Week 4 Class Notes


Before entering into a discussion of censorship during the Edo Period, it is important to understand how the rulers of the period expected society to be structured.

In 1590 Japan had been united under Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-1598), one of Japan’s greatest military leaders. Hideyoshi had come from a humble, low ranking family, but had risen to be ruler of Japan. He, however, introduced a rigid class hierarchy based on the Confucian model of four orders of society. In 1598 he died, leaving his 5 year old son, his designated heir, with five regents. One of those men, Tokugawa Ieyasu (1542-1616), usurped power. He defeated the supporters of Hideyoshi’s son in 1600 and became shogun (military ruler of all Japan) in 1603. Tokugawa Ieyasu and his successors continued to enforce the class hierarchy.

The Japanese had adopted the Confucian idea of four orders of society early in their history, but it had not always been strictly enforced. In China these orders were: the gentry who were gentlemen-scholars who governed, farmers, artisans and merchants. Hideyoshi and the Tokugawas embraced this more fully than past generations, though the samurai, who were at the top, were supposed to be more warrior than gentlemen-scholar. It was called shi-no-ko-sho. Shi = samurai, etc.

Each group was treated differently under the law. They had different land rights, taxes, criminal procedures and political responsibilities. The government dictated behaviour, dress and living conditions for all social groups. Priests and nuns existed outside the hierarchy, but were subject to government regulations like everyone else. At the bottom of the hierarchy, beneath the four respectable and productive social orders, were the “hinin”, or nonpersons. This group included actors and prostitutes.

The Orders of Society


The samurai prided themselves on their warrior tradition more than on the gentleman-scholar ideal and they began to justify their position at the top of the hierarchy in terms of a superior moral character.

Samurai were supposed to radiate self-control, dignity and importance. They were expected to be well dressed and to wear 2 swords. Loyalty to one’s lord came before loyalty to family. Samurai were supposed to be above low forms of entertainment such as the Kabuki and the Yoshiwara.


Farmers lived in villages. Villages were run by a headman and a council. The village headman was the intermediary between the farmers and the samurai overlords. Farmers were expected to work hard and to grow only useful crops. For example, one of the first items the government attempted to regulate was tobacco and from 1609 onwards it was occasionally prohibited as it was grown at the expense of more useful crops. Eventually the government gave up on banning tobacco. Farmers were prohibited from having books as they would distract from their work in the fields. The ideal situation for the samurai elite was for the farmers to be taxed as much as possible while still leaving them enough to live on. A law of 1642 decreed that farmers should consume miscellaneous grains and not too much rice as rice was the most valued food and a form of currency among samurai. Farmers had to bow and uncover their heads when a samurai passed.

Chonin (artisans and merchants)

In the cities artisans, craftsmen, merchants, shopkeepers, peddlers and labourers were collectively called chonin. Chonin lived in wards within the city and each ward elected a headman. Trade guilds, i.e. book publishers, brothel keepers, carpenters, hairdressers, etc. were supposed to be self-regulating. Chonin were not generally permitted to attend samurai functions and entertainments. They were banned from political activity. Their commercial activity should exist only in so far as it was necessary. Merchants were thought to personify greed and acquisitiveness was to be discouraged. If chonin did acquire wealth they were not to flaunt it.

Outcasts (hinin, or nonpersons)

These were pariahs who did not perform a useful function within society. There were strict rules relating to where outcasts must live and what they could wear. Prostitutes were required to reside in the Yoshiwara and they were required to tie their obi at the front to signify their profession. Kabuki did not exist at the beginning of the period, but once it was established all actors, including onnagata, were required to shave their heads in the adult male fashion. They were restricted from wearing expensive clothing and they were required to live in the vicinity of the theatres.

Structure within the Samurai Class

The Imperial family (the Emperor’s family) lived in Kyoto. They and the members of their court lived a life quite removed from the rest of society, and they were largely considered to be outside and above the social hierarchy.

