Explore / Articles
Japan: Edo period (AD 1600-1868)
The Edo period is also known as the Tokugawa period, as for over 250 years the country was ruled by the Shoguns of the Tokugawa family. Tokugawa Ieyasu (1542-1616) finally unified Japan by defeating his enemies at the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600. He was made Shogun in 1603 and set up his headquarters at Edo (modern Tokyo), at that time a small castle town situated on Edo Bay in the east of the country. Emperors continued to reign as figurehead cultural and religious leaders in the ancient capital of Kyoto.
From 1639 the Shogunate ordered that contacts with the outside world be severely limited, for reasons of national security. Japan's only regular contacts were with the Dutch, Chinese and Koreans. During this period of relative peace, Japan developed a vigorous native culture, which more and more reflected the values of a growing merchant class with money to spend.
Nonetheless, the Tokugawa Shoguns kept order by the imposition of a strict military regime. They administered most of central Japan directly, while the rest of the country was divided into provinces headed by daimyō (feudal lords), who were forced to spend alternate years in Edo with their retainers. Their families were left behind in Edo as hostages in their absence. Society at large was divided according to official ideology into four hierarchical classes: at the top the samurai, then farmers, artisans and, at the bottom of the scale, merchants. The city of Edo attracted resident artisans and merchants from throughout the country, because the military needed their goods and services. It was perhaps the largest city in the world during the eighteenth century with a population of over one million.