Tom on Japan

Ukiyo – Japan in the Floating World

Ukiyo – Japan in the Floating World

The year 1600 not only marked a pivotal juncture in Japan’s history but was the start of an era which was to see the birth of Japanese picture prints. That year, after more than a century of brutal warfare among feudal domains intent on expanding territory and power, and unconstrained by any powerful central government, a peace emerged which was to last more than two and a half centuries. A succession of three “great unifiers” had fought bloody battles for nearly 30 years, culminating in the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600. In that battle the third of those unifiers,Tokugawa Ieyasu, decisively defeated remaining opposition and began to impose his rule over the entire country. Thus began the Tokugawa Shogunate (officially in the year 1603), which chose to locate its capital in what had been the diminutive fishing village of Edo. Today that fishing village is known to the world as Tokyo, the name having changed in 1868 as the centuries-old Tokugawa Shogunate came to an end. (“Edo,” by the way, is pronounced eh-dough)

Daimyo and Compulsory Attendance in Edo

Right from the new shogunate’s start Japan’s emperor remained at the Kyoto-based court which had been home to 800 years of his predecessors, though now only as a figurehead. Real power was to reside in Edo, not Kyoto. Maintaining that power was a critical concern for the shogun. As a result, early Tokugawa shoguns established a variety of mandates and institutions designed to secure their rule. The institution best known even today was alternate year attendance at the Edo capital. Feudal lords (daimyo) with their private samurai militias were a potential threat, particularly those who had opposed Tokugawa Ieyasu in battle but were allowed to keep their heads. To diminish that threat shoguns required daimyo to spend alternate years at the capital—away from their domains where they might otherwise plot and organize resistance. For added insurance shoguns required daimyo who were about to leave Edo for their home domains to keep a close family member behind in the capital, effectively as a hostage.

As an aside, there’s an interesting parallel here to the court of Louis XIV in Versailles during the same general era. Louis required the great French nobles to reside at Versailles for two quarters of each year. His reasons were essentially the same as those of the Shogun. Since Louis’s attendance mandate came after that imposed by the Tokugawa Shogunate it’s reasonable to speculate as to whether Louis got the idea from Edo. The connecting link would have been European traders based in Japan—most likely the Dutch, who were the only Europeans remaining in Japan after 1639. (The Portuguese and Spanish were expelled because the Shogun saw Catholicism as a threat to his rule. The English left of their own accord because they had better trading opportunities elsewhere, though the Shogun wasn’t sorry to see another Christian nation’s traders leave Japan.)

But to return to Edo, there were significant compensations for the daimyo, their families, and the samurai who accompanied them on their biannual journeys. Daimyo from wealthy domains built palatial estates on well-situated lands set aside for them by the shogun. They entertained and held court, much as in their home domain. Cultural opportunities such as the courtly Noh theatre were legion, and unavailable back in the domains, or at the level of quality found in Edo.

For samurai especially, culture became a necessity. Military skill counted for little in an era of peace, hence swordsmanship lost its value as a way to maintain self-esteem or garner the respect of ones peers. Swordsmanship thus gave way to poetry writing, calligraphy, and the teachings of Confucius. Eventually many samurai were called upon to help run the sprawling bureaucracy of the late 19th Century Meiji era. For them the profession of warrior metamorphosed into the calling of bureaucratic manager.

Ukiyo-In the Floating WorldEdo Prospers

Alternate year attendance, intended as an antidote to potential daimyo revolt, was to have an unanticipated impact on Edo’s economy. Daimyo traveled with retinues of hundreds, or even thousands. Often their heirs, even those not left behind as hostages, made Edo their permanent residence. Life there was too good, and future daimyo became accustomed to the big city’s many attractions. It wasn’t unusual for daimyo-in-waiting to be strangers to their own domains until coming into their inheritance. In Edo daimyo wealth commanded the finest quality goods and objets d’art, and so helped attract ambitious merchants and highly skilled artisans to the capital. Daimyo families, servants and hangers-on, along with the many businesses and trades they attracted, were one factor in Edo’s rapid growth into one of the world’s largest cities. Some estimates put Edo’s population at 1 million within a century and a half after the decisive Battle of Sekigahara in 1600, which as we’ve seen led to Japan’s unification and the establishment of Edo as its capital.

But daimyo aside, the growing population of Edo would require a huge number and variety of goods and services at all levels of quality—something which was no problem, however. A business opportunity that big attracted merchants and artisans of all stripes. It wasn’t long before many of these people became prosperous, even wealthy. Mitsui and Sumitomo - two of Japan’s largest corporations today—date their humble origins all the way back to the 17th Century Tokugawa Shogunate.

Entertainments and the Budding Woodblock Print Trade

How did those who were newly prosperous spend their money? Entertainments such as kabuki theater, teahouses, wrestling matches, and brothels put sizable dents in many a net worth. Highly ranked courtesans commanded princely fees, and were the ruin of more than a few addicted merchants—who may have consulted courtesan guides marketed along the lines of today’s big-city restaurant guides. Kabuki actors and courtesans of great note were lionized much like today’s Hollywood screen actors. Many were immortalized in the newly developed trade of single-sheet woodblock picture prints, which originated in the second half of the 17th Century. (Woodblock printing technique had been around for eons but was employed primarily for printing books and religious texts.)

The thing about these new single-sheet woodblock prints (also known as “woodcuts”) is that they were unbelievably cheap. You could buy a print for the price of a bowl of noodles—or for pennies in our own parlance. Such a print today if somehow well-preserved might fetch considerably more than $100,000 at auction. These prints were snapped up by actor and courtesan fans much as aficionados might buy Hollywood fan magazines today. In the coming decades and centuries the trade of woodblock printmaking for the masses would document everyday life under the Tokugawa shoguns.

