The Edo, also known as the Tokugawa, period is a time of relative peace and stability, following centuries of warfare and disruption. This era of calm leads to an extraordinary expansion in the national economy, including dramatic increases in agricultural production, transportation infrastructure, commerce, population, and literacy. Although the imperial court continues to exist and maintains nominal authority, the Tokugawa shogunate (bakufu), based in Edo, wields actual political power. Control of the country is divided between the shogunate, which directly administers about one-quarter of the country and the large cities, and approximately 270 regional military lords, daimyo, who owe fealty to the shogun while ruling their own domains (han). The bakuhan government is strong and conservative, enforcing strict social policies domestically and keeping a firm limitation on all trade and exchange abroad.
The merchant and artisan classes reap the greatest benefits from the Edo period’s prosperity and urban expansion. Not only do well-established cities such as Osaka and Kyoto thrive, but new castle towns that serve as the administrative center for provincial daimyo and their samurai retainers are built and grow during this time. Using their wealth, city residents (chonin), who include the above-named classes as well as many samurai, temporarily escape official restrictions by enthusiastically patronizing the pleasure quarters established in all large cities, and the courtesans, entertainers, prostitutes, teahouses, theaters, and restaurants found there. New forms of highly entertaining drama, literature, painting, and printmaking cater to popular trends of the day, making the Edo period an active and innovative time for the arts.
Tokugawa Ieyasu (1542–1616) wins the Battle of Sekigahara, defeating his most serious rivals and emerging as the most powerful military leader. Three years later, the royal court recognizes his dominance and grants him the title of shogun. Ieyasu solidifies his political position by establishing his military government in Edo (modern Tokyo) and begins to reassign land possession in favor of himself and his supporters. It is not until 1615, however, one year before his death, that Ieyasu finally defeats all his competitors, when he routs the last of the Toyotomi and captures Osaka castle.
This is the traditional date for the first performance of kabuki, a popular form of theater involving music and dance and originally performed by women. Despite its initial wide appeal—troupes perform for the masses as well as for the imperial court—the bawdy performances incite boisterous disruptions among the audience. As a result, the bakufu outlaws first actresses and then the young male actors who succeed them. In the second half of the century, kabuki is performed by mature male actors only.
The shogunate issues the first in a series of codes of conduct, known as Buke Shohatto, to regulate the behavior of daimyo, aristocrats, and religious institutions. These edicts reflect Confucian attitudes toward morality, proper behavior, and the relative social status of samurai, farmers, artisans, and merchants (listed in order of importance). An important corollary to these codes is the ordinance known as sankin kotai, or alternate residence. Every feudal baron, ordaimyo, is required to maintain a household in Edo, as well as one in his home region. During the time that a daimyo is allowed to return to his own province, he is obliged to leave his family in Edo as virtual hostages.
An officially controlled and sanctioned pleasure district is established in Edo to function as an outlet for hedonistic impulses otherwise banned by the shogunate’s code of Confucian conduct. This enclosed area provides theater, musical, and sexual entertainment to people with sufficient money, regardless of class, and becomes the location of the new genre of paintings, prints, literature, and performance known as ukiyo, or “floating world.”
The shogunate passes its most extreme isolationist edict, solidifying its policy of sakoku, or closed country. All Westerners—except the Dutch—are expelled from Japan, nearly all trade with Europe is banned, and Christianity is outlawed. (Trade with China and Korea is still permitted but with restricted frequency.) Japanese citizens are not allowed to travel abroad, and thousands of Japanese and European Christians are persecuted. Despite these edicts, however, occasional and limited trade and dissemination of Western scholarship, especially in the areas of science, technology, and military tactics, continues, increasing in the next century.
The poet and writer Ihara Saikaku (1642–1692) writes The Life of a Man Who Lived for Love (Koshoku ichidai otoko), the first of his novels on erotic and romantic love. Saikaku is one of the best writers of a new genre of fiction known as ukiyo-zoshi, entertaining, realistic, and trendy books about worldly pleasures in the urban centers. Thanks to an increased literacy rate, these books are bought and read by a larger percentage of the population.
Matsuo Basho (1644–1694) embarks on a journey to northern Honshu, recorded in a travel journal containing his first refined haiku. These concise and expressive seventeen-syllable poems seek to capture the author’s emotional response to the sites he encounters.
The leading playwright Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653–1724) authors The Love Suicides of Sonezaki (Sonezaki shinju), which becomes a very popular puppet, or bunraku, play. Dramatically sophisticated plays such as this raise bunraku to the level of a mature artistic form and usher in its period of greatest popularity.
The artist Suzuki Harunobu (1725–1770) is the first designer of popular woodblock prints to use multiple colors to make nishiki-e, or brocade, prints. By using a series of blocks to apply different colors, Harunobu makes lively and decorative images of beautiful women, famous kabuki actors, and scenes of the “floating world.”
The scholar Motoori Norinaga (1730–1801) completes his major opus, Kojiki den, a forty-four volume study of the eighth-century Kojiki, Japan’s earliest literary classic. An important figure in the Kokugaku (National Learning) movement, Norinaga writes and teaches extensively on early Japanese literature, language, and culture. His ultimate goal is to discover and promote an indigenous Japanese culture, which he views as being essentially sensitive, emotional, and natural.
“Japan, 1600–1800 A.D.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/ht/?period=09®ion=eaj (October 2003)