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Fun and surprising facts about the Edo era

Written by Maciamo on 13 March 2004 (updated in August 2010)

Did you know that during the Edo period (1600-1867)...

  • Samurai, farmers and merchants had to wear different clothes.
  • Farmers were prohibited the "luxury" of drinking tea.
  • Japan was already one of the safest country in the world from the 17th century onwards. Crime was punished very harshly. Even petty crimes, like theft, or civil disturbances, like fighting in public, typically incurred the death penalty, and executions were conducted immediately after the sentence was given, with no chance of appeal.
  • Samurai could not frequent entertainment (read "prostitutes") districts (but did anyway).
  • Priests and monks were at the margin of society together with outcasts, criminals and prostitutes. They all lived in the same quarter at the edge of the city of Edo, in Yoshiwara (now called Asakusa, and still filled with priests, prostitutes, yakuzas and ... foreigners ).
  • During more than two and a half centuries of peace of the Tokugawa rule, a great deal of samurai became bureaucratic government officials (not really the image conveyed by "The Last Samurai").
  • Confucianism was the official philosophy of the Shogunate and, like in China, officials had to pass exams to select the most talented. However, it didn't prevent lower rank samurai to be frequently discriminated.
  • 国 ("kuni") was a word applied to Daimyo domains in the Edo period. The concept of "nation" as the whole of Japan only appeared in the early 19th century, and was applied officially from the Meiji restoration. However, lots of Japanese nowadays still use the word "kuni" (and also "country" when they speak English) to refer to their region or prefecture, rather than all Japan.
  • Western knowledge was called "Dutch learning", because it came through Dutch traders in Nagasaki.

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