Tokugawa Shogunate

(1603 - 1868 )

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With unification completed at the battle of Sekigahara, Tokugawa Ieyasu and his successors, consolidated their authority. In a familiar Japanese pattern, the Shogun ruled from Edo (present day Tokyo) while the Emperor reigned from Kyoto. The shogun's top priorities were order-peace-unity-prosperity+stability. Tokugawa Ieyasu relied on his army of daimyo-samurai retainers, his network of loyal supporters, and the charisma of his own forceful personality to forge a new Japan.

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The Tokugawa shogunate provided the longest period of internal peace Japan had ever enjoyed. The brilliant and ruthless Tokugawa military administration combined with the rigid seclusion of the country fostered a flowering of Japanese culture. These two and a half centuries of seclusion (sakoku) formed the crucible in which the modern Japanese temper was forged.
The samurai class comprised a mere 7% of the population, and was then divided up or identified by various classifications. All the Tokugawa samurai were bondsmen, bound by ties of loyalty to a higher samurai or daimyo or hatamoto. The pesky, trouble-making, leaderless ronin of the Age of the Country at War were eliminated.

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woodblock print from the Tokugawa era illustrated individual combat

The authorities frowned upon raucous, undisciplined, irresponsibile behavior
and enforced the "Thirteen Basic Rules of Behavior":

1. The study of literature and the martial arts must be practiced at all times.
2. Drunkenness and lewd behavior must be avoided.
3. Lawbreakers must not be hidden in any domain.
4. Daimyo must expel any samurai charged with treason or murder.
5. Residence in a fief is to be restricted to men born in that fief.

6.. The Shogun authorities must be informed of any intended repairs to castles.

7. Any plots or factions discovered in a neighboring fief must be immediately reported.
8. Marriages must not be privately contracted.
9. Visits by daimyo to the capital (Edo) are to be in accordance with regulations.
10. All costumes and decorations are to be appropriate to the wearer's rank.

11. Commoners (that is, non-samurai) are not to ride in palanquins

12. Samurai are to live a frugal and simple life.
13. Daimyo must choose men of ability to advise them.

(Turnbull 120)

Tokugawa shoguns implemented four strategies for ruling the land and people of Japan:
rigid class stratification;
alternate attendance;
transformation of the samurai from sword-wielding warriors into pen-wielding bureaucrats.
By law, samurai, farmers, artisans, merchants, were identified by class, dress, tax, residential, and other criteria,with virtually no crossovers or marriages across class lines. For the peasants, for the most part raising rice, life remained much as it had in earlier periods.
According to the policy of "alternate attendance," leading daimyo maintained dual residences, one in their rural domains and one in Edo. While in Edo, the Shogun insisted that the families stay in the country; while the lords were on their estates, their families were essentially held hostage in the capital. Constant moving/traveling back and forth in the Edo Era, as the Tokugawa Shogunate was known, contributed to the expansion of infrastructure (the Tokkaido Road for example) and a rich mercantile/urban culture. Wealthy merchants had money if not social status.
Agriculture flourished due to "double cropping," fertilizer, and improved technology.

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"Agricultural Technology of the Edo Period"

*****In 1633, the Shogun issued a famous memorandum:*****

1. No vessel without a valid license must leave Japan.

2. No Japanese subject may leave for a foreign country.

3. Japanese who return from abroad shall be put to death.

A 1639 decree expelled the Portuguese: "From this time on, the only foreign trade...was with the Dutch, and they were confined to the little...island of Deshima in Nagasaki harbor" (Turnbull 125). Japan became sakoku a "closed country." Japanese Christians were viciously persecuted; all Japanese had to register or enroll in one or another Buddhist sect. The Edo/Tokugawa period--the bakufu--was marked by the military dictatorship of the shogun and international isolation. The Japanese were shut off from foreign cultures (though not from China or Korea.)

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19th century woodblock print depicting Dutch ships and Chinese junks in Nagasaki Bay

During the Tokugawa Taihei (Great Peace,) samurai elites lived in town (at least from time to time) and took on bureaucratic responsibilities, substituting the abacus and pen for their traditional swords.

