In a Nutshell
A time when Japan closed off its borders and froze its social order
What was Edo-period Japan like?
“Japan withdrew from the world, but its economy continued to grow”
When was the Tokugawa period?
The Tokugawa period in Japan – also known as the Edo period – lasted between 1603 and 1868, and saw the country flourish economically and culturally. It is widely viewed as the final period of traditional Japan before it moved to a new, modern era.
Who was responsible for this era of stability?
In 1603, warrior and statesman Tokugawa Ieyasu was given the title of shogun (military governor) by Emperor Go-Yōzei in recognition of his successes in the country’s civil war. The title effectively gave him control over Japan, and he set about restoring stability to the country. Among his achievements was encouraging foreign trade, particularly with Europe.
How was stability achieved?
To achieve peace and stability, the country’s social order was frozen and mobility between members of Japan’s four classes – samurai (warriors), farmers, artisans and merchants – was forbidden. What’s more, peasants in the lowest class were only permitted to carry out agricultural activities, which in turn provided those in the higher classes with a steady source of trade and income. Each person had their own strict place in society.
In order to protect the traditional culture of Japan, which had previously been under threat by Catholic missionaries from Europe, measures were taken to remove this ‘foreign’ influence from the country and Christianity was effectively banned. In addition, from 1633, Japanese people were forbidden from travelling abroad, and those who were already overseas were not allowed to return home. Trade was conducted through the southern port of Nagasaki, and only with selected Chinese, Korean and Dutch merchants.
Japan withdrew from the world, but its emphasis on agriculture meant that the economy continued to grow, aided by expansion in commerce and the manufacturing industry in big urban centres such as Kyoto and Osaka. What’s more, improvements to transport and communication networks meant that even remote areas could now access goods produced in other parts of the country.
What happened to art and culture during the period?
Interest in western-style education in Japan increased, in particular geography, sciences, art and astronomy. Neo-Confucianism – a moral, ethical and metaphysical Chinese philosophy influenced by Confucianism – flourished, and there was a renewed interest in Japanese history among the samurai class. The country’s merchant class, which was enjoying more wealth and leisure time thanks to the new regime, placed a greater value on sensual luxury, entertainment and leisure arts. Major cities, particularly Edo, boasted pleasure quarters with shops, theatres and brothels that catered for their merchant customers. Romance literature was popular and clothing became more elaborate. Life in these pleasure quarters became known as ukiyo – ‘the floating world’ – and this spirit was captured in many of the artworks of the period. A new type of theatre performance also sprung up, known as kabuki. This type of operatic popular theatre developed at the beginning of the Edo period, and was far more fun and raucous to that which had preceded it.
Why did the Tokugawa era come to an end?
Despite lasting for more than 250 years, the Tokugawa period eventually came to an end in 1868. Several years before this, in 1853, Japan’s self-imposed national isolation came to an abrupt end with the arrival of four American warships in Edo Bay. With the US demanding to be permitted to trade with Japan, the ports were slowly opened to international trade once more.
The 18th and 19th centuries had also seen a steady weakening of the shogunate, as the samurai and feudal lords failed to flourish as much as the merchant classes. Opposition to the shogunate mounted, while the peasant classes launched a number of uprisings, thanks in part to a lagging agricultural sector and a series of famines.
In 1867, two powerful clans (the Chōshū and Satsuma) joined forces and toppled the shogunate, declaring the imperial restoration of the 14-year-old Emperor Meiji the following year. The Meiji period that followed is seen as the beginning of Japan’s modernity.
STATE OF THE ARTS Theatre flourished period, during the Tokugawa with the introduction like kabuki of new genres – a fusion of dance and drama
EFFECTIVE RULER As shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu held more power than even the Emperor