Edo Era (1603-1868): The Japanese Samurai Era

ère edo

Probably the most famous period ofJapanese history, the Edo era fascinates many. From samurai to kabuki theater and origami, the Edo period is full of enchantment.

But what should we remember about the Edo era?

Let’s discover this phase of Japanese history together!

Key points of the Edo period

The Edo period begins in 1603, after the unification of Japan by the Tokugawa clan. It ends in 1868 with the Meiji restoration. These years of the Edo era are remembered for their stability and prosperity.

But was this period truly war-free? What really happened during this period?

Below are the 3 key dates to remember from the Edo era:

  • 1603 : beginning of the Tokugawa Shogunate. The seizure of power by the Tokugawa, after the unification of Japan by them, will mark the beginning of the Edo era. At the same time, this date symbolizes the heyday of the samurai (1603-1868).
  • 1650-1842: The closing of the empire to the world. The Edo era is also recognized by its sakoku (“closing the country to the world”) which will allow the development of the cultural singularity of Japan.
  • 1854 : Signature of the convention of Kanagawa. This convention will sign the decline of the Tokugawa clan.
Illustration of the EDo era

The Edo period of the Tokugawa: what are its specificities?

The change of capital: from Kyoto to Edo

The Edo era is distinguished first by the change of the capital of Japan. Indeed, if the capital has always been Kyoto, where the imperial court remained, the Tokugawa shogunate had decided otherwise. In 1603, Tokugawa Ieyasu designated Edo, now Tokyo and central city of his Shogunate, as the capital of Japan.

This decisive change marks the total erasure of the already weak power of the emperor over politics. If the latter still remains the legitimate leader of the empire, his role is symbolic. He is above all the guardian of traditions and therefore does not participate in political affairs.

Interesting fact

This tradition of the Emperor not interfering in political affairs was maintained until June 5, 1863. At this notable date of the Edo era, in disagreement with the Shogunate, the Emperor ordered the expulsion of foreigners by an imperial edict.

The Bakufu of the Edo period: primacy of peace and stability

The so-called Edo period is also distinguished by the particular organization of its Bakufu or his government. Indeed, in addition to its vocation to preserve peace, the Tokugawa shogunate has the following specificities:

  • The establishment of a hereditary Shogunate

The change of capital is not the only important fact of the Tokugawa Shogunate. Another decision of the clan which marked the Edo era was the establishment of a hereditary shogunate. Indeed from Tokugawa, the position of Shogun will be hereditary.

  • The redistribution of territories

As part of the maintenance of peace, the Tokugawa shogunate carried out a series of confiscations and redistributions of the empire’s lands. The goal was to have some control over the Daimyo, but above all to establish a certain equitability by channelling their warrior spirit.

  • The taxation of alternating residence

The Tokugawa Shogunate was also distinguished by the imposition of alternating residence for the Daimyo. This decision, taken to guarantee the peace of the empire, was characterized by the obligation of the local lords to reside in Edo at least every other year. In order to have a better control over them, their families were forced to live permanently in the capital.

  • The centralization of power

The residence of the Daimyo in the capital will allow a centralization of the power to this last one. The Edo era and the Tokugawa Shogunate thus also mark the development of Japanese administration. More than 11,000 civil servants were recruited throughout the archipelago from the ranks of the Daimyo of lower rank.

To know more

The involvement of the warrior class in the layout of the empire gave an interesting definition to the Tokugawa Shogunate. The Edo period is often referred to as the reign of a warlike society, but without war.

Illustration Tokugawa Shogunate

The preponderant place of the samurai in the Tokugawa shogunate

The Edo period is also characterized by its hierarchical society. The Japanese population was then divided into several classes: warriors, peasants, craftsmen and merchants. But what makes the Edo era really special is the domination of the warrior class.