Japanese Culture during the Taihei

Urbanization contributed to the development and necessity of entertainment for the elites in their leisure time. One of the emerging popular entertainments was Kabuki. During Japan's isolation, this theatrical form of amusement thrived. "Kabuki is a traditional form of Japanese theater. It was founded early in the 17th century, and over the next 300 years developed into a sophisticated, highly stylized form of theater." Kabuki plays and dances may be about grand historical events or the everyday life of people in the Edo period (1600-1868).

In each play, the sets, music, costumes, and other factors combine to create the fantastic world of Kabuki. The sites and links within the sites below feature overviews of Kabuki history, contain online video clips of Kabuki performances, sound clips and images of traditional instruments, and an illustrated demonstration of how and why Kabuki makeup is applied. These wood cut representations are of Kanjincho (The Subscription List) one of the most famous plays in the Kabuki repertoire. and

Optional: and

Wood Block Prints--Ukiyo-e

Woodblock illustrations emerged as a characteristically distinctive Japanese art form and are probably the most famous genre of pre-modern Japanese art in the West. Many were exported upon Japan's "opening" by Commodor Perry in 1854. The woodblock prints inspired European Impressionist painters. These prints began as illustrations for storybooks but found their way into daily life as advertisements for teahouses, geisha, and Kabuki actors. The art of ukiyo-e became synonymous with the "rich, urban culture of Edo"; it is a medium closely associated with "the pleasures of theatres, restaurants, teahouses, geisha, and courtesans."
Hiroshige's depictions of "the floating world" are among the most famous of the ukiyo-e genre. The floating world refers to the life of ephemeral pleasure in the entertainment sections of Tokugawa urban centers. Perhaps you recognize Hiroshige's Night Snow on Mt. Hira? away, alas

More Ukiyo-e woodblock prints can be found (follow links)
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or < >

The students in Mrs. McKee's 2008-2009 East Asian Studies class researched
and found their favorite woodblock prints. Follow link to [ Ukiyo-e ]

The Great Wave off Kanagawa by Hokusai is quite famous, perhaps you'll recognize it. Hokusai was one of the pre-eminent practitioners of ukiyo-e. away, alas

My personal favorite is Hasui's Zojoji Temple in Shiba, a print of which was in my parents' livingroom and now hangs on a wall in my Palo Alto home. Hasui Kawasi studied the traditional ukiyo-e techniques. In 1956, he was named "a national treasure" of Japan.

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Bunraku Puppet theater

Bunraku also developed as an amusement for the common folk of Edo, Osaka, and other urban centers. It derived from the Kabuki tradition but was not primarily designed to entertain children. "The puppets are about one meter tall and manipulated by up to three persons. Each puppeteer is responsible for a different part of the puppet. They are very experienced and make the puppets appear almost alive even though they are visible on the stage behind the puppet" ("Bunraku").
and more

The bunraku puppet theatre evolved from an entertainment that originated in Osaka in the 17th century (1684, to be exact.) The puppets in use today (21st century) range from 2-1/2 feet to 4 feet in height and are carved by specialists. The puppeteers "perform in full view of the audience," generally wearing black robes" ("Bunraku"). "Bunraku has been designated an Intangible Cultural Asset by the government of Japan and was offiially declared a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO (Grilli 3).


In Japan, puppets were used for centuries in a formal context in religious rituals at shrines and temples, where storytellers had been relating tales of heroism and tragedy for generations. Eventually a tradition of recitation to musical accompaniment developed as an art form with blind balladeers who travelled the countryside telling tales derived from legend and from the history of years of warfare in Japan.

