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Edo Period 江戸時代

The Edo period is a division of Japanese history running from 1603 to 1867. The period marks the governance of the Edo or Tokugawa Shogunate which was also officially established in 1603 by the first Edo shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu. During this period external political, economic and religious influence on Japan was limited. Only China and the Dutch East India Company enjoyed the right to visit Japan during this period. Other Europeans who landed on Japanese shores were put to death. The period ended in 1867 with the restoration of the Imperial rule by the 15th and last shogun Tokugawa Yoshinobu. The Edo period is also known to be the beginning of the early modern period of Japan.

Economic development

Economic development during the Tokugawa period included urbanization, increased shipping of commodities, a significant expansion of domestic and, initially, foreign commerce, and a diffusion of trade and handicraft industries. By the mid-eighteenth century, Edo had a population of more than 1 million and Osaka and Kyoto each had more than 400,000 inhabitants. Many other castle towns grew as well. Osaka and Kyōto became busy trading and handicraft production centers, while Edo was the center for the supply of food and essential urban consumer goods. The construction trades flourished, along with banking facilities and merchant associations. Increasingly, Han authorities oversaw the rising agricultural production and the spread of rural handicrafts.

Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu (1542-1616)

Intellectual trends

The flourishing of neo-Confucianism was the major intellectual development of the Tokugawa period. Confucian studies had long been kept active in Japan by Buddhist clerics, but during the Tokugawa period, Confucianism emerged from Buddhist religious control. This system of thought increased attention to a secular view of man and society. The ethical humanism, rationalism, and historical perspective of neo-Confucian doctrine appealed to the official class. By the mid-seventeenth century, neo-Confucianism was Japan's dominant legal philosophy and contributed directly to the development of the kokugaku (national learning) school of thought.

Scene of life during the Edo period Scene of life during the Edo period Scene of life during the Edo period

Advanced studies and growing applications of neo-Confucianism contributed to the transition of the social and political order from feudal norms to class- and large-group-oriented practices. The rule of the people or Confucian man was gradually replaced by the rule of law. New laws were developed, and new administrative devices were instituted. A new theory of government and a new vision of society emerged as a means of justifying more comprehensive governance by the bakufu. Each person had a distinct place in society and was expected to work to fulfill his or her mission in life. The people were to be ruled with benevolence by those whose assigned duty it was to rule. Government was all-powerful but responsible and humane. Although the class system was influenced by neo-Confucianism, it was not identical to it. Whereas soldiers and clergy were at the bottom of the hierarchy in the Chinese model, in Japan some members of these classes constituted the ruling elite.

Members of the samurai class adhered to bushi traditions with a renewed interest in Japanese history and in cultivation of the ways of Confucian scholar-administrators, resulting in the development of the concept of bushido (the way of the warrior--see Glossary). Another special way of life --chonindo-- also emerged. Chonindo (the way of the townspeople) was a distinct culture that arose in cities such as Osaka, Kyoto, and Edo. It encouraged aspiration to bushido qualities--diligence, honesty, honor, loyalty, and frugality--while blending Shinto, neo-Confucian, and Buddhist beliefs. Study of mathematics, astronomy, cartography, engineering, and medicine were also encouraged. Emphasis was placed on quality of workmanship, especially in the arts. For the first time, urban populations had the means and leisure time to support a new mass culture. Their search for enjoyment became known as ukiyo (the floating world), an ideal world of fashion and popular entertainment. Professional female entertainers (geisha), music, popular stories, Kabuki and bunraku (puppet) theater, poetry, a rich literature, and art, exemplified by beautiful woodblock prints (known as ukiyo-e), were all part of this flowering of culture (see Visual Arts , ch. 3). Literature also flourished with the talented examples of the playwright Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653- 1724) and the poet, essayist, and travel writer Matsuo Basho (1644- 94).

Buddhism and Shintō were both still important in Tokugawa Japan. Buddhism, combined with neo-Confucianism, provided standards of social behavior. Although not as powerful politically as it had been in the past, Buddhism was espoused by the upper classes. Proscriptions against Christianity benefited Buddhism in 1640 when the bakufu ordered everyone to register at a temple. The rigid separation of Tokugawa society into han, villages, wards, and households helped reaffirm local Shintō attachments. Shintō provided spiritual support to the political order and was an important tie between the individual and the community. Shintō also helped preserve a sense of national identity.

Shintō eventually assumed an intellectual form as shaped by neo-Confucian rationalism and materialism. The kokugaku movement emerged from the interactions of these two beliefs systems. Kokugaku contributed to the emperor-centered nationalism of modern Japan and the revival of Shintō as a national creed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The Kojiki, Nihongi, and Man'yoshu were all studied anew in the search for the Japanese spirit. Some purists in the kokugaku movement even criticized the Confucian and Buddhist influences--in effect, foreign ones--for contaminating Japan's ancient ways. Japan was the land of the kami and, as such, had a special destiny.

