General East Asia survey course materials - R. Eno   

The Samurai-Merchant Divide in Late Tokugawa, and Tokugawa Popular Art

The Tokugawa economy

During the earliest years of the Tokugawa period (1600-1868), the shogun's government ordered Japan "closed" to contacts with outside countries.  This policy was initially intended to stabilize internal social and political life, avoiding the chance for any possible competitor of the shōgun's power to mobilize resources and samurai in quest of external conquest and revival of warrior activity.  It was also part of a very broad attack on other potential threats to shogunal supremacy, which notably included a nationwide persecution of foreign missionaries and Christian converts that virtually wiped Christianity out in Japan for centuries -- until this time, Christianity had been a vital growing force in Japanese society, having been introduced as early as the 1540's, the time of the initial arrivals of Western traders in Japan.

While Japan's closing was not truly complete -- minimal trade with Dutch, Chinese, and Korean representatives at the port of Nagasaki continued to be permitted -- it had a powerful impact on the Japanese economy.  While it is possible, looking back, to wonder whether Japan's economy would not have grown more quickly if the nation had been open to trade, in Japan's case, there were powerful economic forces in operation domestically, and sealing off the state seems to have acted as a spur for internal development.

Traditionally, wealth had been conceived in terms of land and its produce, and during the Tokugawa, this continued to be the case.  Taxes were principally charged on land holdings, and officially distributed wealth -- in particular, the fixed stipends on which the samurai class lived -- were calculated and delivered in terms of measures of rice, the staple crop of Japan.  (A sketch page of rice-growing activities by the great woodblock artist Hokusai appears at left, and a rare photo of a Tokugawa era farmer at right.)   Commerce was taxed very lightly.  Structurally, this placed the commercial sector in an unplanned advantageous position, as compared with peasant and samurai classes.

The political structure of Tokugawa society also favored the development of trade in two key respects.  First, the shogunate had ordered that the daimyō, located throughout the country on their large landed estates, or han, organize their samurai governance along Confucian lines, like the shogun's government in the eastern city of Edo (Tokyo).  This requirement for  centralized governance for each local domain led to the growth of urban nodes throughout Japan -- a great spur for commerce, and the concentration of wealth in a manner that leads to trade in luxury goods.

Even more important was the shogunal requirement that daimyo from all regions of Japan travel each year to Edo and maintain a residence there, where they would reside for half of each year -- their close family remaining there as "hostages" to loyal daimyo behavior during the other portion of the year.  The procession each year of the wealthiest and most prestigious members of society and their extensive retinues to and from the capital was an enormous income generator for merchants -- and a great drain on the resources of the daimyō.  It also led to the development of a vast network of high quality roads, which spurred the development of inter-regional trade.  (Part of a scroll depicting a daimyō's procession to the capital is pictured at right.)

The han which had the greatest land and population resources, and which developed  the greatest urban node as the base of its governance activity, was the shogun's own territory -- vast stretches of land reaching from Edo in the east to Kyoto -- the former capital of Heian -- in the central region of the main island of Honshu.  Consequently, the capital city of Japan, Edo, began to grow during the Tokugawa into the great city that has become Tokyo today.  By the 18th century, Edo was one of, or perhaps the largest city in the world, with a population approaching a million people.  To sustain this growth, the government sponsored policies that would enlarge production and trade in non-agricultural sectors.  Merchants were encouraged to develop large businesses, and the government reversed earlier policies restricting trade associations; consequently, large groups of merchants -- or more properly, merchant families -- promoted their businesses through a mixture of competitive and cooperative behavior that proved very beneficial to large-scale growth, a pattern that continued into and through the 20th century.

Impact on the samurai

Commercial growth and the beginnings of industrial development and urban concentration of production led to inflationary prices throughout most of the Tokugawa era.  This had a severe impact on the samurai living distant from Edo, serving their daimyō lords on their han.  The samurai were allocated fixed stipends according to a system developed at the start of the Tokugawa era, and the daimyō were largely dependent on agriculture for income -- land taxes being the primary source of government wealth.  Food prices could not rise at the rates of other goods because the demand for food was spread among all members of society, rich and poor, and overly high prices could quickly cut demand.  This limited daimyō income.  On the other hand, the daimyō could not afford to allow themselves to slip into poverty -- on the contrary, as power holders over their samurai and the common people, it was essential that they maintain a lifestyle commensurate with their prestige, both on their han and in their required trips to Edo.  This led the daimyō to borrow funds to sustain their social and material needs as cash ran low; the increasingly rich merchant class thus became moneylenders to the daimyō, ensuring a further transfer of wealth from the samurai class to the merchant class.  Other samurai, whose fixed stipends were losing value over the generations, began actively to farm in order to generate additional income.  But with food prices rising more slowly than other prices, this was only a half-measure.  Ultimately, many samurai voluntarily discarded the privileged class status they enjoyed, and left the service of their daimyō lords and re-registered as common people, in order to be able to engage in small business or the production of cottage goods, like sandals and baskets, types of commercial activities that were prohibited to samurai because they were beneath the dignity of the class.