Within the samurai class the shogun was head. Beneath him were the approx. 270 daimyo and about 5000 high-ranked samurai called hatamoto who reported to the shogun and were bureaucrats and officials. Lower ranked samurai worked directly for the daimyo, the hatamoto, or the shogun. The shogun’s samurai, the hatamoto, and the hatamoto’s samurai lived in Edo full-time.

The daimyo were feudal lords who ruled over a particular territory. They owed allegiance to the shogun and were subject to his laws, but within their own territory they could govern as they wished. They were subject to the system of alternate attendance and were required to spend 50% of their time in Edo along with a portion of their samurai retainers. The wives and families of daimyo were required to live in Edo full-time.

Social rank determined the shape and size of a daimyo’s Edo residence, the scale of his processions, and the kind of vehicles, furnishings, and clothing he was allowed to use. Distinctions of feudal rank were displayed and clearly visible. These included the colours and designs of clothing, styles of architecture and materials used in buildings and gardens, and the methods and materials employed in manufacturing various goods consumed by the warrior. Even the borders of straw floor mats (tatami) in Edo castle varied according to the rank of the officials who sat on them. Visual display of status was extremely important.

Out of a national population of approx. 20 million, 4 million were samurai, but in Edo approximately 50% were samurai. This partly accounted for the fact that in Edo men outnumbered women approximately 2 to 1. The samurai who accompanied their daimyo during the time he resided in Edo generally left their wives at home.

Samurai were paid in measures of rice. They received between 75 and 5000 koku per year. One koku was supposed to be enough rice to feed a man for a year and was worth approximately 1 gold piece. Older sons inherited the position and stipend. Most samurai in Edo lived in barracks. This included the samurai who worked directly under the shogun, those who worked for the hatamoto, and those who worked for the daimyo.

Why this system was a problem for the Samurai:

In general the Edo Period was a prosperous time. Before the end of the 17th century some of the wealthiest individuals were businessmen. Ventures such as retail, land development, shipping, money-lending and money-changing were very profitable. Farmers too were doing better. The amount of arable land increased and farming techniques improved. Subsistence crops, particularly rice, were taxed more heavily than vegetables, cotton, indigo, tobacco, etc., so farmers were growing more cash corps. They were also engaging in small-scale manufacturing like oil-pressing or sake-brewing. The overall standard of living increased. Wages even increased for servants as there was often a shortage of good servants. Most people ate 3 meals a day instead of 2 and had at least some disposable income.

Samurai were paid in quantities of rice, so their income depended on the rice market and on the rice harvest. If the harvest was poor they might receive less than their normal stipend. Many samurai were poor by comparison to many merchants and farmers. By the middle of the 17th century some samurai were obliged to sell their possessions or borrow money from merchants.

As the samurai were largely unproductive it was difficult for them to justify their social status. It was also difficult for many of them to maintain appearances. Bushido (the way of the warrior) was a romanticized code of conduct for warriors that emphasized loyalty, devotion to duty and self-sacrifice. It had existed prior to the Edo Period, but became much more important during the 17th century. It was much discussed and codified at that time and used to justify the superior social status of the samurai.

The samurai were encouraged to maintain their military skills. Samurai trained in martial arts, poetry and philosophy. The traditional martial arts that were important to samurai were archery and horsemanship. In the 16th century firearms were introduced to Japan by the Portuguese and became important. Swords had been used for centuries, but the concept of swordsmanship as a martial art appeared around the 1570s. From the 1620s martial arts also included: long and short swords, lances, naginata and poles, the arts of stealth, judo and swimming.

Naginata, Archery, Swords, Lance, by Kuniyoshi, 1847

Sumptuary laws existed in the 17th century, but specific edicts start to appear around 1668 when prostitutes and actors were forbidden to wear anything better than ordinary silk. Stage curtains could be made of silk crepe or cotton, but could not be purple as that colour was reserved for the elite. Later actors were forbidden to cover wooden swords with silver foil or to ride in palanquins or on horses. Restrictions were put on actor’s costumes for fear they would influence the taste of the audience. Chonin were not permitted to use thin silk crepe, embroidery, or dapple tie-dye for women’s clothes. Also unusual weaving and dying was forbidden and chonin were restricted from buying fabric costing more than a certain amount.

