The Tokugawa Era of Japan Japan before the Tokugawa Era was a nation of warring states. The Tokugawa shoguns changed social class structures, agriculture, and manufacturing in the country by consolidating trends which had been in the making for some time (East Asia, p. 279) and brought Japan into a unified and productive state which lasted from about 1603 until 1800. Urbanization, economic growth, and social changes were natural and predictable outcomes of the shogunate philosophy.
The Tokugawa period, also known as the Edo Period, found the country under the rule of the Tokugawa shoguns and the country’s 300 regional daimyo. It was characterized by economic growth, strict social orders, isolationist foreign policies, an increase in both environment protection and popular enjoyment of arts and culture. After a long stretch of deep conflict, one of the first goals of the newly established government of Tokugawa was to conciliate the country. This created a balance of power that remained and was influenced by the Confucian principles of social order.
The daimyo were put under tight control of the shogunate. A system called Sankin Kotai compelled families and the daimyo themselves to dwell in Edo for a year and in their own regions for the next (East Asia, p. 280). This system allowed the shoguns to maintain control of villages and the countryside outside Edo, and to ascertain the loyalty of the daimyo to the shogun government. Three main urban areas developed during this period. Edo became the center for food supply and essential urban consumer goods, due in part to the daimyo residing there for periods of time.
Osaka and Kyoto were busy trading and handcraft production centers. Urban population grew from 1% of all Japanese people to 15% after 1700. Because of the bureaucracy based in Edo, it was a primary consumption center. Kyoto, home of the emperor and the court, was known for the manufacture of luxury goods. Osaka was a major market for many consumer items. (East Asia, p. 285). The social hierarchy established by the Tokugawa separated the people into four main groups, which were Samurai, Cultivators, Artisans, and Merchants (East Asia, p. 280).
The organization of villages and urban areas was based on this system, with employment and housing established according to social rank. Urban life and culture was different for each group. Peasants primarily lived in villages in the countryside, with farming and rice cultivation as main occupations. The Cultivator class lived in these areas and agricultural innovations such as better seeds and new crops intensified the use of land and labor. Western Hemisphere crops of corn, tobacco, rice, barley and millet were introduced, and cultivators sought the most advanced methods for increasing crop yields. East Asia, p. 282). While labor remained in the countryside, capital was concentrated in cities, and rural businessmen depended on urban merchants for financial backing. Daimyo marketed goods from cultivators when they traveled on Sankin Kotai, selling cotton cloth, lamp oil, and soy sauce. Some merchants became wealthy in this way. (East Asia, p. 284). Life for those who resided in major urban areas included many goods and pastimes which were not available to those who lived in the countryside. The growth of commercial publishing allowed books and other publications to be available to city residents.
There was space for exhibitions and entertainment. Urban residents paid for goods and services which they had previously made for themselves. Purchase of these allowed for more leisure and saved time. This caused an increased demand for a greater variety of goods such as luxury items and artwork, which in turn caused more manufacture, and generated more capital. (East Asia, p. 286). This urban prosperity culminated in the Genroku era (1688-1704). Ihara Saikaku, who is often considered Japan’s first professional author, wrote stories, haiku, and novels about life in this time in the city of Osaka.
Other authors and musicians contributed to the culture of this era. Prostitution became established in areas of Edo and other urban areas. Kabuki theater also began during this time. (East Asia, p. 288). The Tokugawa era began to draw to a close in the 1780s. The volcano Mt. Asama erupted in 1783 and the ash blocked sunlight for a long period of time. Crop failures led to famine, which was repeated in 1787. Population declined, possibly by as many as 920,000 people. Many blamed either the natural disasters or human failing. Merchants were accused of hoarding grain while people starved.
Commoners rioted for five days in Edo, smashing stores and pouring rice and sake into the streets. (East Asia, p. 293). The famine forced the shogunate to face problems at all levels of society. There were ongoing issues with inadequate taxes and with competition among daimyo, merchants, and cultivators for access to commercial income. A reform was led by Matsudaira Sadanobu, an author and neo-Confucian, which established an “Edo first” policy, and this calmed the city. (East Asia, p. 293). The Tokugawa era brought many important changes to Japan.
The shogunate created relative peace for 200 years, during which time Japan became urbanized. Culture became more prominent. People of various classes were able to access reading materials, enjoy entertainment, and purchase items of daily living which they had previously made for themselves. Food production was streamlined and quantities increased. General health and safety improved. While the era did not last permanently, the changes it brought were mainly for the common good and enabled Japan to move forward into more modern times, where urbanization continued to be an important part of Japanese life.