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Wednesday
Feb022011

Japan in the Edo Period

David Mitchell sets THE THOUSAND AUTUMNS OF JACOB DE ZOET at a distinct moment in history. While the European influence in and on Japan was beginning to fracture (and thus wane) by the 1790s, Japanese society was at its most stable.

This was the period of the Tokugawa shogunate. The Tokugawa family ruled a united Japan from 1603 until the collapse of their authority (and the end of Japanese isolation) in 1868. The family's seat of power was Edo--that is, modern-day Tokyo (as opposed to various older Japanese shrines like Osaka or tribal seats of power). And thus this period of history is sometimes referred to as "Edo Japan."

The shoguns were harsh military dictators who exerted enormous (although not always complete) influence over the ministers of justice, the military, the royal court, the imperial family, and even the emporer himself.

Before the rise of the Tokugawa family, Japan had been roiled in sectarian and tribal strife. The Tokugawa shoguns are credited with stabilizing the political structure and bringing Japan out of its version of the Dark Ages.

However, that credit is a tad misleading. Historian Edwin Reischauer has called the Edo period "centralized feudalism"--in other words, it is not a modern society as we in the West would call it but instead a sort of powerful and aggrandized Middle Ages in Japan in which the entire country operated as a fiefdom with the shogun as the lord of the manor.

Once the Tokugawa shoguns had solidified their control, they turned to confront the ever-increasing bands of European traders making their ways on shore. To do so, the shoguns focussed on Christianity as their control lever. In some ways, this was a mistake, as we'll see.

By 1622, samurai were executing missionairies. Repression became so bad that in 1637, a group of Catholic samurai (that is, Japanese warriors who had converted) rebelled against the Tokugawa shogunate and threatened to pull the country back into the religious and provincial chaos to which it had been subjected.

Intriguingly for our purposes, the reigning shogun called in the Protestant Dutch who ruthlessly put down the Catholic/samurai rebellion. As you can see, the shoguns believed that religion was a controlling lever in the Europeans' lives. Perhaps for the Catholic Portuguese, but not for the Dutch (and later English) Protestants who were already learning to sever their religion from their political and mercantile life.

The Portuguese were summarily expelled from Japan. The Dutch along with the Chinese were then instituted as the favored (that is, only) official trading partners--on the condition that the Dutch themselves never bring Christianity or any of its artifacts to Japan. The Dutch proved only too willing--and only too wily. The shoguns had imagined them cowed without their religion. The Dutch proved them wrong.

To further control the European influence, the Dutch were warehoused in trading camps like Dejima--which were little more than squalid prisons. Any other European who landed on Japanese soil was put to death without trial.

And so began the period of Japan's great isolation, lasting throughout the eighteenth century, the shoguns walling themselves and all the Japanese into higher and higher towers, attempting to keep the world at arm's length while trading with it.

In truth, the lure of profit proved too great for the shoguns. Yes, they picked a single European trading partner. But they believed in the illusion of their own control. They began trading on unmined copper and unharvested rice--in other words, futures. These proved fickle. And the economy tripped and pitched, repeatedly threatening the Dutch East India Company with insolvency.

But not all was economics. The shoguns also stabilized Japan by dividing society into four distinct, formally-recognized classes: the samurai, the peasants, the craftsmen, and the merchants. This division represented the established, legislated order--with those merchants (responsible for roiling the economy) as the bottom class, two levels below the farmer-peasants (who were much higher on the scale--and so did not foment unrest the way the underclasses did in Europe at the same time).

There was one other class, the hinan or non-humans, whose occupations (butcher, street cleaner) violated tenets of Buddhism and so were considered beyond the pale of social interaction. Otane is probably a hinan.

One more thing about Edo Japan that might interest you: by law the individual was granted no rights. Any rights were given to families as a unit, with the head of the household as the sole arbiter inside the family system (a petty shogun, as it were). Thus, you can see that Orito has no right to refuse her fate--and Uzaemon has no right to marry whom he will or do what he will. Indeed, the friction between the familial notion of rights and the individual notion of rights underlies the Japanese/Dutch conflict in the novel--and is at the heart of the perilous tragedy negotiated between Uzaemon and de Zoet.

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