The Ako Incident

At the beginning of the 18th century an event occurred that helped to support the samurai’s claim to moral superiority through bushido. It was called the Ako Incident.

On April 17th, 1701, the Daimyo of Ako, Asano Naganori (1667-1701), attacked Kira Yoshihisa (1641-1703), the shogun’s master of etiquette, in the shogun’s palace. The law strictly forbade the drawing of a weapon, or engaging in a fight, within the palace grounds. The Daimyo of Ako was immediately arrested and ordered to commit seppuku that day, and did so. On April 18th the order went out to confiscate all the Asano property. This disinherited the Asano family and left all of their samurai retainers unemployed. “Ronin” means unemployed, so the Ako samurai became ronin.

Asano, the Daimyo of Ako, did not disclose his reason for attacking Kira. As Asano would have understood the consequences of his act, it was assumed that he must have been provoked by Kira, in which case Kira would have been a party to the fight within the place, making him guilty as well, but Kira was never charged with a crime.

The Daimyo of Ako had approx. 270 samurai retainers. The most senior was Oishi Kuranosuke (1659-1703). On May 26th Oishi and the Ako retainers surrendered Ako Castle and the former Ako samurai dispersed. Oishi secretly lead a group of 46 of these men, including his own son, in planning and executing an attack on Kira. The majority of the Ako samurai did not join the vendetta. Asano had broken the law and this type of vengeance was forbidden.

On the night of January 30th, 1703, the Ako ronin attack Kira’s mansion (the 14th day of the 12th month of 1702 according to the Japanese calendar of the time). Kira had approximately 180 samurai retainers. The attack began with a small advance group of ronin scaling the wall of Kira’s compound. They were able to lock most of Kira’s samurai in their barracks.

During the attack 14 of Kira’s samurai were killed, 3 of Kira’s servants were killed, and many were injured. None of the ronin were killed or seriously injured. At the time of this attack the oldest ronin was 78 and the youngest, Oishi’s son Chikara, was 15. Chikara would be 16 by the time of his death.

The ronin found Kira and beheaded him. Forty six of them walked through the streets of Edo to Sengakuji Temple, an approximately 2 hour walk, and placed Kira’s head on Asano’s grave, along with the blade Asano had used for his seppuku and a note. They then waited for the authorities to arrive and surrendered.

This document was left with the head:

"The 15th year of Genroku, the 12th month, and 15th day. We have come this day to do homage here, forty-seven men in all, from Oishi Kuranosuké down to the foot-soldier, Terasaka Kichiyémon, all cheerfully about to lay down our lives on your behalf. We reverently announce this to the honoured spirit of our dead master. On the 14th day of the third month of last year our honoured master was pleased to attack Kira Kôtsuké no Suké, for what reason we know not. Our honoured master put an end to his own life, but Kira Kôtsuké no Suké lived. Although we fear that after the decree issued by the Government this plot of ours will be displeasing to our honoured master, still we, who have eaten of your food, could not without blushing repeat the verse, 'Thou shalt not live under the same heaven nor tread the same earth with the enemy of thy father or lord,' nor could we have dared to leave hell and present ourselves before you in paradise, unless we had carried out the vengeance which you began. Every day that we waited seemed as three autumns to us. Verily, we have trodden the snow for one day, nay, for two days, and have tasted food but once. The old and decrepit, the sick and ailing, have come forth gladly to lay down their lives. Men might laugh at us, as at grasshoppers trusting in the strength of their arms, and thus shame our honoured lord; but we could not halt in our deed of vengeance. Having taken counsel together last night, we have escorted my Lord Kôtsuké no Suké hither to your tomb. This dirk, by which our honoured lord set great store last year, and entrusted to our care, we now bring back. If your noble spirit be now present before this tomb, we pray you, as a sign, to take the dirk, and, striking the head of your enemy with it a second time, to dispel your hatred for ever. This is the respectful statement of forty-seven men."

