National / History | THE LIVING PAST

The Edo Period: An era of utter weirdness

For sheer strangeness, Japan’s Edo Period (1603-1868) has few rivals. Few foreigners saw it. One who did was the German scholar Engelbert Kaempfer (1651-1716). We met him in last month’s column, on the thronged Tokaido highway, on foot, as were most travelers, bound for the shogun’s new capital, Edo (present-day Tokyo).

The country was closed to foreigners. Dutch and Chinese traders were rare exceptions. Their base of operations was the tiny island of Dejima off the coast of Nagasaki. It was a tight confinement. Kaempfer shared it with the Dutch East India Company as its resident physician. Company officials were obliged to journey annually to Edo for a formal audience with the shogun. Kaempfer, in 1691, accompanied the mission, recording impressions which years later he included in his “History of Japan” (published posthumously in 1727).

The Japan Kaempfer saw during his two years in the country (1690-92) was in cultural ferment. The famous Genroku era (1688-1704) had begun. Samurai, stymied by peace, lost heart; merchants amassed wealth that mocked the impoverished warriors and their strutting martial airs. The aristocratic arts waned, submerged by the vibrant if crude novels, kabuki plays, music and sexual indulgences of commoners. It was Japan’s first pop culture.

Presiding over it was an eccentric figure remembered by history as “the Dog Shogun”— Tokugawa Tsunayoshi (1646-1709; ruled 1680-1709).

Kaempfer’s lighthearted sketch of him explains his name: “Under the present shogun’s government there are more dogs in this country than in any other. Masterless dogs lie around the streets, causing great obstruction to passersby. … When they are sick, they have to be cared for in a hut erected in each street, and when they die, they have to be carried up a mountain and buried like humans. On pain of death they may not be mistreated or killed. … This has been commanded on account of the superstition of, and an order from, the shogun, who … holds dogs in special respect because he was born in the Year of the Dog. A citizen carrying a dead mongrel up the mountain to be buried grumbled impatiently about the year of the shogun’s birth. His neighbor told him to be quiet and to thank heaven that he was not born in the Year of the Horse, for then their load would have been much heavier.”

Tsunayoshi’s Laws of Compassion, which applied most notoriously but by no means exclusively to dogs, have been and are much ridiculed — wrongly, argues historian Beatrice Bodart-Bailey. We’ll look more closely at her research next month.

Kaempfer himself admired the shogun: “This Tsunayoshi is a clever, just, and strict ruler. In government he follows the ways of his ancestors by ruling with absolute authority.” More power to him, Kaempfer seems to be saying. The religious warfare that blighted his own childhood in Germany had taught him the value of peace and order.

These came at a price, however: “There are along the road public execution grounds … reminders of public executions. … It is generally said that many laws result in many criminals. The administrators of this country are so careful and so compassionate that they aim to stop any possible crime, and thus they constantly produce new laws. And these are no empty threats, for any transgression invariably results in the death sentence.”

But, he adds, “in spite of this, the judges of this heavily populated, heathen country have fewer deaths to account for and less blood on their hands than those in our Christian countries.”

Still — is brutal justice just? “On December 28th (1692),” Kaempfer notes, “twenty-eight persons were sentenced for smuggling, of whom thirteen were crucified and the rest executed. Among them were five who had cut their bellies when they were caught: they were pickled and subjected to the same punishment.”

“Clever, just and strict,” said Kaempfer of Tsunayoshi — only to show him a clown and a fool in his reception of the foreigners. Perhaps he exaggerates: “Then the farce began, but not before we had been asked a number of meaningless questions. … Our captain was asked: How far is Holland from Batavia (present-day Jakarta)? Batavia from Nagasaki? I was asked: … Whether I had not searched for an elixir of long life like the Chinese doctors have for many hundred years? … I obliged them with the answer: Our doctors are still daily searching for a medicine to preserve people’s health to a ripe old age.”

Then: “(The shogun) had us take off our kappa, or ceremonial robes, and sit upright so that he could inspect us; had us now stand up and walk… dance, jump, pretend to be drunk … speak Japanese, read Dutch, draw, sing, put on our coats, then take them off again. During this process I broke into the following song …”

Here we leave Kaempfer and hit the road once more — the same Tokaido but a century later, our companions now two fictional characters, neither samurai nor merchants but low-born Edo bumpkins on endless pilgrimage from shrine to shrine and hostelry to hostelry, their feet forever in their mouths, their quest for adventure rewarded only by misadventure. To their credit, they preserve their sense of humor to the end. Their names are Yajirobei and Kitahachi — Yaji and Kita — good fellows both but (as we would say today) not too bright. They are the protagonists of the popular comic novel “Travels on the Eastern Seaboard” (1802-09) by Jippensha Ikku (1765-1831).

Space leaves us time for but one adventure in their company. Twilight deepens. They must find lodging. Darkness brings fear. The road abounds with tales of foxes. Foxes bewitch humans. Yaji is suddenly convinced Kita is a fox who only appears to be Kita. Kita offers him food. No thanks, says the famished Yaji, fearing it’s dung. Have a bath, suggests Kita. Just like a fox, to lure a man into a bath that’s really a cesspool! Who knows, after all, what’s really what? Who can assure us that appearance doesn’t conceal rather than reveal?

Thus do fools unwittingly lead us to philosophy.

Michael Hoffman’s new book, “Cipangu, Golden Cipangu,” is a collection of the best The Living Past stories.

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