Week 1 Class Notes

The Edo Period

The Edo Period, also known as the Early Modern Period, lasted from 1600 (or 1603) to 1867 (or 1868). It was a period of peace and stability that followed a long period of civil war. There were two capitals: Kyoto where the Emperor lived and Edo where the shogun lived. A succession of Tokugawa shoguns ruled Japan until the 15th resigned in 1867.

There is much that was special and unique about the Edo Period, but one thing in particular was the tremendous growth of the city of Edo itself. By 1700 it had a population of about 1 million, making it one of the largest, if not the largest city in the world at that time. Within that population was a large number of people who made their living as artists, craftspersons, merchants, traders, etc. who were known collectively as chonin (townspeople).

The Floating World

Many of the chonin were prosperous, literate, and had time for leisure pursuits. This led to the development of a rich urban culture based on the arts and the pursuit of pleasure that came to be known as ukiyo, or the floating world. The elite disapproved of the floating world, viewing it as a sign of moral decay.

Literacy in urban Japan increased dramatically through the 17th century, resulting in a thriving publishing industry. People could buy books or borrow them from a kashihon'ya (library) for a small fee. Books were available on a great many subjects, and fiction about, and for, the chonin was very popular. Much chonin literature was full of crude or obscene jokes and puns. The use of the term ukiyo (floating world) in the context of popular culture came from one of these novels, Ukiyo monogatari (Tales from the Floating World) by Asai Ryoi (1612-1691).

Asai Ryo was a Buddhist priest who became a popular writer of fiction about contemporary urban life. In Buddhism the term ukiyo referred to the transitory nature of life, and emphasized life's hardships and sorrows, with the idea that one should concentrate on spiritual pursuits which would bring rewards in the afterlife. Asai used the term in an ironic way to refer to a life lived pursuing transitory pleasures, living for the moment without a thought for the future, let alone the afterlife:

"living just for the moment, focusing on the pleasure given by the moon, the snow, cherry blossoms, maple leaves, singing songs, drinking wine, diverting ourselves by just floating, floating, ignoring the pauperism that stares us in the face, refusing to be disheartened, floating like a gourd that drifts along with the river - this is what we call ukiyo."

From Ukiyo Monogatari, c.1665

Floating World Art

In addition to books written for the chonin, there was art. The art that was produced for the chonin was called ukiyo-e, or floating world pictures. The most common format for ukiyo-e was the woodblock print, as this was relatively inexpensive to produce in large quantity. Individual woodblock prints first appeared at the end of the 17th century. They were sold in shops and by street vendors. This art was so popular during the Edo period that thousands of designs were produced and collected and fortunately a great many still exist today.

The most famous woodblock print from the Edo Period, the one that everyone has seen, is Under the Wave at Kanagawa by Hokusai (1760-1849), more commonly called The Great Wave.

Ukiyo-e subject matter

The subjects and images that are found in floating world art are quite similar to what you find on the internet today: a lot of pictures of celebrities, a lot of porn, and a range of other subjects.

Many of the images incorporated humour or parody either in the image or in text or a poem accompanying the image. Much of this humour is now lost without the original cultural context or when we don't know the language. But some humour needs no translation. Cats, for example.

Japan's Historical Periods Prior to Edo Period:

Ancient up to 538

Diverse kingdoms unite under the rule of an emperor whose line continues through today. There is some contact with China.

Asuka 538 - 710

Asuka is the capital. There are diplomatic missions to China and Buddhism is introduced in the 6th century along with written texts. Prince Shotoku Taishi (574-622), a devout Buddhist, introduces the Confucian model of rank, adopts the Chinese calendar, and sends envoys and students to China.

Nara 710 - 794

Heijo-kyo (now called Nara) becomes the capital. The first Japanese books are written and the oral history of earlier periods is recorded. Poetry anthologies are collected.

Heian 794 - 1185

The capital is moved to Heian-kyo (now called Kyoto). They expand their territory to include the northern part of Honshu. The kana writing system is developed. The Heian court produces great literary works of poetry, diaries, and fiction (much by women), most notably the Tale of Genji. Noble families set up private estates around the country and begin to build their own armies. Two families, the Taira and Minamoto, both descended from the imperial family, control significant areas and build large armies. In a dispute over succession in 1156 the Taira and Minamoto side with opposing candidates. This leads to an ongoing rivalry between the two clans and eventually the Genpei war, won in 1185 by the Minamoto at the naval Battle of Dan-no-ura.

Kamakura 1185 - 1333

Minamoto no Yoritomo, the leader of the Minamoto, makes Kamakura his capital. He rules with the Emperor in Kyoto and the Emperor declares him shogun (Great General) in 1192. For the most part this is an era of prosperity. Great art is produced and more poetry anthologies compiled. Buddhism spreads throughout the country. The Kamakura government is more feudal in nature than the Heian and appoints provincial governors who are allowed significant independence and maintain their own armies. Japan is attacked by the Mogols in 1274 and again in 1281. The government calls for all samurai to resist the invasion, and they are successful, though in the end the Mogul fleet is destroyed by a typhoon called kamikaze, or divine wind. The financial burden of resisting the Moguls weakens the government and Emperor Go-Daigo overthrows the Minamoto shogun in 1333.

Muromachi 1333 - 1573

Emperor Go-Daigo isn't strong enough to hold onto power and his main supporter, Ashikaga Takauji, places another member of the imperial family on the throne when Go-Daigo refuses to appoint him shogun. Takauji makes Muromachi, a district of Kyoto, his capital. Go-Daigo sets up an alternate capital in Nara. In 1392 the country is reunited.

This period saw the development of such distinctive Japanese arts as ikebana, the tea ceremony, bonsai, the Noh Theatre, and ink wash painting.

