THREE: Early Modern Japan
The Period of Growth, 1560-1710
The Period of Stasis, 1710-1850
In general terms, as suggested in the Introduction, early modern Japan experienced a phase of social expansion that
gave way in the early eighteenth century to a phase of overall stasis. On closer examination, of course, one is dealing
with diverse phenomena that do not fit together nicely. Few of the changes involved were abrupt or decisive. Most
were gradual and entailed much backing and filling, and some worked quite against one another. Lest one lose sight
of the forest for the trees, however, it seems worthwhile to examine the overall rhythm of this history before
scrutinizing its parts more closely.
THE PERIOD OF GROWTH, 1560-1710
Mid-sixteenth-century Japan embodied both profound disorder and remarkable potential for change. On the
surface, its political legacy was a shambles, which brought widespread suffering to many, both high and low, and
distinct, though risky, opportunity to the fortunate. Below the surface, as noted in chapter 2, dynamic processes of
more fundamental significance were at work. Fueled by pervasive changes at the village level, population and
production were rising, economic activity was spreading, urban centers were proliferating, local groups were gaining
greater control over their affairs, and literacy and learning were spreading across the realm.
These conditions set the stage for early modern Japan's period of
growth. Extending from around 1560 to 1710, these 150 years commenced with an era of pacification that led to
the Tokugawa regime's heyday. Pacification proceeded initially through a military stage in which political violence
attained unprecedented levels as armies numbering scores of thousands pounded one another in ruthless sieges and
bloody open-field battles. After 1590, however, pacification entered a largely nonviolent phase of political
manipulation and management that by 1640 produced an elaborately organized and highly routinized system of
During these same decades, Japan carried on extensive trading activity with East and Southeast Asia and even
engaged in cultural and economic dealings with the handful of Europeans who reached the islands during the age of
Iberian empire. Tragically, during the 1590s, Japan's military dictator, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, launched two
devastatingly sanguinary invasions of Korea that were supposed to result in conquest of "the known world,"
essentially meaning China.
Hideyoshi's failed invasions proved to be the high water mark of Japan's overseas activity, even though foreign
trade flourished for a century thereafter. The embitterment and distrust they produced, together with changes in the
East Asian economy, political upheaval on the continent, and recurrent difficulties with Europeans, fostered among
Japan's leaders the belief that poorly regulated foreign connections were fraught with unacceptable risk.
Consequently, as the seventeenth century advanced, they reduced and carefully regulated foreign contacts, in the
process establishing a highly restrictive diplomatic orientation that persisted until the 1850s.
The measures controlling foreign relations were an integral part of an overall political culture of regulation and
restraint that came to blanket the realm. By carefully allocating goods and privileges on the basis of hereditary social
status, this political culture sought to eliminate disruptive competitive relationships among the general populace,
thereby minimizing the risk of disorder and protecting the perquisites of the elite. The result was a regulatory regime
that reached from the lowliest hamlet to the most lordly household.
Rigorous control of foreign connections made life difficult for some people, most cruelly for the followers of
Iberian missionaries. But neither it nor the broader policy of regulation stopped economic expansion. Rather, within
the context of peace, domestic growth continued. Especially during the early decades of the century, economic
activity spurted ahead, propelled by rapid growth in rural production and shaped
by a burst of urban expansion. This early phase of growth was predominantly regional, involving castle towns and
their hinterlands, but as overall growth slowed late in the century, what expansion did continue was centered on the
great cities of Osaka and Edo. By 1700 it was creating in Japan a substantially integrated, metropolitan-centered
This long period of sustained growth provided goods enough to support the burgeoning population and, in addition,
enough employment opportunities to accommodate most of the fighting men driven onto the job market by the
coming of peace. Most did not mean all, however, and eruptions involving unemployed soldiers and hard-pressed
civilians punctuated the century, giving it some of its most visible and moving moments.
