In the Edo period (1600-1868), Japan reached its cultural peak during two hundred years of peace, prosperity and national isolation. The arts, particularly refined by townsmen flourished; textiles, lacquer-work, decorative metalwork, ceramics, theatre and woodblock prints all reached levels of elegance and beauty the world had never seen before. Japan's social structure, the feudal laws set by the Tokugawa Shogunate and the years of peace and prosperity allowed Japanese Art to become more developed and accessible to the common people in Japanese society.
Under the Tokugawa Shogun the social hierarchy divided society into classes; the Emperor (天皇) - the head of the Empire; the Shogun (将軍) - the supreme military leader who had the higher power in administrative duties at that time than the Emperor; the Daimyo (大名) - the military lords who were the subjects to the Shogun; the Nobility (公家) kuge the imperial court and the court nobles ; the Samurai (侍) bushi - the warriors of the military and military retainers of Daimyos, the Villagers (百姓) hyakushō* - farmers, craftsmen, merchants, traders, fishermen and landowners who produced the important commodity, food and lived in rural areas; the Commoners (町人) chonin were townsfolk including Artisans (工) and Merchants (商) combined. Eventually this class became wealthy businessman who did obtain official positions or ran their own businesses. The lowest rank of Japan's Edo-period caste system was the Outcastes (穢多) eta whose work involved handling human bodies or animal carcasses.
*In modern Japan the term hyakushō has taken on a feudal connotation, and thus the term is seen as derogatory and is avoided, with the term nômin (agricultural people, farmers) used instead.
The Ancient Custom of Attacking the Concubine | Utagawa Hiroshige
往古うハなり打の圖 「うわなり打（後妻打）」 | Ôko uwanari-uchi no zu
Woodblock print, ink and colour on paper | 1843-1847
Tokyo, Japan | Edo Period (1600-1868)
The legacy of Ieyasu Tokugawa (徳川家康) considered a wise ruler declared that "the people of Japan are the foundation of the Empire". Punishment on the lords were more severe than on the Villagers and Commoners, where he orders no mercy be given to men and women of the upper classes when breaking laws in regards to lewd trifling, adultery or illicit intercourse. This was necessary punishment for breaking the laws in any society based on ancestor-worship. It was considered that these great lords set a bad example for the lower classes. The old Japanese laws may seem extreme, but the application of laws were less stringent as the social hierarchy descended. Greater leniency was given to farmers, artisans and traders as he suggests "that among the young and simple-minded, some momentary impulse of passion may lead to folly even when the parties are not naturally depraved".
Concubines and polygyny were for centuries a normal part of Japanese marriage customs for nobility and were tolerated in the Samurai class, for reasons relating to the continuance of family lineage and thus showing filial piety toward's one's parents. Although the indulgence of the privilege for merely selfish reasons was denounced. Celibacy was condemned by public opinion (except in the case of Buddhist priests) and was equally condemned by the code.
The childless man was obliged to adopt a son. The 47th article of the Legacy ordained that the family estate of a person dying without a male heir, and without having adopted a son, should be forfeited. This is reflected in the Confucian philosophy of filial piety; the virtue of respect for one's father, elders and ancestors.
つめたさう 文化年間 めかけの風俗 | plate 7. Chilly: Habits of a Concubine of the Bunka Era | Tsukioka Yoshitoshi
風俗 三十二相 | Fūzoku Sanjūnisō | 32 Aspects of Women
Woodblock print, ink and colour on paper | 1885-92
Tokyo, Japan | Edo Period (1600-1868)
Although Ieyasu was a member of the Jodo sect of Buddhism, he was first of all a Shintoist. The third article of his code commands devotion to the Kami "Keep your heart pure; and so long as your body shall exist, be diligent in paying honour and veneration to the Gods". The Kojiki which is the oldest surviving version of the origin and formation of Japan, the mythological stories of the Kami and Japan's first recording of Emperor Jimmu the ancestor of the Japanese imperial line. Later these myths were the foundation for Shinto practices. In regard to religion of the family, any Japanese was free to adopt any religion tolerated by the State, in addition to the faith of the ancestors. However Christianity was most likely viewed by the Shogun as dangerous to the stability of the new nation because of its direct opposition to the Confucian ideal of maintaining the existing laws the Shogun was attempting to instill in the people.
Ranks and incomes were fixed, occupations were hereditary and the desire to accumulate wealth was checked or numbered by those regulations which limited the rich man's right to use his money as he might please. The artisans who created objects of luxury, to gratify aesthetic taste, were more or less regulated by his place in society and to pass from a lower rank to a higher rank was very difficult.
Tokugawa policy had left creativity and imagination free in the directions of literature and art. Aesthetic taste followed the line of everyday life with familiar aspects of nature in various seasons. Most of the arts (nearly all of Chinese origin) were considerably developed before the Tokugawa era; but it was then that they began to assume those inexpensive forms which place aesthetic fulfillment within reach of the common people. Customs spread downward from the top of society. During the Tokugawa period various pursuits, formerly fashionable in upper circles only, became common property. Three of these were of a sort indicating a high degree of refinement: contests in poetry, tea-ceremonies and the elaborate art of flower-arrangement. All were introduced into Japanese society long before the Tokugawa regime, but it was under the Shogunate that this entertainment became national.
Van Steenburgh, M 2006, Edo Period Japan: 250 Years of Peace,
Hearn, L 1904, Japan, An attempt at Interpretation, The Macmillan Company, New York
Kublin, H 1968, Japan: Selected Readings, The Constitution of Prince Shotoku, Houghton Mifflin Company, pp. 31-34
Fuess, H 2004, Divorce in Japan: Family, Gender and the State 1600-2000, Stanford University Press, Stanford California
All images are in the public domain.