Edo Period Japan History

Edo Period 1603-1868 江戸時代

The Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido by Hiroshige.
Station Kawasaki, "The Rokugo Ferry" (Rokugo watashibune, 六郷渡舟) from "The Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido" by Hiroshige

Historians believe that it was in the Muromachi Period (1336-1573) that a distinctive Japanese culture and lifestyle developed that could be easily recognizable today. However, it was in the Edo Period that lasted for over 260 years from 1603-1868 that much of what is now seen as quintessentially "Japanese" forms of behavior and attitude were consolidated and fixed in a proto-"national" consciousness. These include obedience to authority and the status quo, the idea of an ordained hierarchy and group responsibility.

Sekigahara & the Establishment of the Tokugawa Shogunate

Modern History of Japan.

The Battle of Sekigahara in 1600 established the power of the Tokugawa Shogunate over Japan and brought to an end the period of almost continuous warfare that preceded it. Tokugawa Ieyasu set up his power base in Edo (present-day Tokyo), which during the period was to become the largest city in the world.

The Tokugawa clan directly controlled the most strategic areas of the country including the cities of Edo, Kyoto, Osaka and Nagasaki, while those daimyo who were on the losing side at Sekigahara (tozama 外様 or "outside lords") were relegated to the more remote areas of Japan, such as the Mori clan who were forced out of their lands in Hiroshima and moved to the remote town of Hagi on the Japan Sea coast. The fudai lords (譜代大名) were the trusted hereditary vassals of the Tokugawa and provided the shogunate with its officials and administrators.

Feudal lords or daimyo were forced to spend alternate years in Edo under a system known as sankin kotai (参勤交代), set up in 1635 to allow the authorities to keep a close watch for any sign of dissent. Rebuilding or extensions to existing castles were also tightly controlled and needed permission from the shogun. The Tokugawa government vastly improved the Gokaido (the five main roads leading to and from Edo (Tokyo) - the Tokaido, Nakasendo, Nikko Kaido, Oshu Kaido and Koshu Kaido). This network of highways allowed their power to spread to the furthest parts of Japan and were the routes taken by the daimyo and their retinues to and from Edo to perform sankin kotai.

The early 17th century also saw increasing restrictions on Christianity and foreigners in Japan. Persecutions began and it is estimated over 250,000 Japanese converts were executed by the Tokugawa regime, many of them following the defeat of a peasant revolt in Kyushu - the Shimabara Rebellion of 16371638.

Sekigahara War Land.
Heads being collected at a reconstruction of the Battle of Sekigahara
Sekigahara War Land, Sekigahara, Gifu.
Musket-men firing their weapons at Sekigahara War Land, Sekigahara, Gifu Prefecture


The system of sakoku or national isolation was instigated in the 1630s whereby foreigners (except for Chinese and Dutch traders in Hirado and Dejima in Nagasaki) were forbidden to enter Japan and Japanese were not allowed to leave the country. The English withdrew voluntarily from Hirado in 1623, though they subsequently wished to return but were refused and the Dutch were ordered to move from Hirado to Nagasaki, where it was easier to watch their activities.

Previous to the instigation of the sakoku policy, there had been fairly substantial Japanese trading settlements in many parts of the Far East including Burma, Siam and Cambodia.

Ieyasu himself was initially enthusiastic about the influx of foreign trade and ideas as can be seen by his support of the English merchant, William Adams, but he was suspicious of Christianity and ordered prohibition of the religion and the destruction of all churches in Kyoto in 1614. Ieyasu exiled the "Christian daimyo" Takayama Ukon (1552-1615) and 300 Christians in the same year to Manila in the Philippines.

Despite these restrictions there were direct outlets to foreign trade most notably by the Satsuma domain with Okinawa and on to China, through the Tsushima han with the port of Busan in Korea and the Matsumae han with the native peoples of Hokkaido.