Under the Bakafu regime, samurai and bushi are above the pyramid. They are more revered than ever. But this hegemony of the samurai has some drawbacks, namely:

  • The strict codification of bushido

Bushido embodies the codes to be followed by the samurai. If each clan had their specificity in the application of bushido, the Tokugawa Shogunate will codify in a strict way this philosophy. The philosopher Yamaga Soko, wanting to consolidate the image of the samurai, will set him up as a thoughtful man. The samurai will no longer be seen as a warrior at the service of his master. He will be seen as a Confucian with a sense of sacrifice and service to others, even of lower class.

  • Civil servant warriors

Another specificity of the Tokugawa Shogunate is the reconversion of warriors (samurai and bushi) into civil administrators. In order to preserve peace, the carrying of weapons by samurai and bushi was prohibited on certain occasions. At present, they were primarily administrators, holding positions of varying degrees of responsibility. Their place in the Bakufu depended on in large part to their affinity and allegiance to the Shogunate.

Interesting fact

Samurai are not the only ones who are forbidden to carry weapons. The bakufu had also confiscated the weapons of some peasants so that they would focus on working the land.

The closure of the Japanese borders: what are the specificities?

In order to preserve the stability of the empire, the Tokugawa Shogunate established sakoku (“closing the country to the foreigner”) in 1650. His ambition was to avoid instability through foreign influence. But what were the consequences of this decision?

Japan’s relations with the world during the sakoku

Edo period, boat trip

The beginning of Japan’s isolation is distinguished by a series of laws:

  • The prohibition for Japanese to go abroad.

The people of the rising sun were indeed not allowed to leave the territory, under penalty of death.

  • The prohibition of foreigners to go on Japanese soil

In the same way, any foreigner venturing on the Japanese territory was beheaded during the sakoku of the Edo era. During this same period, the arrival of foreign missionaries was resisted and Christianity was suppressed.

  • The prohibition of relations with other states, except Holland

As far as trade and commerce were concerned, all contact was also cut off. The only merchants with whom the Tokugawa Shogunate had allowed trade were the Dutch and, secondarily, the Portuguese. The bakufu had also created an artificial island, Dejima, off the port of Nagasaki, to ensure trade.

In a nutshell

True to its motto of seeking peace, the Tokugawa Shogunate preferred withdrawal to war.

The exceptions of Japanese sakokuWhat were the privileged states?

Despite Japan’s policy of isolationism during the Edo period, the empire had nevertheless maintained privileged relations with certain states from 1842 onwards:

  • The Netherlands

In addition to the economic exchanges, Holland had allowed the development of the intellectual thoughts of the island. The current Netherlands was also a major ally in the technological development of the empire. Similarly, they also helped in the repression of certain divergences, including the rise of the Christian rebels.

  • China, through the Ryukyu Kingdom

The trade was generally in goods such as silk and sugar. They were managed by the Satsuma estate.

  • Korea

The relations with the peninsula were mainly with the island of Tsushina.

To be noted

The Shogunate closely monitored these exchanges with other states. He had a monopoly on it.

Japanese society in the Edo period: between culture and development

Sakoku has allowed Japan to refocus on its culture and values. A wind of nationalism blows on the kingdom. So if the works of the time were not inspired by peace, it was inspired by the nation.

Art and leisure developed particularly during the Edo period. Indeed, peace allows the archipelago to dig into areas that did not really interest so many wars.

  • The evolution of art

The Edo period is characterized by the emergence of new arts. We can quote in particular the art of the ukiyo-u or the Japanese print, which will meet a world success.

Good to know: The most famous artist of this artistic movement is undoubtedly Hokusai with his famous “Great Wave of Kanagawa”.

  • The rise of literature

Poems, stories and philosophical works also stand out during the Edo period. They are becoming more and more aware of the peaceful atmosphere in the kingdom. Studies of ancient Japanese texts are also favored by the regime.

  • The height of entertainment

The art of the stage also gains a new breath through kabuki and joruri theater. Combining song and dance, this new form of entertainment enlivened the Edo era.

Music such as kokyoku and nagauta nagauta are also developed also developed to accompany the theater or to give rhythm to the festivals.

In parallel to the theater, brothels also flourished in the city of Edo. So much so that one district, Yoshiwara, will be dedicated exclusively to pleasure.

