Source: Reischauer, E. , & Jansen, M. B. (1995). The Japanese Today (pp. 52-77). Belknap Harvard.
By the twelfth century Japan was on the threshold of an even greater departure from East Asian norms. This was the development of a feudal system, which over the next seven centuries was to go through phases that had many striking parallels to the feudal experience of Western Europe between the ninth and fifteenth centuries. These similarities to Europe cannot be laid to mutual influences, since there was no contact between the two. The parallels are more likely to have been the result of similarities in the social and cultural ingredients that became mixed together in these two areas—namely, tribal societies and relatively advanced political and economic systems. In the West, tribal German groups fell heir to the wreckage of the administration and land system of the Roman Empire. In Japan, the tribal islanders adopted the political institutions and land system of the Chinese Empire. In both cases, these two elements worked on each other over a long period in relative isolation, and out of the amalgam emerged a complex political system based on bonds of personal loyalty in a military aristocracy and the fusion of public authority and personal property rights to land.
As the authority and power of the central government declined in Japan, various groups of local leaders in the provinces banded together for mutual protection. These groups were made up of the officers of the old provincial administrations and the local managers or owners of estates. At first such groups consisted of relatives or neighbors, centered frequently around some charismatic figure who inspired loyalty. Because of the strong Japanese sense of hereditary authority, nothing was more prestigious than imperial descent. Thus, many of the groups came to be led by cadet branches of the imperial family that had received the family names Taira or Minamoto and had moved out to the provinces to make their fortunes as the representatives of central authority.
Organized to protect their own interests, the local groups were in essence vigilante bands of warriors. Their members formed a petty local aristocracy, somewhat like the knights of early feudal Europe, for they too were mounted, armored warriors. Their chief weapons were the bow and arrow, skillfully used from horseback, and the curved steel sword, which came to be the finest blade in the world. Their armor was quite different from that of the West, being much lighter and more flexible and therefore probably more efficient. It consisted largely of small strips of steel, bound together by brightly colored thongs and fitted loosely over the body.
These warrior bands slowly grew in the provinces and in the twelfth century became involved in the affairs of the central government at Kyoto. Succession rivalries within the main Fujiwara family and the imperial line induced the two sides to call on the armed support of warrior bands associated with their provincial estates. These fought two brief wars between 1156 and 1160, from which a Taira leader emerged as clearly the dominant military power over the court. He settled down at the capital, took for himself high positions in the central government, nd, in the Fujiwara manner, married his daughter to the emperor and put the resulting grandson on the throne.
Meanwhile Yoritomo, the heir of the defeated Minamoto leader, raised the standard of revolt in the Kanto region in eastern Japan. By 1185 his forces had swept the Taira into oblivion, and he had become the undisputed military master of the land. Instead of establishing himself in Kyoto or taking high civil office there, he made his base at Kamakura, today a seaside suburb of Tokyo in East Japan, and took only the title of shogun, or generalissimo of the emperor's army. He rewarded his followers with the estates once managed or owned by the members of the defeated faction, creating for them the new managerial position of steward (jito) and grouping the stewards together for defense purposes by provinces under the leadership of a "protector" (shugo).
In theory Yoritomo left the old central government intact, with the court aristocrats still occupying the high civil posts and drawing income from the estates they owned; but within this somewhat hollow shell of the old imperial system, he had established effective control over the whole land by spreading throughout its estates a thin layer of warrior families from the Kanto who were personally loyal to him. Simple organs of family government in Kamakura gave direction to the whole group and administered justice on the basis of local customary law rather than the old Chinese-type codes of the imperial court.
Because so much of the old pre-feudal government and economy remained unchanged, the Kamakura system was only proto-feudal, but it W.1S efficient and lasted almost a century and a half, surviving during this period two very serious challenges.
One challenge was the early disappearance of the main \1ina~l1oro family, the focus of personal loyalty on which the whole system theoretically depended. First Yoritomo's suspicions of his close relatives and then the machinations of his widow and her Hojo family, ironically of Taira descent itself, led to the extinction of the line by 1219. Thereafter Hojo shogunal "regents," utilizing figurehead shoguns of Fujiwara or imperial origin, demonstrated once again the Japanese tendency to allow supreme authority to become purely symbolic. They also demonstrated the persistent Japanese preference for group over individual leadership. Power was usually shared by paired officers or collegial groups.
