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July 08, 2024

Art History: The Edo Era of Japan

By Alexandra Queen

Once upon a time, across the sea in the land of the rising sun, there were a raft of local warlords who kept pounding each other into a pulp. One day they stopped. This is the story of what happened when they did.

Art History: the Edo Era of Japan

Alexandra Queen

From a land of constant warfare arose the shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu. Sick of all the squabbling, he cleverly decreed that all his warrior-nobles, the daimyo, must spend half their time at his castle at Edo. Maintaining multiple residences and spending six months to a year at a time away from home kept the daimyo from getting in as much trouble, and Japan soon found itself in a state of peace and prosperity the likes of which had not been seen for many, many years.

The Tokugawa regime was very strict, and very keen on traditional Confucian ideals (slightly modified to fit their political agenda, of course). These ideals included a traditional view of society that had the emperor or shogun at the very pinnacle as about the most fabulous creature to walk the earth. Not much less groovy were his warrior-nobles, to help him rule. Considerably less fashionable, but still worthy of respect were the farmers, the primary producers of the economy. People like artisans, who produced finished goods instead of raw materials, were also okay, but somewhat lower in the scheme of things. At the bottom of this social ladder were people who did not produce anything worthwhile, but merely passed back and forth the fruit of others' labors - the merchants and city dwellers (Mason 243). But all of a sudden, in the new era of peace and plenty, some odd things began to happen. Governers were able to govern. Producers were able to produce. Merchants and businessmen were able to start doing what merchants and businessmen do best - make money. So much so, in fact, that this lowest of classes began to rival the samurai and daimyo in terms of wealth.

So here was a pretty picture - the capital city of Edo, and what did it contain? Rich men away from home for months at a time. Soldiers hanging out in service of their lords. And lots of low class merchants with money to burn and without the breeding to burn it in a civilized manner.

Edo became a party town.

Perhaps because of the continued strict rule of the Tokugawa shoguns throughout the years, or perhaps because of a deep sense of duty and tradition, things did not go straight to hell. They did, however, get interesting. In the old days, only wealthy nobles, rulers or clergy commissioned art. The stuff they wanted made almost always had some great value as a public work, meant for posterity, furtherance of the arts, religious enlightenment, celebration of great events or literature… Now, however, money was in the hands of people who had considerably less social responsibility. Art started to include much more entertaining topics, much like today's tastes. Sensational ghost stories. Erotica. Common people doing common things. All of these were now suddenly acceptable topics. And like today's Hollywood, the kabuki theatres of Edo drew ardent worshippers. Art featuring famous actors and popular courtesans was wildly popular (think velvet Elvis paintings and Marilyn Monroe posters). They were called ukiyo-e, or "pictures of the floating world", referring to a philosophy that considered life and it's fleeting pleasures to be so transitory that they should be enjoyed while they last. It was a philosophy and an art form that gave the government fits.

How does the story end? The forces of hedonism, irreverence and exploration wrestled with a conservative government for a time, in much the same way willful teenagers having bouts of self-discovery will struggle with over protective parents. The happy-go-lucky days of banning things (from art topics like prostitutes to materials like certain types of ink) to keep society and its wealthy middle class from running amok came to a close as Japan was given something new and more serious to worry about: contact with the Western World. The story continues on from there, but this chapter celebrating the rise of the common man and the explosion of enjoyable, approachable art forms will always be fondly remembered.

Livingston, Lisa. "Art 169 Class Lectures". Modesto Junior College, Modesto. 28 Feb. 2002.
Mason, Penelope. History of Japanese Art. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc. 2000.
O'Riley, Michael Kampen. Art Beyond the West. New Jersey: Harry N. Abrams, Inc. 2002.
Singer, Robert T. Edo Art in Japan 1615-1868. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998.
Article © Alexandra Queen. All rights reserved.
Published on 2002-04-29
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