Japanese people are now. Castrating dogs and disciplining them, which Japanese people especially do a lot of, are, yes, not the most natural of ways to cohabitate with canines, but otherwise they’ll be reproducing and behaving out of control and if so we’ll eventually have to get rid of them. Just being super nice to them won’t necessarily save their lives.

You’ll notice that in Japan, there are no stray dogs, and for pet dogs, not many of them bark because the social norm is to discipline them not to.

So pet owners with dogs that misbehave are passive-aggressively shunned in many places in Tokyo, at least where I live. I have a feeling the Mercy on Lifeforms Act Tsunayoshi issued 3 centuries ago has a bit to do with how Japanese society loves dogs but is careful not to let them do anything they please.

It’s perhaps thanks to Tsunayoshi I have lived a peaceful life without any neighbor problems about dogs.

Anyway, thank you so much for listening. And if you liked this podcast and you would like to know more about Japanese culture and its historical background, please follow this channel on Spotify or wherever you’re listening. Also please follow the Metro-classic Japanese Facebook page or Instagram account for updates on my blog and podcasts. それでは、またお会いしましょう。