The increases in production generated wealth that enabled rulers and affluent urban commoners to support an
outpouring of cultural production: elegant architecture, arts, letters, philosophy, music, drama, and diverse forms of
meretricious entertainment. The character of this cultural output changed as the century passed. The initial ruler-
inspired activity, known as Azuchi-Momoyama culture, had many facets but was most notable for gigantic and
highly ornamented buildings. By mid century, philosophy, mainly political thought, was the field of samurai-
dominated cultural production that remained most creative, and in that field intellectuals cranked out an impressive
volume of commentary that helped legitimize the existing social order by under girding it with elegant theory.
In other areas, notably art, drama, and fiction, dynamism derived mostly from outside the samurai class. Kyoto
enjoyed a century of vibrant cultural production thanks to cross-fertilization among kuge, cultured samurai, and
wealthy merchants. Their efforts yielded a splendid heritage of antiquarian publications, pictorial art, crafts, and
architectural monuments. In cities and towns in general, however, commoners were the dominant cultural force by
century's end. They gave recreational and aesthetic production a distinctive character and content, that of ukiyo, the
"floating world" of Genroku culture, so-called after the year-period 1688-1704.
As the seventeenth century advanced, economic expansion slowed, and as it drew to a close, a careful observer
could see signs that the good times might not endure, the liveliness of Genroku notwithstanding. Governments were
bankrupt and policy disagreements were growing rancorous. Price fluctuations were sharp, and entrepreneurs were
becoming more frenetic in their pleas for government protection. The maintenance of cities was proving difficult,
and from the early eighteenth century on, village hardship started becoming acute. Despite the pervasiveness of
regulations on status and consumption, they were only partly successful in defining social relationships, rationing
goods, and controlling rates of consumption, and as a result some natural resources were being taxed to the limit.
Proposals and demands for reform were becoming more extreme and more insistent, and a sense of pessimism about
the future was appearing in the writings of social commentators. Unencumbered by a later generation's hindsight, a
thoughtful observer might well have suspected in the early years of the eighteenth century that the existing order
was on its last legs.
THE PERIOD OF STASIS, 1710-1850
Despite the deepening shadows of the late 1600s, the first half of early modern Japan's history is essentially a grand
story of dramatic developments, heroic in dimension and gratifying in character. With some tragic exceptions, even
the underdogs may have fared better than they usually do in life.
By contrast, the latter half of that history seems dominated by fundamental and deeply frustrating problems,
repeated and largely unsatisfactory attempts to resolve them, and consequent tensions and hardships. To paint the
era in darkest hues, it pitted villagers against one another even as they struggled to address their problems
communally. It pitted whole villages against one another. It pitted village against town and town against city. It
pitted daimyo domains against one another and against the bakufu, even as they sought conjointly to govern the
realm and preserve elite privilege. It pitted upper-class samurai against lower-class samurai, even though the latter
sustained the former. It pitted samurai against merchants, and merchants against one another. It pitted intellectuals
against the regime even when they were trying to save the regime. And insofar as urban marriage, death, and family
survival rates are indicative, it probably pitted the urban well-to-do against the urban poor.
To some extent, nearly all these statements also apply to the seventeenth century, but the difference in degree of
applicability seems striking. Moreover, since there are winners as well as losers in most situations of conflict, signs
of social disorder can never be construed as signs
of universal disadvantage. Still, the signs of pain became uncommonly visible after Genroku, especially during the
The later Tokugawa period was not unchanging, however. just as the earlier period of growth embraced an era of
pacification followed by one of order, so the period of stasis had its phases. The eighteenth century was a grim time
devoted to conscious "systems maintenance," with most political, economic, cultural, and intellectual efforts
directed at the preservation, repair, and elaboration of established arrangements. By century's end, however, one can
see early signs of a wide-ranging and eclectic quest for new cultural, economic, and political forms, constituting an
imaginative but not very successful attempt to solve the problems of the existing order.
None of these temporal segments emerged abruptly, of course, and not all facets of history can be shoehorned into
them satisfactorily. But just as the shift from pacification to order can be somewhat arbitrarily dated to the 1630s, so
the shift from systems maintenance to exploration can be dated to the 1 790s.