Ukiyo – The Floating WorldThe Floating World

The 17th to mid-19th Century milieu in which all this money was made and spent often is referred to as the “Floating World” (Ukiyo), originally a Buddhist term for the ephemeral nature of the material world. But in the free-spending world of Tokugawa-era merchants and artisans that meaning was turned on its head. (NOTE: “Edo era” is often used in lieu of “Tokugawa era.” They mean the same thing.) If the material world is fleeting why not make the most of it by taking advantage of every pleasure one can afford. Often those pleasures were to be had in stockaded “Pleasure Districts” set up in major population centers by order of the shoguns—to impose some degree of control on carousing and the like. The most famous was the Yoshiwara in Edo. There men could while away leisure hours at teahouses and brothels, or be entertained by highly ranked courtesans skilled in a variety of arts unrelated to sex. By the mid-18th Century this particular class of courtesans had become less adept at artistic skills, resulting in a ripe business opportunity for women who adopted the term geisha, the appellation for males who entertained brothel customers waiting their turn. The newly-designated female geisha were available to entertain men individually or in groups at teahouse or restaurant parties. (NOTE: Women’s lives were highly restricted in this era. A married woman stayed home and obeyed her mother-in-law. Contemporary mores dictated that wives keep house and procreate. Men sought pleasure elsewhere.)

It was not unusual for financially desperate farmers to sell their young daughters to houses which provided years of rigorous training in the courtesan, and later geisha, arts. Such “sales” were really more like loans, which honorable daughters eventually would repay from their earnings—or which could be repaid by a patron (danna) willing to redeem the debt. Trainees worked long hours to become skilled in the arts of music, dancing, calligraphy, poetry improvisation, and conversation.

In Kyoto, the preeminent location for geisha training and sophistication, experienced trainees were apprenticed as maiko to full-fledged working geisha, whom they accompanied to get a first-hand look at interaction with clients—and maybe perform under the watchful eye of their “older sister” geisha (onesan). Kyoto was so special in the “flower and willow world” of geisha (karyukai) that it had its own term for the profession—geiko, instead of geisha. Maiko saw for themselves how polished, experienced geiko parlayed a diverse skill set into repeat business among a well-off clientele.

Class Rigidity

Japan in the Floating World was very much a class-based society. At the apex of the social pyramid was the military—from the shogun on down to local samurai (or “retainers”) who served the lords of their domains. Next were farmers, high on the pyramid because they fed the country. Then came the numerous trades—among them roofers, plasterers, stonemasons, coopers, lacquerers, papermakers, silversmiths, and blacksmiths—whose skills included world-beating sword-making for the samurai. Next were the merchants, less respected in Tokugawa Japan than farmers or craftsmen because the services they provided did not involve tangible creations. Those outside these four primary class divisions included priests, doctors, courtesans, actors, and beggars.

Several interesting points about this class system—first, whatever your class you were expected to remain there—largely to preserve the order and social structure laid out in Confucian thought. You were part of the fixed “chain of being” of Eastern (as well as Western) philosophy and custom. Japanese below the level of warlord in Tokugawa and earlier times well understood their place and had little thought of revolt, at least until much later in the Tokugawa era. Shoguns had a decided interest in preserving this order rather than risk accommodating ambition which might evolve into revolution. So farmers could not aspire to become samurai nor samurai farmers.

The second point is that whatever your family trade, you inherited it. If your father was a farmer that was your future. If an actor you were headed to the stage. If your ancestors were brilliant actors you even inherited their name, which became a stage name. If there were no heir a tradesman could adopt a son to carry on his name, and hopefully his reputation. The great later Edo era print designer Hiroshige provides a famous example of this practice. Hiroshige adopted one of his students, who married his daughter Otatsu and is known to the print world as Hiroshige II. (When this son-in-law later abandoned the marriage another Hiroshige student married Otatsu - we call that student Hiroshige III.) But Hiroshige also provides an exception to the era's rigid social structure. His father was a member of the “fire-police” (firemen), and after losing his wife passed the position on to his son. The son was more interested in art however, and soon left the fire police to embark on the study of art. This act probably was facilitated by someone who recognized Hiroshige’s enormous artistic promise.

Another point about the Tokugawa Shogunate—its watchword was control. Edicts from Edo penetrated deep into the populace, going so far as to regulate materials for farmers’ clothing along with their diet. Even daimyo weren’t immune, needing shogunal approval before marrying. And roadside signs admonished against improper behavior (examples of these signs can be found in Hiroshige’s famous print series, 53 Stations of the Tokaido).

Surpassing Importance of Rice

The key economic unit in this period was rice, sometimes expressed as the rice-producing potential of land. Land was valued in terms of annual koku production, with one koku amounting to 5 bushels of rice—the quantity then deemed necessary to feed one person for a year. Accordingly, relevant land measurement was the kokudaka—annual koku yield, rather than anything akin to the acreage measurement we use today. Economic power and prestige came from rice, and the shoguns saw to it that the most productive land went to loyal daimyo and family. As one measure of the importance of koku production land surveys were undertaken so that rice productivity could be documented. These enormous, time-consuming efforts would serve to remove guesswork from tax assessments—and facilitate shogunal attempts to reward or punish as deemed necessary.

This then is a description of the Floating World and how it came about. If you watch the Floating World in Multimedia Print Presentations, you will see courtesans, a stockaded pleasure district (print by Hiroshige), and scenes from everyday life in 17th to mid-19th Century Japan. We’ve devoted an entire separate presentation to actors, who were central to Edo period culture. Music which accompanies this presentation is Rokudan no Shirabe, a famous koto piece from the 17th Century.

© 2016 Tom Silver


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