Takauji appoints allies to rule the provinces and over time these feudal lords, called Daimyo, become more powerful and independent. The Onin War (1467-77), over the succession to the shogunate, weakens the central authority and leads to what is known as the Warring States period (c.1467-1603).

The period between the Onin War and the beginning of the Edo Period is divided differently by different historians, depending on context. The most common period names in use are:

Azuchi-Momoyama 1573-1603

Sengoku c.1467-1600

 or Warring States c.1467-1568 plus Unification 1568-1600 (I'll use these)

Warring States c.1467 - 1568

Powerful Daimyo fight each other for control of the country. They employ spies called ninja. It is a period of shifting allegiances among the Daimyo and their samurai. In 1543 three Portuguese traders on board a Chinese ship land on a Japanese island. More Portuguese traders followed. Among other things, they bring muskets, tobacco and Christianity.

Unification 1568 - 1600

Three powerful leaders bring about the unification of Japan. In 1568 Oda Nobunaga (1534-1582) takes control of Kyoto and eventually of most of Honshu. Nobunaga encourages Christianity in order to ally himself with the Portuguese and equip his armies with muskets. He promotes men regardless of their social status. Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-1598), the son of a peasant, becomes his greatest general and succeeds him when Nobunaga is assassinated.

In 1584 the Spanish arrive in Japan.

Hideyoshi succeeds in bringing all of Japan under his control in 1590. He disarms peasants and has the samurai move to castle towns. He introduces a rigid class hierarchy and bans slavery. Hideyoshi embarks on 2 unsuccessful invasions of Korea in the 1590s. He dies in 1598, leaving a 5 year old son with 5 regents. A stuggle for power between Tokugawa Ieyasu (1542-1616) and those supporting Hideyoshi's young son, Toyotomi Hideyori, ends with the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600.

Tokugawa Ieyasu (1542-116) and Tokugawa rule

Tokugawa Ieyasu (1542-1616) wins the battle Sekigahara in 1600, making him effectively the military ruler of Japan. Initially Daimyo who resist are exiled or forced to commit seppuku. The rest swear allegiance. In return they are allowed to keep control of their traditional domains, with the added proviso that they not attack or appropriate other territories, or conspire with others or with foreign powers against the Tokugawa government. Disputes are resolved by negotiation or by tribunal. The (approx. 260) Daimyo take care of regional administration.

Ieyasu makes Edo his capital. In 1603 the emperor, Go-Yozei (1572-1617), officially declares him shogun. The Tokugawas ruled Japan for 14 generations, or 15 if you include the last, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, who became shogun in 1866 and resigned at the end of 1867, without having really assumed power.

Initially there is some opposition to the Tokugawas: skirmishes in Osaka in 1614-15 and a 6-month uprising in the south-west in 1637. After that there is no armed resistance to Tokugawa rule.

Note that the novel Shogun, 1975, by James Clavell was set at the beginning of the Edo Period. His character Lord Toranaga was inspired by Tokugawa Ieyasu. The main character, John Blackthorne, was based on William Adams, the English pilot of a Dutch ship, who arrived in Japan in 1600.

During the early years of Tokugawa rule the first 3 shoguns introduced 2 very significant policies which strongly influenced the culture of the period, and particular of Edo.

System of Alternate Attendance

The growth of Edo was spurred by the system of alternative attendance, or sankin kotai. Under this system the immediate families (wives and children) of the daimyo were required to reside permanently in Edo. The approximately 260 daimyo and large numbers of their samurai were required to spend alternative years in Edo. For large domains this meant up to 2000 people moving back and forth. Most daimyos maintained 3 residences in Edo: their own large mansion, a smaller complex for their heirs, and a country retreat outside the city for the summer.

This system resulted in better roads with amenities for travellers and this facilitated trade. It also brought a huge influx of builders and other tradesmen to Edo to build mansions and samurai housing, along with an influx of workers to provide support services for the growing population.

The other major thing the Tokugawa did was to severely restrict foreign influence.

The Portuguese and Spanish both arrived in Japan in the 16th century. Both brought Christian missionaries. Neither interfered particularly in Japanese politics, but the threat was there. In 1609 the Tokugawa government established formal trade relations with the Dutch, who did not bring missionaries. In 1624 the Spanish were expelled and in 1638 the Portuguese were expelled and Christianity was made illegal. Missionaries were expelled or executed. Converts were forced to recant or were executed.

Note that the movie Silence from 2016, about 2 Jesuit priests who go to Japan to find an older priest, was set during this period after missionaries had been expelled.

Any Japanese who went abroad faced execution if they returned.

Trade relations were maintained with the Dutch throughout the period, but they were restricted to Deshima Island in Nagasaki Bay (except by special permission or for special occasions when they were heavily guarded). There was also trade with the Chinese from Nagasaki and some trade with Korea.

Growth of Cities: trade and commerce

In addition to all the tradesmen required to build and maintain all the new housing in Edo there were merchants importing and selling all manner of goods. Some merchants became extremely wealthy.

By 1700 Edo had population of approx. 1 million. Osaka had approx. 500,000 and Kyoto approx. 300,000. Many daimyo had castle towns with populations of around 10,000. All these urban centers required goods and services. Shops were everywhere, even in smaller towns. People made fewer products themselves.

Growth of Cities: entertainment industry

All of the craftsmen, artisans, merchants and traders comprised a large population with leisure time and disposable income. Added to these were all the underemployed samurai who were obliged to live in Edo with their lords.

This led to the rise of a large and influential entertainment industry, most particularly the brothels and the theatre.

Recommended reading:
The Ghost Brush
By Katherine Govier
HarperCollins Publishers Ltd., 2010