The other great challenge to the Kamakura system was the one serious invasion Japan faced between unrecorded antiquity and World War Il.The Mongols had overrun Korea, Central Asia, much of the Middle East, and eastern Europe and then, more slowly and with much greater difficulty, the powerful Chinese Empire. They next attempted to invade Japan, sending against it in 1274 and again in 1281 the greatest overseas expeditions the world had as yet seen. These were turned back more by the weather than by the relatively small groups of Japanese knights who tried to beat them off. The fortuitous intervention in 1281 of a great typhoon—called the kamikaze, or "divine wind"—strengthened the Japanese in their belief in the divine uniqueness of their land.
The Kamakura system, depending as it did on the personal loyalty of a single warrior band spread thinly throughout the nation, eventually succumbed to the ravages of time. Repeated divisions of patrimonies impoverished many of the descendants of the original stewards, and they became increasingly dependent on local strong men, often the descendants of the original provincial "protectors." Moreover, loyalty to the central symbol of authority in Kamakura wore thin over the generations and came to be replaced by loyalty to better-known local leaders.
These trends resulted in a sudden breakdown of the whole system in the fourteenth century. The emperor Go-Daigo, who was an anomaly for his age, attempted in 1333 to take back political control, and the Kamakura general sent down to Kyoto to chastize him defected to his cause. The once unitary warrior clique immediately fell aparc inro J number of more localized bands of lords and vassals.
The turncoat Kamakura general, Ashikaga Takauji—Japanese family names precede personal names—soon broke with Go-Daigo, ser up another member of the imperial family as emperor in Kyoto, and himself assumed the title of shogun. But there was no possibility of reestablishing the unity of the warrior class under a single lord. Instead Takauji and his descendants, who settled down in Kyoto and held on to the title of shogun until 1573, attempted to create a three-tiered feudal system. They asserted their supremacy over the various local warrior leaders and left it up to these supposedly vassal feudal lords to attempt to maintain control over the warriors of their respective regions as their own sub-vassals.
In practice, no such neat system emerged. Until 1392 Go-Daigo and his descendants maintained a rival imperial court in the mountains south of Kyoto, and the various local lord and vassal groups bar~led one another, ostensibly in behalf of the rival claimants to the throne but in reality over their own conflicting interests. After the reunification of the imperial court, the Ashikaga for several decades did exercise considerable authority in the central part of Japan around Kyoro, bur leaders in more distant areas paid little or no attention to their claims of overlordship.
In 1467 a prolonged war broke out between the great lords active at the shogun's court in Kyoto, and the rest of Japan also disintegrated into chaotic fighting. In fact, warfare became endemic throughout Japan for the next century, and during this time an almost complete turnover in power took place. The authority of the Ashikaga shoguns faded entirely, and most of the great lords were destroyed by new military families. The lords of the early Ashikaga period, who were largely the descendants of provincial "protectors" of the Kamakura system, usually claimed authority over a wider area than they really controlled. During the prolonged fighting that started in 1467, these families were for the most part replaced by new leaders who had established complete control over the warriors of smaller but more tightly knit domains. It was men of this type who became the daimyo, or feudal lords, of later Japanese feudalism. In absolute control of their own vassals and lands, they appeared to the Europeans who arrived in Japan in the sixteenth century to be petty kings.
During all the fighting that swept Japan from the fourteenth century on, the warrior holders of power in the provinces had ample opportunity to whittle away at the residue of tax payments and dues from estates that had formerly gone to the Kyoto government and its aristocratic families, and by the late fifteenth century these payments had ceased entirely. As a result, the imperial court and its aristocracy, though maintaining as best they could the o]d court ranks, positions, and ceremonials, sank almost out of sight into relative poverty. The descendants ~f the once all-powerful Fujiwara subsisted mostly on dues paid them by Kyoto merchant guilds, and emperors were even known to discreetly sell samples of their calligraphy. With the virtual disappearance, except ~n vague theory, of the old imperial system, Japan had become a fully feudal land.
Feudal Japan was in many basic ways more like Europe than like China. e warriors, who were known by the generic term samurai, or "servitors," placed great emphasis on the military virtues of bravery, honor, If-discipline, and the stoical acceptance of death. Lacking any religious injunctions against suicide, in defeat they commonly took their own lives rather than accept humiliation and possible torture in captivity. Suicide by the gruesome and extremely painful means of cutting open one's own abdomen became a sort of ritual used to demonstrate will power and maintain honor. Vulgarly called harakiri, or "belly slitting," but more properly known as seppuku, this form of honorable suicide has survived on occasion into modern times, and suicide by other, less difficult means is still considered an acceptable and basically honorable way to escape an intolerable situation.