To know more

The merchant class, located at the bottom of the Japanese hierarchy, took full advantage of this cultural boom. Over time, it became a small bourgeoisie, gaining more and more influence.

Edo era peronnage

Edo: the city of development

Edo, during its era, will become one of the most populated cities in the world. The settlement of the Daimyo families in the capital attracted many people, making the old fishing village flourish. In just a decade, the population of the former Tokyo will double. Edo became not only the decision-making center of the empire, but also a real metropolis with more than one million inhabitants.

Thedecline d he decline of the Tokugawa shogunate: the end of the samurai?

If the Tokugawa shogunate is known to be one of the longest and most prosperous in the country, it still had an end. And not the most glorious. But what were the triggers for the fall of this empire?

The Convention of Kanagawa: signing the end of the Tokugawa ?

The Tokugawa Shogunate was respected above all for its role in establishing peace in the empire. Indeed, the Tokugawa motto was peace and balance of power. A motto that the American explorers will be happy to weaken.

In 1853, Commodore Matthew Perry was sent to Japan with the mission of forcing the Japanese to trade. After a year of intimidation, the Shogunate capitulated and agreed to negotiate in 1854.

It is the beginning of the opening of Japan to the world.

To know more

In addition to the Kanagawa Convention, Japan also signed the Harris Treaty with the United States in 1858. This treaty marks the beginning of diplomatic relations between the two states. A relationship that greatly benefits the United States in the Edo period.

The relations between post-skoku Japan and the world

Japan of the Edo period did not open itself to the world by choice. It is strongly forced to do so. But how does this translate into relations with other states?

  • Commercial exchanges

In terms of trade relations, the United States became Japan’s largest trading partner in the Edo period. Thanks to the Kanagawa Convention and the Harris Treaty, 4 ports are available for trade between the two states.

  • Diplomatic relations

After the United States forced the opening of its borders, the other world powers took advantage of this to establish diplomatic ties with Japan. France, Russia and the United Kingdom, for example, also secure trade between states through treaties.

Important fact

The trade between Japan and the above-mentioned states is not at all fair. Their agreements between Japan and the United States stipulate, for example, that U.S. citizens shall be tried under U.S. law. In addition, customs fees, whether for imports or exports, are unilaterally set by Uncle Sam’s country.

The end of the Edo era: the fall of the Tokugawa shogunate

The decline of the Tokugawa Shogunate is slow, but certain. If the regime is defined by the peace that it managed to establish, the end of the Tokugawa is punctuated by instability.

  • The loss of political power

With the population boom that the peace period brought, the Bakufu is starting to have trouble managing the company. Tension was growing within the empire, and the opening of Japan to the world raised the threat of civil war. Indeed, the opinions between the Shogunate and the Imperial Court became more and more divergent.

  • The effects of the brutal opening of the empire

In addition to this tense atmosphere, the economic upheavals that the brutal opening of the empire to the world brought about. Unemployment is rising, food prices are increasing. The pro-imperial revolts are more and more numerous and the famine is recurrent.

But the pains of the Japanese do not stop there: the foreigners also bring cholera.

  • The decline of the warrior society

With the development of technology, the samurai, symbol of the power of the Shogunate, also lost their superbness. They are now more and more ineffective against the modern weapons with which their enemies are equipped. This is the end of the samurai as we know them. Their impressive armor and katana no longer fit. The rank will even be abolished by the Meiji Emperor later on.

The return in force of the Japanese imperial family

The imperial family is above all the guardian of traditions during the Edo era. However, the opening of the Shogunate to the world and the influence of the latter represent a threat to the millennial power. A threat from Kyoto does not keep from being noticed. Unfortunately, the Shogunate is bound in its decision to open up to the world, which displeases the imperial court.

For the first time in the history of that time, the Emperor broke with tradition and interfered in political affairs. A pro-imperial organization, the ishin shishiThis was followed by the slogan: “Revere the emperor, expel the barbarians”. It is the beginning of a new period of tension and civil war, which will lead later to the fall of Takugawa.