The early Tokugawa period also saw the delineation of a Neo-Confucian class system with samurai warriors at the top, followed by farmers, artisans and then merchants at the bottom. Social out-castes or eta, formed an official underclass. These people were the descendants of those who did work in the past perceived of as unclean: work with corpses, tanning, leather, etc.

The long period of Pax Tokugawa eventually lead to a decline in the wealth of many samurai, some of whom took to other professions or became ronin - master less samurai - wandering the country in search of employment. The most famous tale of such men is the 47 Ronin, who avenged the death of their lord Asano Takumi in 1701 by decapitating his rival Kira Yoshinaka. This event was celebrated ever after in numerous Bunraku and Kabuki plays.

The growth of an urban economy based on Tokyo, which reached a population of over 1 million, supplied by ships from the great port at Osaka, lead to demand for luxury goods and the development of arts, crafts and entertainment in the period. Edo, Osaka and Kyoto were the three major cities in the Edo Period with the largest economies.

Much of the Tokugawa's finance was supplied by the Iwami Ginzan Silver Mine in present-day Shimane Prefecture and Sado Ginzan Gold Mine on Sado Island in Niigata Prefecture, both territories directly controlled by the shogunate.

The first Tokugawa shogun Ieyasu.
The first Tokugawa shogun Ieyasu (1543-1616), the founder of the Tokugawa shogunate.
Raijin, Kenninji Temple, Kyoto.
Raijin (雷神), the god of thunder, depicted on a screen at Kenninji Temple, Kyoto by Tawaraya Sotatsu; the original is in Kyoto national Museum

Arts, Crafts & Entertainment in the Edo Period

The great ukiyo-e ("pictures of the floating world") woodblock prints were produced in the Edo Period by such artists as Hishikawa Moronobu (1618-1694), Kitagawa Utamaro (1753-1806), Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) and Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858).

These artists depicted the floating world of courtesans, geisha, sumo wrestlers and kabuki actors for a growing clientele of rich merchants and well-to-do city-dwellers.

Erotic prints known as shunga and amusing scenes of daily life, known as manga, the the forerunner of contemporary comics, were also popular. Hokusai, the originator of manga, was especially prolific and is believed to have produced over 35,000 paintings and illustrated over 400 volumes. His most famous painting is the iconic "The Great Wave" - part of his Thirty-Six Views of Mt. Fuji series.

Hiroshige's followed in Hokusai's footprints with his influential "Fifty-Three Stages of the Tokaido" which both depicted and encouraged travel on this great Edo thoroughfare connecting Edo and Kyoto.

The influential Kano School of artists were officially taken up by the Tokugawa, who sponsored their art to embellish the shogunate's symbols of power at Nijo Castle and Edo Castle.

Tawaraya Sotatsu (c.1570- c.1640) and Ogata Korin (1658-1716) were two other prominent Edo Period artists of the Rinpa school. Both produced superb paintings on byobu folding screens with Tawaraya Sotatsu credited with the famous pair of screens, "Wind God and Thunder God," originally for Kenninji Temple in Kyoto. Ogata Korin's masterpieces included the six-panel byobu folding screen, "Irises."

Korin also worked on practical object: fans, makie writing boxes and medicine cases (inro).

Ogata Korin, Irises screen, Kyoto.
The six-panel byobu folding screen, "Irises" by Ogata Korin

Segregated and licensed "entertainment areas" were established in the main cities including the most famous brothel area of Yoshiwara in Edo, where samurai left their swords at the gate and class distinctions could be forgotten temporarily over sake and sex.

Kabuki developed in this period from bawdy beginnings on the banks of the Kamo River in Kyoto along with bunraku puppet theater in Osaka. The two dramatic forms were mutually stimulating with the plots from puppet plays often being adapted for the kabuki stage.

The haiku (epitomized by the poems of Matsuo Basho 1644-1694) and popular "novels" and travel guides for an increasingly educated and literate audience.