Bunraku has delighted and united audiences all over the world. Its story telling and artistry communicate "universal truths of the human drama...[and]transcends all boundaries of nationality and culture" (Grilli 3). (left) ( right)

For an interesting site (with some interactive options) on the Edo Period/Tokugawa Japan visit
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The World of the Geisha

One of the perennially fascinating components of the "floating world"--that realm of the entertainment districts--was the geisha. The delights of the "floating world" were theoretically forbidden to samurai. In the "carnal world" of pleasure and diversion were the kabuki theaters, the bunraku puppet theaters, the teahouses, and the geisha.The Gion area of Kyoto and the Yoshiwara district of Edo were "nightless cities" where the shops never closed, and the inhabitants never seemed to sleep. In the teahouses, elaborately coifed, kimino clad, white faced geisha performed for and amused wealthy urban elites (Bayrd 115). They were immortalized in the ukiyo-e woodblock prints of the Edo period.

Female Geisha Section of the Yoshiwara Niwaka
Festival: Omando: Ogie Oiyo, Takeji
By Kitagawa Utamaro, 1783

(Smith, et al. 212, 216).

Courtesans and pleasure women, NOT to be confused with the highly trained, talented, skilled geisha professional entertainers, also plied their trades. They were depicted in the woodblock ukiyo-e prints, as well as elaborate erotica. Courtesans always wore their obi tied in the front rather than the back. The ink and gold painting on a folding screen (right--attributed to Utagawa Toyoharu) presents the courtesans of the Yoshiwara quarter "on display" facing the street where potential clients could see them.

(Smith, et al. 207)

By mid-19th century,Tokugawa shoguns could not sustatin the sakoku "bubble": the Opium Wars blasted China open; "Dutch Learning" trickled into Japan via Nagasaki; American and European whalers plying the northern waters of the Pacific wanted to provision in Japan. European and American governments took a dim view of the Japanese policy of executing shipwrecked sailors who washed up on their shores. Shogunate leadership divided on how to deal with the increasing threat of barbarian ideas and possible presence in the "land of the gods." Abe Masahiro (image left,) a realist and pragmatist, suggested learning the strengths of the West to use against the West (Fallows 26).

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With the British, French, and Russians--all "China Powers" with Japanese ambitions--embroiled in the Crimean War, it was the Americans who took the initiative to "open" the "closed" country. Supported by Senator Daniel Webster and missionary enthusiasts such as Samuel Wells Williams, President Millard Fillmore dispatched Commodore Matthew Perry (image right) to "open" Japan. Perry's 1852-3 flotilla of steamships (Susquehannah, Mississippi, Saratoga, Plymouth) brought gifts* and a threat of force to shogunate leaders along with a promise to return the next year.

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*books (Audubon editions,) champagne, perfume, mirrors, whiskey, plows, a camera, and
some small weapons from the Colt factory (Fallows 27).

True to his word, Perry returned in 1854 with both steam-powered and sailing ships and a complement of 1500 armed sailors. The Abe faction influenced the Shogun, Tokugawa Ieyoshi, to acquiesce to the terms of the Treaty/Convention of Kanagawa, which opened the ports of Shimoda and Hakodate to trade, guaranteed the safety of shipwrecked sailors, and laid the foundation for a later broadening of commercial relations between the United States and Japan. American diplomat Townsend Harris oversaw the expansion of the American (and Western) presence in Japan.

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Over the course of the next decade, Japanese elites struggled to confront the new realities. The pragmatists were at first led by Abe who died in 1857. In the 1860s the daimyo of Satsuma and Chosu saw the need to move forward in the process of westernization and modernization, even if it meant destruction of the shogunate. The outcome of their and others' efforts contributed to the Meiji Restoration, 1868.

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Japanese 1854 woodblock print of Commodore Perry.






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Bayrd, Edwin. Kyoto. New York: Newsweek, 1974.

"Bunraku." Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Online available.
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Fallows, James. "After centuries of Japanese isolation, a fateful meeting of East and West." [sic]
Smithsonian. July 1994.

Grilli, Peter. BUNRAKU. Organizing Committee for the 2007 U.S. Tour of Bunraku.
Sponsored by American Airlines, et al., 2007.

GRIPS (Graduate Research Institute for Policy Studies.) "The Edo Period: Pre-Conditions for Industrialization."
Online available: < >

Smith, Lawrence, et al. Japanese Art. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

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