The Japanese feudal system, like that of Europe, depended on bonds of personal loyalty. Of course, loyalty was in actuality the weakest link in both systems, and the medieval histories of both Japan and Europe are full of cases of turncoats and traitorous betrayals. In Europe, with its background of Roman law, the lord-vassal relationship was seen as mutual and contractual—in other words, as legalistic. In Japan, the Chinese system had placed less emphasis on law and more on morality— that is, on the subordination of law to the moral leadership of the ruler, since his right to rule was theoretically based on his superior wisdom and morality. Hence, the lord-vassal relationship was seen as one of unlimited and absolute loyalty on the part of the vassal, not merely one of legal contract between the two. There was thus no room for the development of the concept of political rights, as happened in the West.
Loyalty to the ruler was important in the Chinese Confucian system, but it was usually overshadowed by loyalty to the family. In fact, three of the five basic Confucian ethical relationships had to do with filial piety and other family loyalties. In Japan, loyalty to the lord was more central to the whole system and, despite the importance of the family, took precedence over loyalty to it. Thus in Japan the suprafamily group early became established as more fundamental than the family itself, and this made easier the transition in modern times to loyalty to the nation and to other nonkinship groupings.
Still, family lineage and honor were of great importance in medieval Japanese society, because inheritance determined power and prestige as well as the ownership of property. Family continuity was naturally a matter of vital concern. The Japanese avoided many of the problems of Western hereditary systems by permitting a man to select among his sons the one most suitable to inherit his position and also by using adoption when there was no male heir by birth. The husband of a daughter, a young relative, or even some entirely unrelated person could be adopted as a completely acceptable heir. While inheritance is no longer a keystone of Japanese society, these types of adoption are still common.
Japanese feudal society differed from that of Europe in two other revealing ways. In Japan there was no cult of chivalry that put women on a romantic pedestal, though as fragile, inferior beings. The Japanese warriors expected their women to be as tough as they were and to accept self-destruction out of loyalty to lord or family. Also, Japanese warriors, though men of the sword like their Western counterparts, had none of the contempt that the Western feudal aristocracy often showed for learning and the gentler arts. They prided themselves on their fine calligraphy or poetic skills. Perhaps the long coexistence of the culture of the imperial court with the rising warrior society of the provinces had permitted a fuller transfer of the arts and attitudes of the one to the other.
The political and social organization of medieval Japan is extremely remote from that of contemporary Japanese society, but many of the attitudes developed then, and preserved and reshaped in the later phases of Japanese feudalism, have survived into modern times. Thus the warrior spirit and its sense of values were easily revived by the modern Japanese army, and a strong spirit of loyalty, duty, self-discipline, and selfdenial still lingers on from feudal days, shaping the contemporary Japanese personality.
The long, slow decline of the Kyoto court has given rise to a picture of feudal times as the dark ages, but this is even less true of Japan than of Europe. Literature, art, and learning showed remarkable continuity, and the high culture that once had been largely limited to the capital region spread throughout the nation. Naturally new themes and new styles also appeared in both literature and art. Stirring war tales recounted the military exploits of the twelfth century. These as well as the histories of Buddhist monasteries and the lives of Buddhist saints were graphically portrayed in marvelous scroll paintings. The thirteenth century wicnessed a brilliant renaissance of sculpture. The Great Buddha at Kamakura, one of the largest bronze figures in the world, remains as a symbol of this age. In the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries a sophisticared dramatic form was developed at the court of the Ashikaga shoguns in Kyoto. This was No, in which a handful of masked and costumed actors presented, through sonorous chanting, measured movements, and stately dance, historical stories and early myths, usually based on Buddhist concepts of the vanity of life or Shinto ideas of the permeation of nature and man by the spirit world of the gods. The use in No of a chorus accompanied by musical instruments to fill out the story is reminiscent of ancient Greek drama.
Under the rule of the provincial warriors, the peasants sank from raxpayers to the status of serfs but probably gained in security in the process. In any case, the common man at this time began to make his appearance in both art and literature, and he seems to have found new self-expression through the-spread and spiritual resurgence of Buddhism. The court aristocrats had been most interested in a form of Buddhism that emphasized magic formulas and rituals, but during the eleventh and twelfth centuries a new emphasis developed, especially among more plebeian Japanese. This was belief in salvation and entrance into paradise through simple faith—that is, through reliance on the grace of one of the many Buddhist deities. Such concepts were an almost complete reversal of the original Buddhist doctrine of the merging of the personal ego into the cosmos through austere self-cultivation leading to enlightenment. Popular preachers spread the idea that, in this supposedly corrupt "latter age" of Buddhism, people no longer had the strength to achieve enlightenment through their own abilities but must rely through faith on "the strength of another."
