Whether it’s the floating world of ukiyo-e, the stately rites of sumo, the meticulous craft of netsuke, the minimalist art of Japanese gardens or the decorums of the samurai, what we today regard as the traditional values of Japan took shape in what’s known as the Edo Period.

So-called because, under the Tokugawa Shogunate founded by Tokugawa Ieyasu, the political center was moved from Kyoto to Edo, present-day Tokyo, in 1603. The Tokugawa family ruled from Edo until the 15th shogun, Yoshinobu, made way for the Emperor Meiji more than 260 years later, in 1868.

To celebrate the 400th anniversary of the founding of the Tokugawa Shogunate, various events are being held and scheduled in Tokyo. Among these, the major “Treasures and Papers of the Tokugawa Shogunal Household” exhibition runs till Aug. 31 at the Edo-Tokyo Museum. It was there, last week, that The Japan Times talked with Makoto Takeuchi, director general of the museum and a professor at Rissho University, and Tsunenari Tokugawa, current head of the House of Tokugawa and president of the Tokugawa Memorial Foundation, which is presenting the legacy of the shogunal family at the exhibition.

What were the main characteristics of the Edo Period?

Takeuchi: It was an era in which peace prevailed for 2 1/2 centuries. However, that long-lasting peace didn’t just happen — there was a good reason for it. The mentality and mind-set of the Japanese avoided conflicts and cherished inter-relationships with others. In Edo, townspeople lived in townhouses in densely populated areas. The most important thing in their life was “not to cause trouble to others,” since they lived so close to each other. When someone did cause trouble, many tolerated it by saying “otagaisama [I might have done the same].” That is one of the basic factors contributing to the establishment of order and peace.

After the century-long Warring States Period, Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-98) reunited the nation in 1590, fulfilling the wish of his lord, Oda Nobunaga (1534-82), who was assassinated by a lieutenant. Then Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616) rose against the Toyotomi clan after Hideyoshi’s death at the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600, which split the country. Assuming power after his victory on the battlefield, Ieyasu established his shogunate in Edo. He also gradually cornered the falling Toyotomi and finally annihilated the clan in the 1614-15 Battles of Osaka, ending major bloodshed in Japan for some 250 years.

Tokugawa: Japan was like a federal state. The Tokugawa Shogunate was the federal government among all the regional daimyo around the country. And the biggest responsibility of the shogunate was national security. Learning lessons from the past, namely the Warring States Period and Hideyoshi’s invasions into Korea, the priority of successive shoguns was keeping the peace. One anecdote has it that a shogunal official was deploring the fact that some impoverished samurai were taking their swords and other arms to pawn shops. But when the eighth shogun, Yoshimune, heard the story, he told the official that he should be delighted that peace was prevailing and weapons were no longer necessary.

Takeuchi: Peace in the Edo Period owed much to the nature of the rulers. The samurai class generally practiced stoic lifestyles and foreswore luxury. People’s respect for that class kept civil war from happening [even at times of famine or natural disasters], although there were some uprisings by starving farmers. I also often say that there were not as many bad magistrates as you always see in samurai dramas.

Tokugawa: While the market economy brought prosperity to merchants, the [nonproductive] ruling samurai class became poorer and poorer. But the samurai maintained a high moral standard throughout the period. That was based on Confucian education, which was founded on the concept of honor. Any disgraceful or corrupt act incurred a penalty, not only for the wrongdoer but also for his entire immediate family and, in some cases, more distant relatives.

The samurai class accounted for up to 7 percent of the population. Their revenues were directly linked to rice production. Throughout the country, they took some 30 percent of the produce, while the rest belonged to farmers.

Takeuchi: Another characteristic of the period was that Japan boosted its handcraft skills to the highest level in the world. Without the modern manufacturing technologies of the Industrial Revolution [in Europe], the quality of craftsmanship saw significant improvement. This does not mean goods were abundant; rather, products were unique and were made with great skill and care. Consumers also used goods for a lifetime, repairing them over and over.

Tokugawa: Tokugawa Japan was a very effective ecosociety, because 30 million people — which was the national population during the Edo Period — had to live in a self-sustaining environment. Consequently, all natural resources were used carefully on a basis of sustainability. Clothes, wood, paper, porcelain and everything else were used again and again. There were thousands of street vendors in Edo, but not all were selling. About 40 percent of them were buying goods to recycle.

Did the shogunate’s closed-country policy contribute to keeping peace?

Takeuchi: When you hear the term “sakoku [closed country],” it sounds as if Japan had shut itself off from the outside world. But in reality, during the Edo Period it wasn’t the case. There were four “windows” open to foreign goods and ideas — Nagasaki’s Dejima, the Tsushima Islands, the Satsuma domain in Kyushu, and Ezo in present-day Hokkaido.

