You’d never know, reading the stories and poems of 17th-century Japan, that the country was closed. In, there was no getting out; out, no getting in, death to violators. That was the law of the land, laid down by the ruling Tokugawa shogunate in 1637 as a barrier against European imperialism and change in general. Time itself was frozen, that the Tokugawa might rule forever. It must at times have seemed they would. Two and a half centuries is a long time. The beginning of the end came in 1854, when the U.S. Navy’s “Black Ships” forced an opening. The Edo Period (1603-1868) was breathing its last.
Few countries have ever been so tightly bolted against the outside world. You’d expect, somewhere in the voluminous literature of the period — for 17th-century Japan was highly literate by world standards — a hint, if only faint and understated for fear of censorship, of claustrophobia.
It’s not there, either in the masses of popular novels churned out by a nascent publishing industry nor in the kabuki and puppet plays staged in such riotous profusion by nascent and burgeoning theaters, stoking the emotions they portrayed and portraying the emotions they stoked. Many moods come and go, from ecstasy to despair, lust for love to lust for money, love of life to the fevered pursuit of death when love led there, as it often did. At its best and at its worst, whether a gift or a burden, life was intense, a desperate snatching of pleasure known to be fleeting, if not deadly — and if deadly, so be it.