These concepts gave rise in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries to new sectarian movements that were to become the largest Buddhist sectarian of Japan. One of these, which emphasized the Pure Land, or Western Paradise, of the Buddha Amida, championed the congregational, instead of monastic, organization of the church and the marriage of the clergy, a custom that in time spread to most sects. Another sect, which emphasized the Lotus Sutra as the central object of faith, is popularly known by the name of its founder, Nichiren. His thinking also took a peculiarly nationalistic bent, emphasizing that Buddhism had declined in India and China turn and that Japan was now the central land of the religion. These sects in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries developed religious congregations that in some places contended with the feudal warriors for local political power.
Many of the warriors preferred a different sort of Buddhism. This was Zen, which was introduced from China in sectarian form in the early Kamakura period. Zen emphasized concepts of meditation, simplicity, and closeness to nature. The austere life of its monasteries appealed to the Spartan warriors, and they saw in the rigorous self-discipline of the practice of Zen meditation a. way to develop the self-control and firmness of character their way of life demanded. Under the patronage of the feudal leaders, Zen monasteries around Kamakura and Kyoto became the great intellectual centers of medieval Japan. Zen monks were used by the Ashikaga shoguns as advisers, particularly in their contacts with China. Through these men there was a great resurgence of interest in Chinese scholarship and literature and a revival of skill in the writing of the Chinese language. Zen monks also imported the then relatively new Sung style of monochrome landscape painting, which Japanese artists mastered as they had the earlier Chinese styles. Other Zen imports were landscape gardening and tea drinking, introduced to keep the Zen meditator awake.
Around Zen there grew up a whole esthetic system that became a lasting element in Japanese culture. The small, the simple, the natural, even the misshapen were valued over the large, the grandiose, the artificial, or the uniform. In architecture, natural wood textures and twisted trunks were esteemed more than precisely shaped and painted pieces of wood, and simple, irregular structures, fitted to the lay of the land, were preferred to the stately, balanced majesty of Chinese buildings. Small gardens were designed to represent in microcosm the wild grandeur of nature, contrasting sharply with the Western love of great geometric patterns. The epitome of Japanese taste can be seen in the famous rock garden of the Ryoanji in Kyoto, dating from the fifteenth century, which in a tiny space evokes through sand and a few scattered rocks a majestic seascape. In painting, a few bold, expert strokes in black India ink caught more of the essence of nature than could be portrayed in realistic paintings replete with color and detail. The tea ceremony was developed as an esthetic cult, gracefully performed in simple surroundings and with simple utensils. This medieval Zen esthetic was well suited to the austere life of feudal Japan, but, curiously enough, it also has great appeal in the modern West, surfeited as it is with abundance, machined regularity, and unlimited technical skills.
The close contacts of the Zen monks with China were made possible by a great increase in trade with the continent, which in turn was the product of considerable development of Japanese technology and growth in its economy. The increasing export of manufactured goods, such as folding fans, screens, and the highly prized swords of Japan, shows that the islands were beginning to draw abreast of China in technology. The development of guilds of merchants and artisans within the country was a sign of commercial growth. As in feudal Europe, such guilds were needed to give artisans and merchants some protection against the tax barriers and many other restrictions on trade in a divided, feudal land.
Since the ninth century, there had been relatively little contact with the continent, but overseas trade began to pick up in the thirteenth century. For a while in the fifteenth century, the Ashikaga shoguns attempted to monopolize it by allowing it to be fitted into the Chinese pattern of tributary relations, including even the "investiture" of the shoguns as the "kings" of Japan by the Chinese emperor—to the lasting shame of Japanese nationalists. A more significant feature of overseas commerce was the fact that Japanese traders commonly turned to piracy when frustrated in their commercial objectives, taking by the sword what they were unable to gain by trade. Japanese pirates started along the nearby shores of Korea, then became a scourge along the coast of China, and by the sixteenth century were roaming the seas of all Southeast Asia.
In the sixteenth century, the more efficient of the new type of tightly organized feudal domains grew through the subjugation and incorporation of less successful ones, until by the end of the century Japan had again become politically unified. It had in fact achieved a type of centralized feudal system that seems almost the antithesis of the decentralized feudalism that had existed in Europe. The basic pattern was the one attempted but never attained by the Ashikaga. A supreme overlord kept close rule over a large number of vassal lords, who in turn controlled their respective vassals and samurai retainers.