Knowledge of the West during the early Tokugawa period was restricted to a tiny school of thought known as Rangaku (Dutch Learning). Its adherents were mostly in Nagasaki, where the Dutch outpost was located on Deshima.

Arrival of Commodore Perry and his Black Ships in Japan
Arrival of Commodore Perry and his Black Ships in Japan

Decline of the Tokugawa

The end of this period is particularly called "Late Tokugawa shogunate". The cause for the end of this period is controversial but is recounted as the forcing of Japan's opening to the world by Commodore M. Perry of the U.S. Navy whose armada (known by Japanese as 'the black ships') fired weapons from Tokyo Bay. Several artificial land masses were created to block the range of the armada and this land remains in what is presently called the Odaiba district.

Depiction of Commodore Perry as seen by contemporary Japanese

The Tokugawa did not eventually collapse simply because of intrinsic failures. Foreign intrusions helped to precipitate a complex political struggle between the bakufu and a coalition of its critics. The continuity of the anti-bakufu movement in the mid-nineteenth century would finally bring down the Tokugawa. From the outset, the Tokugawa attempted to restrict families' accumulation of wealth and fostered a "back to the soil" policy, in which the farmer, the ultimate producer, was the ideal person in society. Despite these efforts to restrict wealth, and partly because of the extraordinary period of peace, the standard of living for urban and rural dwellers alike grew significantly during the Tokugawa period. Better means of crop production, transportation, housing, food, and entertainment were all available, as was more leisure time, at least for urban dwellers. The literacy rate was high for a preindustrial society, and cultural values were redefined and widely imparted throughout the samurai and chonin classes. Despite the reappearance of guilds, economic activities went well beyond the restrictive nature of the guilds, and commerce spread and a money economy developed. Although government heavily restricted the merchants and viewed them as unproductive and usurious members of society, the samurai, who gradually became separated from their rural ties, depended greatly on the merchants and artisans for consumer goods, artistic interests, and loans. In this way, a subtle subversion of the warrior class by the chonin took place.

A struggle arose in the face of political limitations that the shogun imposed on the entrepreneurial class. The government ideal of an agrarian society failed to square with the reality of commercial distribution. A huge government bureaucracy had evolved, which now stagnated because of its discrepancy with a new and evolving social order. Compounding the situation, the population increased significantly during the first half of the Tokugawa period. Although the magnitude and growth rates are uncertain, there were at least 26 million commoners and about 4 million members of samurai families and their attendants when the first nationwide census was taken in 1721. Drought, followed by crop shortages and starvation, resulted in twenty great famines between 1675 and 1837. Peasant unrest grew, and by the late eighteenth century, mass protests over taxes and food shortages had become commonplace. Newly landless families became tenant farmers, while the displaced rural poor moved into the cities. As the fortunes of previously well-to-do families declined, others moved in to accumulate land, and a new, wealthy farming class emerged. Those people who benefited were able to diversify production and to hire laborers, while others were left discontented. Many samurai fell on hard times and were forced into handicraft production and wage jobs for merchants.

Western intrusions were on the increase in the early nineteenth century. Russian warships and traders encroached on Karafuto (called Sakhalin under Russian and Soviet control) and on the Kuril Islands, the southernmost of which are considered by the Japanese as the northern islands of Hokkaido. A British warship entered Nagasaki Harbor searching for enemy Dutch ships in 1808, and other warships and whalers were seen in Japanese waters with increasing frequency in the 1810s and 1820s. Whalers and trading ships from the United States also arrived on Japan's shores. Although the Japanese made some minor concessions and allowed some landings, they largely attempted to keep all foreigners out, sometimes using force. Rangaku became crucial not only in understanding the foreign "barbarians" but also in using the knowledge gained from the West to fend them off.

By the 1830s, there was a general sense of crisis. Famines and natural disasters hit hard, and unrest led to a peasant uprising against officials and merchants in Osaka in 1837. Although it lasted only a day, the uprising made a dramatic impression. Remedies came in the form of traditional solutions that sought to reform moral decay rather than address institutional problems. The shogun's advisers pushed for a return to the martial spirit, more restrictions on foreign trade and contacts, suppression of Rangaku, censorship of literature, and elimination of "luxury" in the government and samurai class. Others sought the overthrow of the Tokugawa and espoused the political doctrine of sonno-joi (revere the emperor, expel the barbarians), which called for unity under imperial rule and opposed foreign intrusions. The bakufu persevered for the time being amidst growing concerns over Western successes in establishing colonial enclaves in China following the First Opium War of 1839-42. More reforms were ordered, especially in the economic sector, to strengthen Japan against the Western threat.