Kabuki was the dominant dramatic entertainment of the Edo era and was based in permanent theaters in Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto, which attracted large and appreciative audiences. Characters in the plays included ordinary people such as low-ranking samurai, shopkeepers, clerks and prostitutes which added to kabuki's wide appeal among ordinary Japanese.

The decorative arts also reached new heights during the Edo Period. Inlaid lacquerware on everyday objects such as boxes and trays by such artists as Ogata Korin (see above) and Honami Koetsu (1558-1637) are considered masterpieces of the art. Imari and Kutani porcelain was produced in Kyushu and what is now Ishikawa for the growing number of city dwellers. Japanese porcelain was later exported overseas beginning in the Meiji Period as Japan's markets opened up to the West and its arts and crafts became fashionable and in demand.

Silk textile production for kimono was centered in Kyoto, in particular, the Nishijin area, where new techniques such as yuzen dyeing produced delicate and subtle results in color.

The Great Wave off Kanagawa.
The Great Wave off Kanagawa by woodblock artist Katsushika Hokusai (17601849) is one of the iconic images of the Edo Period.
Kabuki actor Oniji Otani III by Toshusai Sharaku.
Kabuki theater developed as the most popular form of drama during the Edo Period and allowed for mixing of the social classes at kabuki theaters

Bakumatsu Period

Although the Edo Period is marked by security and stability and an increase in the size of the population, the era was not without its peasant revolts (ikki) and social discontent in times of local droughts and famines.

The industrialization and modernization that the West was undergoing in the 18th and 19th centuries was absent in Japan, which remained a largely semi-feudal society with elements of a more modern consumer economy in place in its largest cities and castle towns.

As Britain began to expand its influence in China and the US populated and urbanized the west coast of America, the western powers and Russia to the north began to cast their eyes over the mysterious land of Nippon, largely closed to Western influence except for the Dutch in Nagasaki.

The arrival of Commodore's Black Ships in Uruga in Tokyo Bay in 1853 and Shimoda in 1854 brought to an end Japan's period of international isolation and heralded the so-called troubled "Bakumatsu Period" (the end matsu of the Bakufu) or violent overthrow of the Tokugawa Bakufu.

The Western powers' demand for treaty ports in Yokohama, Kobe, Hakodate, Nagasaki and Osaka and extraterritoriality rights for its citizens increased the growing pressure for reform from young samurai often blocked from positions of power and influence in their domains or han, by the old Tokugawa system of seniority and entrenched privilege.

The merchant class chafed under the restraints of the Togukawa-imposed social hierarchy as an increasingly-impoverished and unproductive samurai class became dependent on them for their financial existence.

A series of coinage devaluations, official corruption and incompetence lead to the deep unpopularity of the regime, which attracted vocal critics including the charismatic Yoshida Shoin (1830-1859) in Hagi in Choshu who advocated a new nationalism based on a mix of Neo-Confucianism and Shinto.

Idealist, hot-headed reformers and dispossessed ronin began to call for a restoration of imperial power over the shogun around the Neo-Confucianist rallying cry of "Revere the Emperor; expel the barbarians" or sonno joi.

The 1860s were marked by increasing political violence and social disorder (exemplified by the Ee Janai ka movement) especially in the capital Kyoto and the rise of the "outer" domains, particularly Satsuma (Kagoshima) and Choshu (Yamaguchi), who had lost out at Sekigahara back in 1600. Old scores that had festered for centuries were about to be settled. Political violence was centered on the city of Kyoto as young sonno joi samurai such as Sakamoto Ryoma congregated in the capital and were hunted down in turn by the Tokugawa's feared Shinsengumi.

The short-lived Boshin War of 1867-1868 saw the decisive Battle of Fushima-Toba lead to the collapse of the Tokugawa forces in the face of better trained and armed troops from the western domains.

The Tokugawa Period was at an end and a new Japan was just beginning under the restored 15-year-old Emperor Meiji.

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