The appearance of the Europeans at this time may have contributed to the process of reunification, because they brought with them new military technology. After rounding Africa and reaching India in 1498, the Portuguese pushed on rapidly eastward, and in 1542 or 1543 some reached an island off the southern tip of Kyushu. The Portuguese were seeking trade, but they were accompanied by Jesuit priests, who embarked on missionary activities, winning close to a half million converts by the early seventeenth century. This was a much larger percentage of the Japanese population of the time than are Christian today.
The Japanese, however, showed an even greater interest in the guns the Portuguese brought with them. Firearms spread rapidly throughout Japan, contributing to the success of the more efficient feudal realms. Castle building also increased, possibly under European influence. The white-walled wooden structures of the castles of this period were largely decorative, but they were surrounded by broad moats and huge earthbacked stone walls that were quite impervious to the cannon fire of the time. These Japanese castles were more like sixteenth-century European fortifications than like castles. Many built around the turn of the sixteenth century still stand, including beautiful Himeji, a short distance west of Osaka. The imperial palace grounds of downtown Tokyo constitute a good example of the central core of one of these great fortresses west of Osaka. The imperial palace grounds of downtown Tokyo constitute a good example of the central core of one of these great fortresses.
The political reunification of Japan was largely the work of three successive military leaders. The first, Oda Nobunaga, seized Kyoto in 1568, ostensibly in support of the last Ashikaga shogun, and then subjugated the lesser lords of central Japan and destroyed the power of the great Buddhist monasteries. After Nobunaga was assassinated in 1582, his mantle fell to the ablest of his generals. This was Hideyoshi, who once had been a common foot soldier and was of such humble origin that he originally lacked a family name. By 1590 Hideyoshi had established his authority over the whole country, destroying all his rival lords or forcing them to become his vassals.
Hideyoshi never took the title of shogun, but he did assume high posts in the old imperial government and by his patronage brought it back into modest affluence. He monopolized foreign trade, which by this time had become very lucrative. He had the whole land surveyed and assigned fiefs on the basis of a clear knowledge of the areas and agricultural yields involved. He confiscated the arms of the peasantry, drawing a sharp line between them and the samurai, who were increasingly becoming a salaried, professional military, living not on the land but at the castle towns of their respective lords.
Hideyoshi also embarked in 1592 on the conquest of Korea, ostensibly as the first step in an effort to conquer the world, which to him really meant China. The Japanese were stopped by Chinese armies in northern Korea and, after a long stalemate, withdrew upon Hideyoshi's death in 1598. This Japanese invasion has been emphasized in the historic memories of the Koreans and still contributes to the bitterness between them and the Japanese.
Since Hideyoshi did not leave an adult heir, a scramble for power followed his death. The victor at a great battle in 1600 was his foremost vassal, Tokugawa Ieyasu, who had been enfieffed by Hideyoshi at Edo, the present Tokyo. Ieyasu, instead of moving to Kyoto, retained his base of power in eastern Japan and devoted his energies to consolidating the supremacy of his family on the basis of the pattern already established by Hideyoshi. He was successful in this, and his heirs remained the rulers of Japan until the middle of the nineteenth century.
Ieyasu assumed the old title of shogun and divided up the country between his own domain and those of his vassals. He saved for himself a fourth of the agricultural land and all the great cities, ports, and mines.
The 245 to 295 vassal lords, or daimyo—the number varied over time— had domains ranging in size from tiny areas that produced only 10,000 koku of rice (a koku being about five bushels and the equivalent of what a person would eat in a year) to the largest, which in theory produced 1,022,700 koku. The domains were divided into three categories. Some went to leyasu's sons or relatives—the collateral daimyo. A large number of relatively small domains were assigned to men who had been Ieyasu's vassals already before 1600, and these were known as fudai or hereditary daimyo. His major allies and some of his enemies in the battle of 1600, who were called tozama, or "outer" daimyo, were allowed to retain relatively large domains on the western and northern periphery of the nation. The shogun in addition maintained a large body of direct samurai retainers, as did each of the daimyo. The central Tokugawa administration at Edo developed into a large bureaucracy, staffed by the hereditary daimyo and the shoguns' direct retainers. It showed the old tendency toward shared authority and group decisions. At the top were two councils, the "elders" and " junior elders," under which paired officers or groups of four officials administered the various branches of the shogun's government and supervised the whole country. The shoguns themselves in time became largely figureheads, thus serving basically as symbolic authority figures, like the emperors, in whose behalf the military government of Edo theoretically ruled. The domains followed the same general pattern and trends of development, with daimyo often becoming no more than figureheads and samurai bureaucrats governing through councils and group decisions. The domains were in theory entirely autonomous and paid no taxes to the central government, but they were in actuality held on a tight string. They were assigned costly duties of castle or palace construction or coastal defense, and a system soon developed whereby all the daimyo spent alternate years in attendance on the shogun at Edo and left their families there as permanent hostages. The daimyo were also held strictly accountable for the peace and efficient administration of their domains and, particularly in the early years, might be expropriated for misdeeds or demoted to lesser domains.