All of this generated bitter resentment.  The samurai, seeing their class -- the elite of society -- fall into poverty while the merchants -- officially social scum -- rising rapidly in wealth, became bitter enemies of the merchants, and of merchant values and culture.

Merchant culture  

The urbanization of Tokugawa Japan and the rising wealth of those immersed in commerce led to the growth of a new type of urban culture,  placing great value on sensual luxury, entertainment, and leisure arts.  It was these features of culture which the samurai, steeped in the austerity of the bushido warrior codes and Zen Buddhism deplored.  Urban centers of conspicuous consumption, such as the "pleasure quarters" of shops, theaters, and brothels, began to appear in all major cities -- most notably Edo (the entrance to Edo's famous Yoshiwara pleasure district is pictured at left).  A literature focused on romance began to spread (the merchant class at all levels was remarkably literate in Tokugawa Japan), styles in clothes became increasingly lavish, and a cult of sexual indulgence grew in importance (Japan had never been as prudish or moralistic as most cultures, something expressed in the relaxed non-moralistic character of the native religion of Shinto).  The role played by "courtesans" (young women, often highly trained in polite arts, who granted favors of companionship and sex for money; pictured below) became a highly visible feature of the urban culture of the merchant class.

The life of the urban pleasure quarters became known as ukiyo, the "floating life," and themes of this new culture became an emblematic focus of Tokugawa art and literature.  Among the most famous features of this merchant culture was the innovation of a new form of art -- the woodblock print -- and many brilliant artists of the era captured the spirit of the new merchant culture -- as well as the spirit of many traditional Japanese values, in the brilliant prints of the era, such as those which appear on this page.




One of the most prominent influences on merchant culture during the Tokugawa was the rise of a form of theatrical staging known as Kabuki -- a type of operatic popular theater that feature lively action, sensational plots, and colorful costume and stage make-up.  Prior to Kabuki, the most important form of staged theatrical in Japan was the austere spectacle of Noh (or Nō) drama.  Initially inspired by Shinto religious pageantry,  Noh was (and is) a stripped-down form of stage play, characterized by simple and serious plots, intense symbolism, and focused interaction between a small number of actors, often only two or three, wearing simple but striking masks (such as the two at left).  Noh drama was somber and spare, and appealed to the aesthetic of the samurai class, resonating as it did with the values of Zen Buddhism.  During the Tokugawa era, Noh was regarded as a classical form of theater.  It had originated as early as the thirteenth century and been patronized by shoguns and daimyos for many centuries.  Interest in Noh was regarded as a sign of superior taste (and it remains so today).

Kabuki theater was far more raucous, musical, and fun.  Kabuki originated just at the start of the Tokugawa era as a song-and-dance act, performed by female dance troupes.  Daring and lewd, the shogunate viewed these early stagings as a threat to public order and banned female dancers from performing them.  Young boys were then recruited to the fledgling Kabuki troupes, but they were seen as equally erotic and dangerous, and it was only when adult male actors alone were permitted to perform -- all female roles being taken by males in drag costume -- that the legal status of Kabuki was established (though periodic crackdowns on its excesses occurred).   In the capital city of Edo, Kabuki became a dominant cultural form (much like opera in Italian cities like Naples), of interest to people of all classes, but particularly the merchant class.  Kabuki plays ranged from re-creations of great tales of the high tide of samurai militarism to relatively realistic romances of more "modern" life.   Great Kabuki actors were a social sensation, much like movie stars today, and images of them performing great roles (particularly as samurai or impersonating female characters) were everywhere, like modern movie posters. 

The woodblock image of an Edo Kabuki theater below conveys the sense of stage flamboyance and audience bustle that made Kabuki an urban sensation -- note the runways that extend through the audience, bringing audience and actors close together.

Ukiyo-e Art

No facet of Tokugawa art better reflects the popular culture of the era than the woodblock images of  Edo culture, known as ukiyo-e: "sketches of the floating world."  A major force in world visual art, the themes of the Tokugawa ukiyo-e artists express a vast range of cultural features exciting to the observer -- and often infuriating to the samurai of the times.  Ukiyo-e art, cheap, available, ubiquitous in the urban centers where the wealthy and despised merchant families lived, was licentious and lewd, outrageous in its depictions of samurai through Kabuki stage caricature, and equally appreciative of the aesthetics of nature and society, with none of the sense of disciplined taste that characterized the art most valued by the samurai elite.

Ukiyo-e is central to our vision of the Tokugawa era, and we will explore it further in today's web reading (most of the images on this page are examples of woodblock art).

NOTE:  Please note that on the pages that follow, there are names and dates for a variety of ukiyo-e artists -- these will not be items for testing; they are they to provide information and a fuller sense of historical context as you read these pages.



 Hiroshige:  Edo at night