What was the Edo Period of Japanese history?

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Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hiroshige39_okazaki.jpg

The Edo Period was a period of Japanese history which extended from AD 1600 to 1868. During this rime, Japan's ruling shogunate was officially established and the seat of power was moved from rural areas to more urbanised regions, most notably present-day Tokyo.


It is also known as the Tokugawa Period, which refers to the ruling shogunate family of Tokugawa Ieyasu, who seized power at around 1600. The period received its name from the capital city of Edo (now called Tokyo), which served as both the seat of power and home to a large urban center.

The first Tokugawa shoguns

The Tokugawa shogunate was officially established at the beginning of the Edo Period, after Tokugawa Ieyasu defeated Toyotomi Hideyoshi in the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600. The second and third shoguns were held by two other branches of the Tokugawa clan as regents for underage heirs to the shogunate. 


The second Tokugawa shogun was Tokugawa Hidetada who at the time was only thirteen years old. His father, Tokugawa Ieyasu, had died during the siege of Osaka in 1615. Following his father's wishes, Hidetada ruled under the name of "Tsunayoshi". Tokugawa Ieyasu was famous for being a brutal warlord, but his son Hidetada however was much more peaceful. He cared for the poor and conscripted many peasants into building roads throughout Japan.


The third Tokugawa shogunate was also held by a child shogun named Iemitsu who became shogun in 1623 at the age of thirteen. He was not actually a son of Tokugawa Hidetada but rather the grandson of Tokugawa Ieyasu by way of Toyotomi Hideyori, whom Ieyasu had executed in 1615 after Hideyori's failed siege on Osaka castle. He is most well-known for shutting Japan to outside influences and for being extremely isolationist, as well as persecuting the Christians.

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The shogunate system

Before Ieyasu's rise to power, Japan was plagued with civil wars and other lords were constantly trying to overthrow each other. However, under his leadership things became much more peaceful and there was almost no internal conflict until the very end of the Edo Period.


The shogunate system was a political organisation in which an individual dictator ruled with complete authority, especially over military matters. In order to sustain their rule, leaders often built up a base of support by giving handouts to other social classes such as peasants and artisans. 


The Tokugawa shogunate had complete control over foreign affairs and only allowed trade through designated ports on the west coast of Japan. They also controlled travel by forcing all Japanese people to stay within their fiefs. People were not allowed to leave without permission or else they would be harshly punished.


The shogunate kept the emperor in place as the head of state, but only used him for official matters such as addressing foreign dignitaries. The shogunate did all the ruling while the emperor was responsible for cultural and religious ceremonies.

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Tokugawa Iemitsu closed Japan off from the world because he believed that the country was under threat of foreign invasion. The main threats he worried about were Christianity and trade with foreigners, which Iemitsu believed would destroy Japanese culture.


The shogunate was so strict in fact that if any Japanese ship sailed too close to foreign ships, they were at risk of being denied reentry onto Japanese soil. Japanese people were banned from engaging in overseas trade and the shogun limited their access to foreign imports and ideas. As a result, Japan became cut off from the rest of the world which helped bring about peace within the country. 


Foreign trade was not completely banned, however. The shogunate allowed trade to take place with China, Korea and the Netherlands through non-Japanese merchants who lived in designated trading areas. 


The Dutch were one of the only Westerners welcomed into Japan during this time period because they had much to offer in terms of technology. However, they were only allowed in the port city of Nagasaki. Besides being able to ship weapons and other goods, the Dutch also brought ideas about manufacturing and medicine. However, most of these goods were only available to the samurai class.

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Social and political changes

During this period, the Tokugawa clan consolidated its control over Japan to determine the social hierarchy for centuries to come. This was known as a class or caste system, which was strictly enforced by the Tokugawa rulers through several sumptuary laws.


At the top of this class structure were members of the Tokugawa clan followed by daimyōs (feudal lords), warriors, peasants and artisans. Peasants made up 70% of Japan's total population at that time.


During the Edo Period, the samurai class changed from being professional military warriors to an elite social class. Rather than spending their time learning fighting skills and battle formations, members of the samurai became powerful bureaucrats. In fact, many samurai were given high positions in the Tokugawa shogunate.


Samurai studied a variety of subjects such as Confucianism and Rangaku (Dutch studies) which was a discipline that combined scientific knowledge with Western medicine and adaptations of European mechanical technology to distinguish it from Eastern mechanical technology.

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Rise of merchant classes

During the Tokugawa Shogunate, Japan experienced a rise in technology which was partially due to contact with the Dutch. One of their main exports was gunpowder and cannons. The new technologies caused feudal lords to build up armies of trained warriors who were loyal to them rather than the shogun.


In order for feudal lords to start building up armies, they needed to be able to afford weapons and soldiers. In return for their loyalty, lords gave samurai a fixed stipend of rice each year. Since the value of gold increased in Japan over time, the stipends were often paid in rice because it could be easily stored by selling them on the market when there was an increase in price.


However, since samurai had more money on their hands, the demand for goods increased. Merchants were happy to take advantage of this opportunity because they could open shops in cities that were previously inaccessible due to travel restrictions.


They also started providing services that feudal lords needed which was a good way for merchants to gain more power within the government class. Eventually, the government started to change hands from feudal lords to more of a merchant-dominated government.


Best example is how Iemitsu went against his father's wishes and would not allow any samurai families with less than ten generations of nobility into the shogunate. This was done so that merchants could be considered for important roles in government without having to worry about nobles trying to overthrow them.

Popular forms of entertainment

Samurai would spend much of their time practicing martial arts and playing board games. These games were one of the main forms of entertainment among samurai because they allowed them to prove who was the best fighter while also providing an opportunity for socialising with other warriors.


Theatre became an important cultural pastime for the Japanese people. During the Edo Period, Kabuki was considered a form of entertainment for commoners and became hugely popular throughout Japan.


Theater performances revolved around love stories, heroic tales, and great adventures. Actors would portray different types of characters such as samurai, doctors and merchants and would be judged by how well they could play their role.

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Stagnation of the late Edo period

The long period of peace was starting to take its toll on the people who were yearning for excitement. As a result, there was an overall decline in population throughout Japan because people would not seek out opportunities to raise their status within society. There were also fewer young men coming forward because they did not want to risk their lives for higher wages in a war.


In addition, many samurai were paid in rice, and they would sometimes sell their stipend for cash which made prices unstable because supply was not always covered by the money the lords had available.


Iemitsu also passed a ban on wearing swords inside cities which meant that there were fewer samurai to promote change throughout society which kept censorship over the people in place.


The last reason why there was a stagnation of culture during this time was because many merchants were able to open up their own companies which allowed them to gain power within the government. This caused feudal lords to stop learning about foreign cultures and concentrate more on creating entertainment for themselves, rather than trying to keep up with trends outside of Japan.

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