In order to assure the stability of their regime, Ieyasu and his successors were eager to eliminate all sources of possible challenge. They viewed the activities of European Catholic missionaries and their converts as particularly dangerous, since they involved a foreign source of authority and object of loyalty. First Hideyoshi and then the Tokugawa persecuted the religion, until it was virtually stamped out by 1638. Foreign trade also fell victim to the anti-Christian mania. Overseas Japanese were prohibited in 1636 from returning to Japan for fear that they might reintroduce the virus of Christianity, and Japanese ships were limited to coastal vessels unsuitable for ocean voyages. Relations with the outside world were limited to a few contacts with Korea and, through Okinawa, with China and to a small Dutch trading post and a group of Chinese merchants, both confined to a strictly supervised trade in the Kyushu port of Nagasaki. Thus Japan embarked on its more than two centuries of self-imposed seclusion.
Since the two centuries that followed witnessed the rise of modern science in Europe, the commercial revolution in world trade, and the start of the industrial revolution in the West, a Japan that had been abreast of most developments in the world in the early seventeenth century had fallen technologically far behind by the nineteenth. But isolation did contribute to internal stability. For more than two centuries the country enjoyed absolute peace. The political history of the time is marked only by periodic reform efforts and occasional riots by oppressed peasants. The most exciting political event was the incident in 1703 of "the forty-seven ronin," or masterless samurai, in which the former retainers of an expropriated petty daimyo revenged themselves on the Edo official who they felt had caused their lord's downfall and then paid the price for this act by committing suicide through seppuku. Despite its old-fashioned feudal pattern, Japan in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was certainly more orderly and in many ways more uniformly and efficiently ruled than any country in Europe at that time.
Peace and stability also permitted the Japanese to work over and perfect their own rich cultural heritage. During this period they became culturally more homogeneous and developed an extremely strong sense of national identity. At the same time, the continuation of a basically feudal system into the nineteenth century permitted the somewhat anachron~stic survival into modern times of medieval feudal attitudes, such as respect for military leadership, unquestioning loyalty, and emphasis on group organization. Group identification in particular was strengthened by the tight organization and long continuity of the various feudal domains.
The political pattern established in the early decades of the seventeenth century remained basically unaltered until the middle decades of the nineteenth. Although it was well suited to conditions as they had existed at the end of the sixteenth century, it became increasingly ill adapted to conditions as they developed in Japan after that. However, within this rigid political structure, great economic, social, and cultural changes did take place.
The most fundamental change was a huge growth of the economy. Peace and stability permitted a great initial leap in production during the seventeenth century. Another spur to economic development was the system of alternate residence of the lords in Edo, which forced each domain to maintain at least one large establishment at the Tokugawa capital and to spend a great part of its revenues to pay for this establishment and the travel of the lord and his retinue to and from it. This situation required the domains to produce excess rice or specialized local crops for sale to the cities and the nation at large in order to acquire the liquid assets they needed for travel and in Edo. The result was considerable regional specialization in production and the development of a national, monetized economy of a more advanced type than existed in any other Asian land.
These conditions also led to the appearance of large cities. Edo, where half the feudal lords and a large percentage of the whole warrior class were congregated at any one time, grew to be a city of around a million, while Osaka, as the great commercial center for West Japan, and Kyoto, the imperial capital with its fine industries, each came to have populations numbering in the hundreds of thousands.
Economic growth in preindustrial societies has usually been accompanied by a corresponding growth in population. This did occur during the economic surge of the seventeenth century, when the Japanese population rose to 25 or 30 million, but subsequently population remained relatively steady, despite a slow continuing rise in technology and production. The result was that living standards for most Japanese rose above mere subsistence levels. The Japanese, like the early modern Europeans, in a sense had got a step ahead of Malthus. The reasons for this are not clear, but one factor may have been the combination of feudal patterns of inheritance, in which a man had only one heir, and Japanese practices of adoption, which made it unnecessary for this heir to be his natural child. As a result, a man did not need a large number of children for financial security and family continuity and, in fact, usually found a big family more of a liability than an asset. In any case, Tokugawa peasants are known to have practiced infanticide to keep down the number of mouths to be fed, and the population did remain quite static for a century and a half despite the growth of the economy. This rise beyond subsistence levels may help account for the relatively high levels of literacy and of economic, social, and political integration of the Japanese in the nineteenth century and the vigor and dynamism they displayed at that time.
