Books / Reviews

Positive take on Japan's supposed dark age

by David Burleigh

THE EDO INHERITANCE, by Tokugawa Tsunenari. I-House Press, 2009, 200 pp., ¥2,500 (hardcover)

The Edo Period (1603-1868) is frequently regarded as a dark, repressive age, when Japan was held in an iron grip by a military government that had closed its borders to the outside world. “The Edo Inheritance” seeks to challenge and correct this slanted image.

The author, Tokugawa Tsunenari, is the 18th head of the Tokugawa family, which set up and ran the shogunate that ruled Japan for over 250 years, until the arrival of the Black Ships and the dismantling of the system.

The age that followed is usually considered one of new enlightenment and emergence from a “feudal” era. The book argues that the grounds for this relatively smooth transition had in fact been prepared by the preceding “265 years of uninterrupted peace.”

The achievement of the shoguns, Tsunenari writes, was to bring stable government to a country torn by civil disorder. Although the military victories that made unity possible can be largely ascribed to other leaders (Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Oda Nobunaga), the fundamental work of consolidation was carried out by the first shogun — and ancestor of this book’s author — Tokugawa Ieyasu. Ieyasu was born in 1542, one year before the arrival of the gun, which would make definitive victory for one force or the other possible, and the ending of civil strife imperative.

Edo Period Japan had a lot going for it, this much is clear. While travel and other freedoms were certainly restricted, agriculture flourished, and large-scale public works projects were executed, such as infrastructure to control the water supply. The author, in his own words “a history-loving amateur” who has traveled to “over 50 countries,” makes some telling comparisons with what was going on elsewhere. The birth of the Edo Period coincided with the establishment of the first colonies in North America. While Europe was riven with religious conflict during the 17th century, Japan was at peace. Moreover, as opposed to most everywhere else, the military code of bushido meant that the ruling elite did not personally enrich themselves.

It is no doubt true that “Edo was the cleanest city, and Japan the cleanest nation in the world between 1600 and 1800.” That Edo also became the world’s largest city during this time makes the achievement even more remarkable, and the cleanliness and orderliness laid a good foundation for its transformation into Tokyo of today.

The high level of literacy in most levels of society also helped, not only in the dissemination of government edicts, which were displayed on public notice boards, but also in the development of new forms of literary culture: “Haiku books became best-sellers.”

Though professional scholars may not entirely agree with some of the author’s conclusions, particularly those regarding the preservation of the natural environment in modern times, the book — which derives in part from a text originally written for use in schools — is filled with salutary observations that make one think again about the past, as well as its connection to the present. It is only toward the end of the book that a note of sadness creeps into Tsunenari’s cheerful tone, when he notes that some traditional values are at risk of being lost due to pressure from the “economic rationale” that today governs almost everything.

“The opposite of war,” said an Irish poet, having lived through the recent Troubles, “is not peace, but civilization.” Presenting a resonant case for such a philosophy, “The Edo Inheritance” is an engaging and thought-provoking read.