Translated by Mittford, Tales of Old Japan, 1871

The ronin were sentenced to death and allowed to commit seppuku. Seppuku was an honourable death for a samurai. The alternative would have been execution (a death like any common criminal). On March 20th 1703, all forty six committed seppuku and all were buried at Sengakuji Temple. The 47th ronin, Terasaka Kichiemon, was the lowest ranked among them. He was most likely sent immediately from Kira’s mansion to notify the Asano family. He was never charged with a crime. When he died in 1747 he was buried along with the other ronin at Sengakuji Temple.

These events did win a victory for the Asano family, beyond the death of Kira. The shogun restored one tenth of the former Ako domain to the family, allowing the younger brother of Asano Naganori to become daimyo. This, in turn, benefitted the former Asano retainers who had not joined in the vendetta.

Almost 7 weeks elapsed between the attack on Kira and the deaths of the ronin. Nobody knows for sure why the shogun’s government took so long to decide their fate, but the events were extremely controversial. These events had also been very public. In spite of the rules, cheap broadsheets and booklets reporting on current events were produced, so word of the event spread quickly. The public was divided as to whether the ronin were heroes or villains. Were they acting in true samurai fashion, or just breaking the law? Should their loyalty have been to their lord, the Daimo of Ako, or to the Shogun who was his superior and who’s laws he had broken? Many Japanese at the time felt that if the ronin could not live with the shame they should have committed seppuku right after their master did. The whole plan of attack was designed for success rather than honour. Locking Kira’s samurai in their barracks was not honourable. They were criticized for waiting a year since Kira, in his 60s, might have died in the interim. On the other hand, by waiting they had shown that they were not acting in haste. They had acted according to the bushido code, fully aware that the penalty would be death, so that accorded with the ideal of self-sacrifice.

History seems to have come down on the side of heroes. Their graves at Sengakuji temple are well maintained and still visited by members of the public. There is an annual festival in their honour on December 14th.

The early 1700s seem to have been a time of scandals involving high-ranking samurai. The Ako incident was a highly dramatic scandal and many novelists, playwrights, and others were there to exploit it. The first dramatization of these events was performed 3 days afterward, and was immediately shut down. Many other written and dramatized version of the events followed and all were prohibited by the authorities.

Eleven years after the Ako ronin died, there was the scandal involving Lady Ejima (1681-1741), a lady in waiting to the shogun’s mother, and the kabuki actor, Ikushima Shingoro (1671-1743). When the affair was discovered the result was that the lady, the actor, and the manager of the theatre where they met were exiled and the Yamamura-za Theatre was demolished.

Kyoho Reforms

I don’t know whether the Ako Incident or the Lady Ejima affair had anything to do with it, but in the 1720s the government issued a series of edicts known as the Kyoho Reforms, named for the Kyoho Period (1716-36).

In 1721 the government required the creation of guilds for the producers of various goods, including clothing and accessories, sweets, books and other small goods. These guilds were to be self-regulating, or self-censoring to adhere to government rules. Two guilds were created for book publishers: one for dealers of serious books and one for dealers of popular, or commercial, fare.

In 1722 the following rules for commercial printers were issued:
  1. (1) New books which contained depraved or divergent opinions on the subjects of Confucianism, Buddhism, Shintoism, medicine or poetry were prohibited.
  2. (2) Amorous books (shunga) were not to be printed
  3. (3) It was prohibited to publish matters about anyone’s family background or ancestors
  4. (4) All books were to list the author’s and publisher’s names in the colophon
  5. (5) No one was to publish abut Tokugawa Ieyasu or his family. Special permission might be requested at the office of the commissioner.

The ban on shunga seems to have been obeyed for approximately 20 years. Large size ukiyo-e prints also disappeared until the early 1740s and from 1723-45 large cartouches were added to prints giving the name of artist, name and address of publisher and his trademark.