The natural agrarian bias of a feudal society produced a curious irony during the Tokugawa period. The political leadership esteemed agriculture and therefore taxed it heavily, while it despised trade and therefore taxed it only indirectly and lightly. This situation, together with the nationwide integration of the economy, permitted the growth of a prosperous urban merchant class, particularly in the large cities under the direct rule and protection of the shogun's government. During the seventeenth century, great merchant houses developed out of such economic activities as sake brewing, the retailing of dry goods, and money lending. An example is the house of Mitsui, which was to become in modern times one of the greatest private business enterprises in the world.
The various domains as well as their samurai retainers, tied as they were to fixed incomes in rice from agricultural taxes, fell increasingly in debt to urban merchants. This situation was corrosive to the whole Tokugawa system, because in theory society was divided into four classes—the warrior rulers; the peasants, who were the primary producers of wealth; the artisans, who were the secondary producers; and at the bottom the merchants, who were deemed to perform a role in society that was more parasitic than productive. This concept of a four-way division of society was a borrowing from early Chinese thought, but it was quite natural to a feudal system. The shogun's government and the individual domains periodically attempted to reverse the growing indebtedness of the ruling class by cutting down on expenses, including salaries to their retainers, and placing sumptuary laws and other restrictions on the merchants. In desperation, they also created commercial monopolies but all to no avail. The indebtedness of the ruling class to the theoretically lowest class continued to grow.
The sharp line that had been drawn in Hideyoshi's time between peasants and warriors led to a freeing of rural Japan from close supervision by the feudal rulers. In effect, Hideyoshi had forced the warriors of rural Japan to decide whether they would follow their lords to their castle towns as salaried samurai or stay with their lands and become classified as peasants. Many who had the most land to lose took the second option, becoming village headmen and the leaders of rural society. The villages thus had a strong local leadership with many of the attitudes and ethical values of the samurai class, and they were allowed a considerable degree of autonomy in running their own affairs and assigning and collecting taxes.
As the national economy developed during the Tokugawa period, villagers in the more advanced central parts of Japan increasingly shifted from subsistence farming to the growing of commercial crops, and richer peasants often found it more advantageous to let out much of their land to tenant farmers and concentrate their own energies on the processing of foodstuffs, silk, and other agricultural products. In the late eighteenth century there was a veritable outburst of entrepreneurial activity of this sort in rural Japan, and poorer peasants increasingly became accustomed to supplementing their incomes by working for wages in the enterprises of their richer neighbors or in nearby towns. Thus rural as well as urban Japan was developing far beyond the normal limits of a feudal society.
During the long Tokugawa peace the warrior class too underwent great changes. It constituted about 6 percent of the total population, including as it did the common soldiery and the clerks and underlings of the feudal establishments. Although it was basically a fighting force at the outset of the Tokugawa period, it became in time more a hereditary civil bureaucracy than a standing army. The samurai wore their traditional two swords as their badges of rank, and they still attempted to maintain their martial prowess, but in actuality they had become men of the writing brush rather than the sword.
Virtually the whole of the samurai class became literate, and so did most merchants and the richer peasants. Chinese scholarship once again had a great appeal to a Japan at peace, and during the seventeenth century the Japanese for the first time delved deeply into Confucian doctrines as these had become standardized in twelfth-century China. Confucian scholars flourished in Edo and in the domains of the great daimyo, and there was a great surge forward again in skills in the Chinese language. For the first time also there was a wide use of printing, which actually had been known to the Japanese ever since the eighth century.
The rapid growth of intellectual and scholarly activities in the seventeenth century was greatly furthered by the nationwide intellectual cross-fertilization made possible by the system of alternate residence of the lords and their retainers in Edo. Leaders from all over Japan came into constant contact with one another, and a large flow of students and teachers developed between Edo and the various domains. Just as Japan had become a single economic unit, it also became a single intellectual unit in a way no other Asian nation was.
Chinese Confucian philosophy and the historical scholarship it inspired, however, injected some intellectual elements that were subversive to the feudal system. The Chinese ideal was rule by men of superior education and morality, rather than by men merely of superior birth. In the Tokugawa system status was fundamentally determined by birth, and individual merit played only a subsidiary role. The two systems were obviously in sharp conflict with each other, and by the nineteenth century there were increasing demands by ambitious but low-ranking samurai that greater responsibilities should be given to men of talent.
