Let’s try to stop the Tokugawa shogunate from collapsing: Role Playing Historical Decisions

Students travel back in time to 19th-century Japan, assuming the roles of advisors to the Tokugawa shogunate. They must synthesize primary readings on social and political unrest to propose reforms that could prevent the regime from collapsing. 

Introduction: This activity takes place midway through a course on Japanese history. It helps students better understand the forces shaping political decisions. They interpret issues through a contemporary lens, propose solutions, and identify the challenges of anticipating the consequences of their proposals.

Goals:

Students learn to: 

  • Synthesize information from primary sources.
  • Consider political situations from a contemporary perspective to avoid hindsight bias. 
  • Foreshadow political and social reforms that were implemented. 

Procedure - Before Class: Students are assigned three primary source readings prior to class, written by 19th-century commentators who had identified different social, economic and political issues facing Japan at the time. They then respond to the following prompt:

“Imagine you are an advisor to the Tokugawa shogunate who has received copies of these works and must write a response. Citing the readings and lecture, discuss one issue (or a related cluster) the Tokugawa world is facing, and offer recommendations for resolving the issue.”

Students turned in their response to the teacher prior to class.

Procedure - During Class: Based on students’ response papers, the instructor groups students together based on similar themes. For example, one year, she grouped students based on moral issues, foreign threats, and famine/inequality. Students then spent the next 15 minutes discussing in their group to consolidate their ideas into one coherent recommendation. Then, each group has the opportunity to present its plan to the class and instructor, who plays the role of the Tokugawa shogun. Lastly, they debate the proposed plans.

Procedure - After Class: The whole class joins for a debrief and identifies common themes to look out for in upcoming class material. The instructor also notes cases where students' recommendations were ones that had actually been implemented in Japanese history, to show that the government's decisions were not "stupid" but motivated by pressing issues. 

Materials: Relevant primary soures on the historical issue, and imagination