In spite of the rules cheap broadsheets and booklets reporting on current events continued to be produced.

In 1748, the year after the last of the Ako ronin died, a play called Kanadehon Chushingura was written for the puppet theatre. It was a runaway success and was not closed down. Within a few months a Kabuki version appeared. To get round the Kyoho Reforms, Kanadehon Chushingura was set some 400 years before the real-life Ako incident, beginning in 1338 in Kamakura. All of the names and places were changed, although the costumes and sets were of the Edo Period.

Kanadehon Chushingura became one of the most popular Kabuki plays of all times. It consists of eleven acts and runs for about 16 hours, so is rarely ever staged all at once, but it is performed regularly even now. Chushingura, or some parts of it, are performed every December because the 47 ronin’s vendetta was carried out in the last month of the year, according to the calendar of the time.

Kansei Reforms

During the Kansei Period 1789-1801 old edicts were reiterated and new ones introduced. These were largely a reaction to the fairly liberal policies of the administration under Shogun Tokugawa Ieharu (1737-1786). Ieharu held the office of shogun from 1760-1786. His government introduced new policies on foreign trade and economic reform such as a uniform gold standard, but it was his relaxed policies toward prostitution that concerned his critics.

In 1771 the Yoshiwara burned down. Brothels were given permission to operate from the island of Nakazu, which was closer to the city center, while the Yoshiwara was rebuilt, however they were not made to vacate the island once the Yoshiwara was completed. This led to a large number of small, illegal brothels springing up within the city. Ieharu himself showed an interest in the floating world and enjoyed pictures of the Yoshiwara by the artist Eishi. This helped to make ukiyo-e respectable and Samurai began exchanging floating world images, including shunga, as new year’s greetings. In 1785 a hatamoto performed a double love suicide with a courtesan, not just an illegal act, but a shock to the upper classes because it showed the control a courtesan could have over a high-ranking samurai. Many elites interpreted all of this as a sign of moral decay that was eroding the natural order of society and making samurai men more feminine.

Ieharu’s rule was complicated by natural disasters in the 1780s and declining birth rates in the rural areas. The Great Tenmai Famine began in 1782. Mount Asama erupted in 1783. Epidemics, droughts and crop failures followed. Some blamed these natural disasters on the moral decay of society.

Ieharu died in 1786 when his successor, Tokugawa Ienari (1773-1841), was still a child. Ienari’s chief councillor and regent, Matsudaira Sadanobu (1759-1829) initiated the Kansei Reforms.

In 1788 there was a crackdown on illegal prostitution and in 1789 the entertainment district on Nakazu was torn down and the sex workers and other entertainers moved to the Yoshiwara. In 1789 several thousand illegal prostitutes were arrested and either moved to the Yoshiwara or sent to the countryside in hopes of increasing rural population growth.

An edict of 1790 required all publications to be approved by the guilds first and they by the city magistrate. Previously the guilds alone had been responsible for self-censoring.

In 1791 a ban on mixed public bathing for everyone over 6 was introduced. Bath houses had to provide separate facilities, or alternate days, for men’s and women’s bathing. As a result there was an increase in ukiyo-e showing women bathing.

A 1791 edict on commercial publishing stated:
  1. (1) All texts, including illustrated books and the like, must follow the orders of the magistrate’s office at the time that they are being put into production.
  2. (2) The publication of written works on matters of the present day and the like is forbidden.
  3. (3) Writing and publishing stories of vulgar and offensive matters and the like is forbidden.
  4. (4) All types of erotic books are prohibited
  5. (5) The real names of the publisher and of the writer must be recorded within the written material.
  6. (6) The inclusion of useless matters and the production of high-priced and lavish publications is forbidden.
  7. (7) Illustrated books and the like about affairs of incompetence that have the past as a pretext are not to be produced.
  8. (8) The lending of manuscripts written in kana and based on rumours is forbidden.
  9. (9) There will be no sale of anonymous works.
  10. (10) Book guilds must carry out internal examination.

