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 behaviour 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.
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 clans controlled the most strategic areas of the country including the cities of Edo, Kyoto, Osaka and Nagasaki under its direct control, 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 (譜代) lords 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.
Heads being collected and musketmen firing their weapons at Sekigahara War Land – a reconstruction of the Battle of Sekigahara, 1600
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 enthusiatic 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 outcastes 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 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 (17971858).
These artists depicted the floating world of courtesans, geisha, sumo wrestlers and kabuki actors for a growing clientele of rich merchants and city-dwellers.
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.
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 along with bunraku puppet theater, 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.