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

Students travel back in time to 19th century Japan in order to take on the role of advisors to the Tokugawa shogunate. As advisors, students must synthesize primary readings on social and political unrest to propose reforms that could prevent the regime from collapsing.

Introduction: This activity takes place half-way through a course on Japanese history. It was designed to help students practice their critical reading of primary sources to better understand the forces shaping political decisions. Standard historical approaches often allow students to dismiss past decisions as “bad” due to their own hindsight bias. In this activity, students are forced to interpret the issues of the time, propose potential solutions, and appreciate how difficult it can be to understand the consequences of such policies.


  • Synthesize information from primary sources
  • Consider political situations from the perspective of the time rather than with hindsight bias
  • Foreshadow political and social reforms that were implemented (the topic of the following few classes)

Procedure - Before Class: Students were assigned three primary source readings prior to class. These readings were written by commentators in the 19th century who identified different social, economic and political issues facing Japan at that time. Students then had to write a response to the following prompt:

“Imagine you are an advisor to the Tokugawa shogunate who has received copies of these works and must formulate a response. Making specific references to the readings as well as to lecture, discuss one issue (or related cluster of issues) the Tokugawa world is facing and offer recommendations for how to resolve the issue.”

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

Procedure - During Class: Based on the students’ response papers, the teacher grouped together students that had identified similar themes. For example, one year the groups were moral issues, foreign threat, 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 had the opportunity to present their plan to the class and to the teacher, who is playing the role of the Tokugawa shogun. Lastly, students debate the proposed plans.

Procedure - After Class: To summarize the activity, the class came together for a larger class de-brief in which they identified common themes to keep an eye out for in the next weeks’ material.

Additionally, some student groups made recommendations that were actually implemented in Japanese history. When this happened, the teacher made sure to refer back to this activity to help students remember that the government’s decisions were not “stupid” but rather motivated by the issues at hand.

Materials: Primary sources relevant to the historical issue at hand and some imagination.