Especially during the eighteenth century, the central problem around which all else pivoted was how to allocate the
resources of a realm whose material production, given the technology and social organization of the age, no longer
reliably met the basic needs of a population that had more than doubled in a century's time. That fundamental eco-
logical issue lay at the heart of politics, both local and countrywide, and was revealed in the Kyoho reform of the
eighth shogun, Tokugawa Yoshimune. The reform was a wide-ranging and remarkably energetic program of the
1720s, and its character and outcome both illuminated and foreshadowed many facets of the later Tokugawa
Central to this later experience were recurrent crop failures and famines, those of the 1730s, 1780s, and 1830s
being the most brutal and extensive. With most lowlands opened to agricultural production by the 1720s,
reclamation projects became less and less cost-effective and gradually petered out, giving way to the rapid diffusion
of techniques of labor- and land-intensive cultivation. Changes in agronomic technique were accompanied by a
reorganization of village life that exacerbated disparities between rich and poor. That development, together with the
hardship caused by crop failure, fostered changes in the character and scale of rural unrest, with protests altering
their form and focus and becoming more extensive, more frequent, and more violent.
In addition to intensified tillage, other measures to enhance basic production began appearing in the eighteenth
century and paying social
dividends by the nineteenth. Most notable were the development of a large fishing industry and aggressive
reforestation. Less helpful were such other means of terrestrial exploitation as utilizing ground coal, managing large
rivers, and gaining access to Hokkaido's vast forests and other resources.
The onset of endemic ecological stress in the early eighteenth century was also manifested, as noted in the
Introduction, in a fundamental shift in Japan's demographic trajectory from the seventeenth century's rapid
population growth to an overall stability in numbers. An array of factors contributed to that shift, some of them
leading to spatial demographic changes that had regional socioeconomic and, eventually, political ramifications.
The social and political tension of later Tokugawa society was reflected in its intellectual life. Whereas one can
speak of the seventeenth century as an era in which a dominant ideology—that is, a coherent rationale for the
established order—was successfully crafted and disseminated, the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were marked
by a proliferation of discordant doctrines and interpretations. During the eighteenth century, the authors of these
formulations mostly intended them to shore up the existing order, but their very proliferation suggests that for many
the dominant ideology was losing whatever persuasiveness it once may have held.
As satisfaction with the existing order waned, the rulers and their supporters tried to neutralize worrisome lines of
thought. Most visibly, in the 1790s, the bakufu leader Matsudaira Sadanobu attempted to propagate a self-conscious
Confucian "orthodoxy." But iconoclasm prevailed. Diverse pragmatic analyses of society's ills and writings that
addressed problems of production and distribution began to appear during the eighteenth century and proliferated
during the nineteenth, along with the pursuit of European studies, vigorous reexamination of indigenous myths and
history, and the rise of unauthorized popular religions and movements. These developments provoked sporadic acts
of government suppression and created an intellectual milieu increasingly conducive to radical action.
In terms of popular culture, the century and a half after Genroku saw striking changes in arts and letters, with some
aspects of Genroku culture fading, while others gained greater vitality. From the late eighteenth century on, other
new forms of art, literature, and entertainment also arose, giving popular culture unprecedented diversity and
richness. The above-noted changes in rural society and the overall economy were,
moreover, accompanied by a blossoming of rural cultural life that by the nineteenth century brought to at least
some people in the hinterland many of the arts and entertainments enjoyed by city folk.
Finally, during the nineteenth century, domestic problems were complicated by unprecedented foreign pressures,
initially from the north and later from the south. In a series of incidents that, from the 1790s on, began breaking like
waves over the heads of the rulers, foreigners requested diplomatic and commercial arrangements that by their
nature could be accommodated only at great risk to the regime. For half a century, leaders in Edo maneuvered to
minimize the danger of foreign contacts and successfully avoided crisis. But, as is obvious in hindsight, essentially
they just delayed the day of reckoning.