Confucian philosophy and historical studies also called attention to the fact that China was ruled by emperors, not by feudal lords, and that Japan too had once had this system. As a result, increasing attention was focused on the emperor, and doubts were raised regarding the shogun's relationship to him. Among the common people, too, a movement arose, called "national learning," which started in the eighteenth century with the study of early Japanese poetry, The Tale of Genji, and the Kojiki, the eighth-century work of history, and increasingly came to emphasize the concept that the true glory of Japan was its unbroken imperial line of divine descent. Such ideas were of course potentially inimical to Tokugawa rule.
Isolation is usually associated with cultural stagnation, but the long peace, s~ability, and economic growth of the Tokugawa period led insread to a veritable cultural explosion. There was a great diversity of Confucian and other philosophical schools of all sorts, and men in touch with the Dutch traders at Nagasaki in the eighteenth century developed an interest in Western science, particularly medicine, metallurgy, and gunnery. Since this knowledge was laboriously mined from books and encyclopedias in the Dutch language, it was called "Dutch learning." Thus ~he isolated Japanese remained intellectually very much alive.
The early Tokugawa period witnessed an architectural outburst of lavishly decorated buildings, best seen today in the mausoleums of the early Tokugawa shoguns at Nikko. Many schools of painting, derived from Chinese styles or from native concepts of design, flourished at the courts of the shogun and daimyo, and a school of painting that experimented with the use of Western oil paints and perspective emerged from "Dutch learning" in the late eighteenth century. Porcelain making also became for the first time a great art in Japan, and artistic skills were lavished on lacquer ware, weaving, and brocades.
Perhaps the most interesting cultural development in the Tokugawa period, however, was the rise of an urban merchant culture quite distinct from that of the ruling samurai class. It centered on the amusemen: quarters of the cities, where the merchants, who were essentially hardworking, sober moneymakers and family men, went to relax in the company of professional female entertainers, called geisha in modern times. Here they were free from family and business responsibilities and the oppressive regulations of the feudal rulers. In this demi-monde milieu grew up a rich art, theater, and literature quite distinct from the ar~s cultivated by the samurai. This new merchant culture matured in Osaka and Kyoto in the late seventeenth century and subsequently became centered chiefly in Edo.
The art of this merchant culture was known as ukiyo-e, or "pictures of the fleeting world." The fleeting world was a Buddhist concept in origin, but it had come to connote "up-to-date." The ukiyo-e style was reminiscent of the emphasis on color and design in the Yamato-e painting of some seven centuries earlier, but the subject marter was quite different—largely stylish courtesans, popular actors, and familiar scenes of urban life. From it developed multicolored woodblock prints, also called ukiyo-e, which met the greatly increased demand of a prosperous urban society for works of art. These, too, featured beautiful courtesans and actors but in time also added famous scenes of nature, such as Mount Fuji, and spots of interest in the cities and along the highways of Japan. In a sense, these woodblock prints were the world's first true mass art and the forerunners of the picture postcard.
The theater of this merchant culture was at first limited largely to puppets, but in time kabuki dramas with human actors won out in popularity. Kabuki, while very stylized in its own way, was much more lively and reahst~c than the medieval No and developed elaborate and extremely realistic stage settings and even the revolving stage for quick sh~fts of scene.
The literary activities of the samurai were largely scholarly and philosoph~cal, but poetry was popular with them as well as with other groups, especially the witty, epigrammatic seventeen-syllable haiku. Most other new literary trends came entirely out of merchant society. Guidebooks to the amusement quarters developed into amusing descript~ons of urban social types and these into spicy or picaresque novels.
Thus Japan, though isolated from most foreign stimuli, was large and d~verse enough to have a very lively society with a richly creative culture. Packed together in great numbers in big cities and a crowded countryside and bound down by a complex, oppressive feudal system of government, the Japanese developed great skills in social and political organizat~on and group cooperation. While the general political pattern remained rigidly unchanging, beneath the surface there were great dynamic tensions between Confucian and feudal values and between economic growth and a frozen class society. Japan, far from becoming a stagnant soctety in its isolation, remained capable of great change, as it was to demonstrate brilliantly in the second half of the nineteenth century.
= end of Feudalism =
Source: Reischauer, E. , & Jansen, M. B. (1995). The Japanese Today (pp. 52-77). Belknap Harvard.