Most of these just reiterated rules in force since the Kyoho Reforms, though #6, the prohibition against lavish illustrated books, was new.

In 1791 Tsutaya Juzaburo, a publisher, and Santo Kyoden, a writer, were arrested for producing three works of fiction that were considered vulgar and in violation of the laws. Tsutaya was fined half his personal wealth; Kyoden was sentenced to 50 days in manacles; and the censors who had approved the publication were banished to the provinces. This actually had the effect of increasing the popularity of the publisher and writer.

Edicts against conspicuous displays of wealth were reiterated too. Expensive clothes, such as those incorporating gold thread, and expensive hairpins were banned. This led to a practice among wealthy chonin of putting expensive linings in their clothes.

A 1793 edict banned naming women on ukiyo-e prints unless they were licensed sex workers (other famous beauties such as tea house waitresses were also often the subjects of prints). As there was now an edict against lavish books, ukiyo-e prints became more lavish. Some had ground mica added to give a lovely reflective sheen. This treatment was given to some prints of Kabuki actors as well as to prints of beauties.

In 1796 an edict against showing women of dubious or immoral status (not including women of the Yoshiwara) was introduced. This just seemed to encourage artists such as Utamaro to show flawed types of women under a pretext of moralizing. Utamaro also began to illustrate figures from literature or history in the same style and poses which he used for his scenes of the Yoshiwara.

The law had always forbidden the publishers of popular material from producing anything political. This expressly included any samurai lineage that had living descendants. Subjects not connected to the present were considered historical and had been considered acceptable in the past. Hideyoshi, the great leader of the 16th century who had unified Japan, had no living descendants. He was an extremely important and popular historical figure and Tokugawa approved biographies of him had been in publication since almost the beginning of the Edo Period.

At the beginning of the 19th century a new publication on the life of Hideyoshi was issued. Utamaro and other artists used this serious publication as inspiration for their own, less serious, works. A writer, Ikku, produced his own book on the life of Hideyoshi in which key characters were portrayed as animals. Hideyoshi was a snake. Utamaro designed some prints of Hideyoshi and one of his generals in which the famous warriors were shown enjoying the company of women, or boys, in the style of Utamaro’s Yoshiwara prints. This was not only seen as being demeaning to an important historical figure, but it was understood that although the character shown was Hideyoshi, the reference was to the current shogun, Ienari, who had grown into a notorious degenerate. He was the shogun who had a Yoshiwara brothel recreated within the palace grounds and he was reputed to keep a large harem of women at the palace.

In 1804 the government reissued prohibitions against illustrating samurai in commercial printing and the artists Utamaro, Toyokuni, Shuntei, Shun’ei, Tsukimaro, and the writer Ikku were arrested for violating this law. Utamaro, seen as either the ringleader, or just as the most important or influential of the group, was imprisoned until the trial. At the trial all of them were sentenced to 50 days in manacles.

The work by Utamaro that most angered the censors was Hideyoshi and his Five Wives on a Cherry-Blossom Viewing Excursion. It is a triptych showing Hideyoshi seated in the center panel. The arrangement of the figures around him looks very like a grouping in the Yoshiwara. Most especially, the “wife” in the left panel who is walking toward Hideyoshi, accompanied by attendants, one of whom holds a parasol above her, looks exactly like a courtesan on parade in the Yoshiwara.

This design was banned in 1804, but it was not forgotten. The Edo Period ended in 1867, bringing a new government and uncertainty about what old laws would be enforced. Within a few years artists and publishers began testing things by publishing previously banned content. In 1883 a series of 3 diptychs by Toyonobu were published that, when put together, essentially recreated Utamaro’s infamous triptych. Each diptych represented one sheet of the original triptych. The design and characters are remarkably similar, with only one figure, the person kneeling to the right of Hideyoshi, having been significantly changed. In addition, Toyonobu has added people partying to the background on the left diptych.

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