The sakoku policy was introduced step-by-step during the days of the second shogun, Hidetada, in the early 17th century, and it was completed under the third shogun, Iemitsu, in 1641, when Dutch merchants — the only Westerners allowed to trade with Japan — were ordered to move to the fan-shaped manmade island of Dejima off Nagasaki. Chinese traders were also allowed to conduct business in Nagasaki. In addition, while the shogunate had diplomatic ties with Korea through the Tsushima Islands off northern Kyushu, the powerful Satsuma domain in southern Kyushu virtually colonized the Ryukyu Kingdom in Okinawa, which was a subject state of China and was open to Southeast Asia. In the north, the Matsumae domain controlled trade with indigenous groups in Hokkaido and the northern islands.

Takeuchi: Really, the closed-country policy was what we call today “controlled trade” supervised by the shogunate, as opposed to “free trade.” The term sakoku wasn’t introduced until 1801, and the people living in the period perhaps never felt that Japan had closed its doors to the outside world. The sakoku policy did not have much to do with the long peace of the Edo Period.

The word sakoku first appeared in 1801, in the Japanese translation of a thesis on the shogunate’s policy by the German physician Engelbert Kaempfer. Kaempfer smuggled himself into Dejima in 1690, and later published “The History of Japan,” based on his tours to Edo in 1691 and 1692 accompanying Dutch trading representatives. The thesis on the shogunal policy was a supplement to “The History of Japan,” and Shizuki Tadao, the scholar of Dutch learning who translated the book, created the word sakoku by titling the thesis “Sakoku-ron.’

The eighth shogun, Yoshimune (1684-1751), even promoted Dutch learning. Why is he called “the restorer of the Tokugawa Shogunate”?

Takeuchi: Yoshimune has been lauded by scholars for his agricultural reforms — but not only for these, as he is also considered to be the first shogun to introduce urban planning. As Edo grew bigger, various problems emerged, such as rampant fires and a lack of medical facilities for the poor. Yoshimune organized fire brigades of townspeople in each community to work with conventional samurai-class firefighters. He also set up Koishikawa Sanitarium [in present-day Bunkyo Ward] for the needy.

Nonetheless, one cynical saying popular for describing Edo was: “Kaji to kenka wa Edo no hana [Fire and fight are Edo’s attractions.]” One document shows that 20 infernos were recorded between 1657 and 1716. The Meireki Inferno in 1657 razed much of the city, including the Edo Castle donjon, and an estimated 100,000 people — some 10 percent of the population — were killed. Another document says that in 82 days in 1659, 105 outbreaks of fire were recorded in the city, so obviously fire-prevention had become an urgent issue. Meanwhile, Koishikawa Sanitarium was created for the poor, based on requests from townspeople placed in suggestion boxes installed during Yoshimune’s reign.

Takeuchi: Yoshimune also developed areas like Asukayama (in present-day Kita Ward) and other Edo suburbs into public parks by planting cherry trees. The park-development project aimed to provide recreational spaces for people, and to revitalize local areas by giving business opportunities for tea houses and shops catering for visitors.

Why is it that the education system was so prioritized during the Edo Period?

Tokugawa: There were some 260 colleges throughout Japan, each run by a daimyo, where the offspring of samurai studied. The biggest of all was Shoheiko in Edo, which was run by the Tokugawa family and later became the University of Tokyo. Shoheiko accepted not only Tokugawa samurai but also talented people from across the country. In addition, some 2,000 private schools nationwide accepted people from all social classes, teaching Chinese philosophy, Japanese history, Dutch learning and more.

In the Edo Period, literacy rates in the city were about 80 percent for males and 25 percent for females, compared with the national average of 54 percent and 19 percent respectively — excluding the samurai and clergy.

Tokugawa: Japan’s high literacy rates stemmed from community schools called terakoya for children aged from 6 or 7 to 12 or 13. There were 15,000 terakoya around the country. We now have about 250,000 elementary schools in Japan, but of course the population is far bigger today.

The Edo-Tokyo Museum is hosting a special exhibition on the shogunal household this month. What are the showcase items?

Takeuchi: This is a rare opportunity to exhibit so many Tokugawa treasures under the same roof. The exhibition features items that even regional daimyo could not have possessed. One of my favorites is a tea container named “Hatsuhana” that was imported from China. What fascinates me is that it was originally owned by [the eighth Ashikaga Shogun] Ashikaga Yoshimasa (1436-90). It was later passed on to Nobunaga, Hideyoshi and then to Ieyasu — all the three Warring States heroes. As I am not an art-history expert, I cannot tell how valuable it is, but as a historian, I joke that I want to check the fingerprints that might have been left on it.

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