In 2003 Tokyo celebrated the four-hundredth anniversary of its designation as Japan’s political capital. In that year and the next, Japan Echo magazine commissioned a series of articles by Edo-period specialists outlining interesting and little-known details of life in and one of the world’s greatest cities of that age. They’re still available online, in all their ancient hand-crafted HTML glory.
(This is an update to an old post here; I found the rest of the pieces in the series, which are happily all online to this day. Enjoy!)
“Mount Fuji in Edo Arts and Minds” (Takashina Shūji)
Though Mount Fuji has long attracted the Japanese imagination, the shift of the political center of power to Edo (today’s Tokyo) at the beginning of the seventeenth century made it much more familiar to the general populace. Easily visible from Edo, the mountain became a favorite subject of ukiyo-e artists, and demand for pictures soared as the cult of Mount Fuji spread among the general populace, along with the custom of making pilgrimages up the mountain. Edoites even built a number of replicas of Fuji within the city.
“The Shôgun’s Domestic and Foreign Visitors ” (Kasaya Kazuhiko)
The Tokugawa shogunate that ruled Japan from 1603 to 1867 adopted a policy of national seclusion, and domestically the country was divided into jealously guarded feudal domains. But two practices helped maintain the vitality of Japanese society during this period: the requirement that the feudal lords spend alternate years at the shōgun’s court in Edo, which helped break down regional insularity within Japan, and the custom of hosting Dutch and other foreign missions in Edo, which alleviated the country’s international isolation.
“The Hard-Dying Myth of Edo Misrule ” (Mizutani Mitsuhiro)
Westerners who visited Japan in the waning years of the Edo period (1600-1868) took a generally dim view of Tokugawa shogunate and the bureaucrats who served it. Their views subsequently came to be widely shared among Japanese scholars, who saw the Edo masses as oppressed and exploited by a despotic government. In fact, however, these masses seem to have been more prosperous and happier than their European contemporaries. The shogunate’s collapse was caused not by resistance to oppression by it but by the weakness of its tax-gathering powers.
“The Industrious Peasantry of Tokugawa Japan” (Saitō Osamu)
Nineteenth-century visitors to Japan were impressed with the varied skills and diligence of the Japanese peasantry. These traits were partly due to the Edo-period policies of restraining imports and promoting local production. Farming families worked hard and produced a variety of goods, and in the process they developed task-coordination abilities and a sense of self-discipline.
“Marriage and Divorce in the Edo Period” (Takagi Tadashi)
The popular image of Edo-period marriage has it that husbands could divorce their wives easily at their own whim and that wives had basically no rights. This is a gross oversimplification. One major constraint was the requirement that the divorcing husband repay his wife’s dowry. And even in cases where a dowry had not been received, a husband who sought a divorce was normally required to pay a solatium. Furthermore, in practice divorces were sometimes initiated from the wife’s side.
“Development of the Geisha Tradition” (Tanaka Yûko)
The word geisha literally means “an accomplished person.” In the eighteenth century it came to be used to refer to entertainers skilled in singing, playing the shamisen, and dancing. These women, were fashion leaders in Edo, and they were distinct from the courtesans (yūjo) of the Yoshiwara pleasure district. But today few girls are willing and able to undergo the rigorous training, beginning at around age 10, necessary to become guardians of this Japanese tradition.
“Edo, the Original Ecocity” (Jinnai Hidenobu)
Edo, the antecedent of today’s Tokyo, grew into a major city after it became the seat of the Tokugawa shogunate in 1603. The rapid development was guided by a master plan, but unlike European cities that followed geometric patterns, Edo followed a design that strongly reflected the topography and natural conditions of its site. It had an extensive system of natural and artificial waterways serving as arteries for distribution. And it developed a remarkably efficient system of recycling, with human waste providing fertilizer for the farms that fed the city.
“Rakugo: Japan’s Talking Art” (Nobuhiro Shinji)
The art of comic storytelling called rakugo originated several centuries ago and continues to be popular to this day. In the Edo tradition, the kimono-clad storytellers typically use no props but a folding fan and a hand towel, and they remain seated on a cushion while acting out the parts of the story’s characters. Within these limitations they have developed a vocabulary of gestures by which they can convey a sense of motion and drama.
“Law Enforcement in the Edo Period” (Yoshino Jun)
The contemporary assumption is that Edo-period (1603–1868) law enforcement was harsh and rough. Though some of the punishments were severe, the authorities in fact treated serious cases with caution, and they introduced what was probably the world’s first system of criminal rehabilitation.
“A Nation of Travelers” (Kanamori Atsuko)
In the late seventeenth century Engelbert Kaempfer, a German physician, wrote a detailed account of a trip from Nagasaki to Edo and back. He was particularly struck by the number of people traveling Japan’s highways. Some of them were nobles and their retainers on their way to or from the shōgun’s court in Edo, but many were commoners on pilgrimages to Ise or other shrines. Traveling was generally safe, and baggage could easily be forwarded. Even children were able to travel about the country without money, relying on charitable offerings from people along the way.
“Tracing the Premodern Roots of Manga” (Tanaka Yūko)
Japanese manga (comics), alongside anime (animated films), have won wide international popularity. They also occupy a major space in contemporary Japanese life, accounting for almost 40% of printed matter published in Japan. Their origins may be traced back as far as the picture scrolls of the Heian period (794–1185). During the Edo period (1603–1868), the introduction of movable type powered a publishing boom, but the complexities of the Japanese language caused publishers to switch back to woodblock printing, a medium that facilitated the production of books combining pictures with text.
“Edo Technology and the Art of Heart-to-Heart Transmission” (Suzuki Kazuyoshi)
Among the accomplishments of Edo-period Japanese technology were clocks that could tell time according to a system of variable-length hours and oil lamps that practically refilled themselves. Cutting-edge techniques from the West were refined and applied to products like these, not for just a privileged few but for the masses. The high level of local autonomy spurred progress, as domains vied with each other to increase production. And the curiosity of people of all classes supported efforts to come up with new devices.