Japan turned down a demand from the United States, which was greatly expanding its own presence in the Asia-Pacific region, to establish diplomatic relations when Commodore James Biddle appeared in Edo Bay with two warships in July 1846. However, when Commodore Matthew C. Perry's four-ship squadron appeared in Edo Bay in July 1853, the bakufu was thrown into turmoil. The chairman of the senior councillors, Abe Masahiro (1819-57), was responsible for dealing with the Americans. Having no precedent to manage this threat to national security, Abe tried to balance the desires of the senior councillors to compromise with the foreigners, of the emperor who wanted to keep the foreigners out, and of the daimyo who wanted to go to war. Lacking consensus, Abe decided to compromise by accepting Perry's demands for opening Japan to foreign trade while also making military preparations. In March 1854, the Treaty of Peace and Amity (or Treaty of Kanagawa) opened two ports to American ships seeking provisions, guaranteed good treatment to shipwrecked American sailors, and allowed a United States consul to take up residence in Shimoda, a seaport on the Izu Peninsula, southwest of Edo. A commercial treaty, opening still more areas to American trade, was forced on the bakufu five years later.

The resulting damage to the bakufu was significant. Debate over government policy was unusual and had engendered public criticism of the bakufu. In the hope of enlisting the support of new allies, Abe, to the consternation of the fudai, had consulted with the shinpan and tozama daimyo, further undermining the already weakened bakufu. In the Ansei Reform (1854-56), Abe then tried to strengthen the regime by ordering Dutch warships and armaments from the Netherlands and building new port defenses. In 1855 a naval training school with Dutch instructors was set up at Nagasaki, and a Western-style military school was established at Edo; by the next year, the government was translating Western books. Opposition to Abe increased within fudai circles, which opposed opening bakufu councils to tozama daimyo, and he was replaced in 1855 as chairman of the senior councillors by Hotta Masayoshi (1810-64).

At the head of the dissident faction was Tokugawa Nariaki, who had long embraced a militant loyalty to the emperor along with antiforeign sentiments, and who had been put in charge of national defense in 1854. The Mito school--based on neo-Confucian and Shintō principles--had as its goal the restoration of the imperial institution, the turning back of the West, and the founding of a world empire under the divine Yamato Dynasty.

In the final years of the Tokugawa, foreign contacts increased as more concessions were granted. The new treaty with the United States in 1859 allowed more ports to be opened to diplomatic representatives, unsupervised trade at four additional ports, and foreign residences in Osaka and Edo. It also embodied the concept of extraterritoriality (foreigners were subject to the laws of their own countries but not to Japanese law). Hotta lost the support of key daimyo, and when Tokugawa Nariaki opposed the new treaty, Hotta sought imperial sanction. The court officials, perceiving the weakness of the bakufu, rejected Hotta's request and thus suddenly embroiled Kyōto and the emperor in Japan's internal politics for the first time in many centuries. When the shogun died without an heir, Nariaki appealed to the court for support of his own son, Tokugawa Yoshinobu (or Keiki), for shogun, a candidate favored by the shinpan and tozama daimyo. The fudai won the power struggle, however, installing Tokugawa Yoshitomi, arresting Nariaki and Keiki, executing Yoshida Shoin (1830-59, a leading sonno-joi intellectual who had opposed the American treaty and plotted a revolution against the bakufu), and signing treaties with the United States and five other nations, thus ending more than 200 years of exclusion.

The strong measures the Bakufu took to reassert its dominance were not enough. Revering the emperor as a symbol of unity, extremists wrought violence and death against the Bakufu and Han authorities and foreigners. Foreign naval retaliation led to still another concessionary commercial treaty in 1865, but Yoshitomi was unable to enforce the Western treaties. A Bakufu army was defeated when it was sent to crush dissent in Satsuma and Choshu Han in 1866. Finally, in 1867, the emperor died and was succeeded by his minor son Mutsuhito; Keiki reluctantly became head of the Tokugawa house and shogun. He tried to reorganize the government under the emperor while preserving the shogun's leadership role. Fearing the growing power of the Satsuma and Choshu daimyo, other daimyo called for returning the shogun's political power to the emperor and a council of daimyo chaired by the former Tokugawa shogun. Keiki accepted the plan in late 1867 and resigned, announcing an "imperial restoration." The Satsuma, Choshu, and other Han leaders and radical courtiers, however, rebelled, seized the imperial palace, and announced their own restoration on January 3, 1868. The Bakufu was abolished, Keiki was reduced to the ranks of the common daimyo, and the Tokugawa army gave up without a fight (although other Tokugawa forces fought until November 1868, and Bakufu naval forces continued to hold out for another six months).

Events of the Edo Period

  • Battle of Sekigahara (1600)
  • Tokugawa Ieyasu becomes shogun establishing the Edo shogunate (1603)
  • Winter Siege of Osaka (1614)
  • Summer Siege of Osaka (1615)
  • Revenge of 47 Ronin, December 15, 1702
  • Eruption of Mt. Fuji (1707)
  • Restoration of the Imperial rule (1867)

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