During the 1850s, that day came. Foreign requests gave way to demands, and the regime's leaders recognized
correctly that they could refuse to comply only at the risk of unwinnable war. So they capitulated, which act set in
motion developments that rapidly rearranged the political landscape, realigning forces, transforming latent
grievances into active complaints, and transmogrifying supportive ideas and groups into criticisms and critics of the
established order—or at least of its current leaders. Armies mobilized, a domestic arms race ensued, and bloody
battles were fought. In the early days of 1868, Yoshinobu, the fifteenth shogun, aware that his choices were to
surrender or throw society into violent, indecisive warfare that might lead to European intervention and occupation,
lost heart for the cause, surrendered control of his armies and headquarters at Edo, and thereby ended the era of
That outcome left Japan's fate in the hands of the boy-emperor Meiji and his newly empowered handlers, who
swiftly moved Japan into a sharply altered historical trajectory. Drawing upon a mix of domestic ideas that had been
developing for a century or more and foreign ideas that were enjoying popularity abroad, they effected a radical
restructuring of government, repudiated the early modern diplomatic policy of self-limitation, and moved
aggressively to acquire industrial techniques of resource exploitation. With those changes, Japan's early modern era
came to a close.
The Era of Pacification, 1570 – 1630
From a military perspective, early modern Japan's period of growth from around I 560 to 17 If) encompassed two
very dissimilar phases, a short one of war and a long one of peace. The wars raged on through the 1580s, giving way
in the summer of 1590 to a peace that endured thereafter save only for five years of brutal combat in Korea and then
brief outbursts of domestic armed struggle in 1600, 1614, and 1637.
One captures the tone of political life better, however, by arguing that until the 1630s; politics was essentially the
continuation of war by other means, with the objective unchanged: 'note thorough consolidation of central power by
more complete pacification of the realm. After that decade, by contrast, politics settled down during the heyday of
the Tokugawa regime to a more habitual maintenance of the status quo.
Changes in the character of domestic violence after 1590 reveal the pacifiers' progress. The last confrontation to pit
the organized forces of allied daimyo against one another occurred in the fall of 1600, when an eastern coalition led
by Tokugawa Ieyasu routed a western coalition of lords claiming to act in the name of the recently deceased
Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Subsequent military outbursts essentially pitted ronin—samurai who had lost their jobs as
peace was restored—against entrenched rulers. In fierce battles at Osaka in 1614-15, ronin found unenthusiastic
sponsors in the handful of surviving Toyotomi family loyalists, but their rebellion only resulted in their own
slaughter, dissolution of the Toyotomi legacy, and further tightening of Tokugawa control. On the Shimabara
peninsula in Kyushu in 1637-38, ronin derived
support from commoners who were addressing major grievances of their own, but again the rulers finally and
bloodily prevailed. The last attempts by ronin to make space for themselves in the ruling establishment consisted of
pitiful, abortive uprisings in the 1650s, in which handfuls of men, lacking either sponsors or collaborators, failed
By then the realm as a whole was settled into the routines of peace, and most domestic strife had acquired a
different character. Contestants were not attempting to renegotiate the settlement of 1600 but, instead, were
wrestling with problems produced by the new order. One type of problem, the oie sodo, or "disturbance in the great
houses," pitted factions of samurai in a particular daimyo domain against one another. Another type, the peasant
protest, essentially pitted the taxpayer against the collector.
As a political process, pacification thus evolved through a violent military phase into a largely nonviolent phase of
political manipulation and management. Pacification also had economic dimensions, however. In the last decades of
the sixteenth century, political leaders energetically used economic resources to support their military enterprises
and in so doing spurred economic expansion. By the early seventeenth century, the resulting economic opportunity
was serving the interests of the peacekeepers by providing employment and well-being to people who might
otherwise have attempted to improve their condition by resorting to violence.
The flourishing economic activity that accompanied and expedited pacification also underwrote a burst of cultural
creativity, which during the last decades of the sixteenth century involved grandiloquent display by the rulers and
lively recreation by commoners. In the early seventeenth century, it evolved into a period of elite cultural
elaboration that from around 1610 on was accompanied by intensification of government measures to contain and
direct the recreational energies of the masses.