The Edo Period in Japanese history (1600-1868) is not widely explored or studied in the same way that earlier, more exciting periods of Japanese history are, but I’ve come to realize that it is highly influential on modern Japanese culture, especially in the Tokyo-metropolitan area. You cannot separate modern Tokyo with its robots, pop singers and cosmopolitan culture from the Tokyo of 200-300 years past. I really appreciated this point after reading a book called Edo Culture: Daily Life and Diversions in Urban Japan a few months ago, while I sat on jury duty earlier this year.
The influence of the Edo Period on modern Tokyo and Japanese culture is especially true during the brief Genroku Period (元禄, 1688-1704). The Genroku Period was the high-water mark of pre-modern Tokyo culture and many arts from this period are now cultural treasures.
The Edo Period overall was dominated by a military government designed to maintain stability and prevent warfare, which Japan had suffered for a hundred years prior. Edo (江戸, modern day Tokyo) was the new capitol and all samurai warlords across Japan were required to live there every other year. The idea was to keep rival warlords constantly moving back and forth between the capitol and their home fief, and also to drain their finances on travel and leisure.
Thus, each family had a residence in Edo, no matter where they came from, and they stayed at their residence every other year. The system worked well enough that Japan remained peaceful and stable. Further, because so many powerful families lived in Edo which had good urban planning, and because so much wealth was spent in one place, a local Edo culture began to flourish. This culture originally was an imitation of the kamigata (上方) culture centered around the old capital of Kyoto but eventually surpassed Kyoto’s cultural refinements and made many innovations of its own.
Much of what we now associate with Japan and “Tokyo Culture” has its roots in the Genroku Period, for example:
- Kabuki theater – this was once street theater, frequently banned by the government, but now is a refined national treasure. My wife is a big fan, for example. Some Kabuki actors attract a large following and even appear in film too.
- Rakugo – Japanese comedic monologue (kind of like modern stand-up comedy). This is still hugely popular as exemplified in the venerable show Shoten.¹
- Ukiyo-e – the famous Tokyo-style artwork that was closely associated with Kabuki, and wood-block printing. Chances are, everyone interested in Japanese culture has seen Ukiyo-e paintings at least once.
Further, the local merchant class became known as Edokko (江戸っ子), or “Edo Children”. Edokko are familiar even today by their fast-talking, rough urban accent,² and penchant for business. It’s a similar image to the “street-wise New Yorker” here in American culture, in my opinion.
Anyhow, with the ending of the Genroku Period began a long, slow economic decline of Japan and the ruling Tokugawa Shogunate. The lively popular culture at the time though persisted and grew beyond the Edo Period into popular forms of entertainment and culture that are enjoyed and revered by Japanese and non-Japanese alike.
¹ We still watch this show almost every Sunday night here on US cable TV, but were sad to see the main host Utamaru finally retire at the venerable age of 79.
² On TV the stereotypical “Edokko” accent is rough sounding with lots of rolled ‘r’ sounds. The phrase “ore no mise” (my shop, where “ore” 俺 is already a rough “I” pronoun) sounds more like “orrre no mise”. Hard to explain but once you hear it, it’s kind of easy to notice.