After intense military activities during the Onin Wars, Japan finds itself at peace and unified under the bakafu in its new capital Edo. The Edo period’s (1603-1868) so called “isolation from the rest of the world” remains extremely arguable as many manuscripts have undertaken the question. For instance Lederer’s Japan in Transition (1938) and Toby’s State and Diplomacy in Modern Japan (1984) show that Japan exercised official and unofficial international activities mainly with its Asian neighbours.
On the other hand, it restricted activities with the “modern world” of that era, Europe, for diverse reasons. The word closed can be subject to many perspectives in different domains. It can be understood on a physical platform, for example, measuring the trade relations between so-and-so countries such as China and Korea as much as looking at the political changes of Asia and their impact on Japan. However, I intend to go through this question on a psychological platform exploring the Japanese society’s social closure of that time. First I feel the need to argue further the word Closed.
As different cultures have different values, the meaning of “closed” can be interpreted in various manners depending on factors such as religious beliefs, traditions etc… I will try to approach Japan’s social closure, if any, by comparing Europe of that time and today’s world respecting a “general western-capitalist idea” of the meaning of closed. Knowing that social closure can be interpreted in diverse contexts; freedom of speech, religious freedom etc, I intend to focus on 2 main areas. My first choice of focus, common to all countries, is the governing power.
I will look at what actions the Japanese ruling power undertook and their impacts. I will discuss the intellectual trends to see whether Japan was under an intellectual closure or not. My second choice is 99. 9~% of the world’s common denominator; sex and gender. I will discuss its interaction with the society and whether restrictions, either moral or legal, were present. Finally, as the Edo period is 265 years long, I will concentrate my research on a certain frame of time after an outline of the topic. The Ruling Power. Although Confucianism had been present in Japan since the sixt3h century A. D. , it had largely been confined inside Buddhist inner circles.
Tokugawa Ieyasu (1542-1616) turned to Confucianism, particularly Neo-Confucianism, as he began to build the bureaucracy which would eventually bring over 260 years of so-called domestic peace (1). Confucianism’s statement to society was how it perceived and categorized it; the ruling power: the bakufu/the samurais at the top of the social pyramid, the peasants/farmers as second, the artisans as third and finally the merchants considered as the lowest since they are “unproductive”. 2) Tokugawa Ieyasu highly bureaucratic and regulatory system, probably favorite amongst others following the constant social jeopardy since the Kamakura period, looks very familiar to the Juche, or self-reliance system, used currently in the DPRK (North Korea).
The Juche ideology rotates on pivot such as: little or no outside relations, regulating all social infrastructures and conceiving a military-first government (3). The military-first infrastructure in Edo is underlined by Totman expressing the active division between the rulers and the ruled: … many scholars (of the Tokugawa period) subsequently found it sufficient to distinguish between the samurai, who allegedly used they minds, and the commoners (the rest of the society), who used their muscle. ” (Totman, p152) “Not everyone is to rule” (Totman), so was the theoretical Confucian frame of mind on social class movements outlawing the change-over from a ruled to ruler social status. Eventually this social view led the first half of the Tokugawa period privileging the samurai access to knowledge.
The Bushi concept was the best example as to keep the samurai class above commoner; it involved keeping political and other ideological texts away from commoners that would allegedly misuse them potentially causing uprisings. The samurai would have been regarded as a model for society especially in term of “duty”. Duty, an essential object by “the Great learning” (Confucian book), was seen as the root of regulation which would lead to “peace in the world” in due course4.
The North Korean Juche does see military as a force a well as an example to society moral value as its education repose on military image as a blueprint for morals5 . True, in Europe, schooling was reserved for the elite but the prospect of “upgrading one’s social status” to acquire knowledge was not unfeasible as long as one excelled in a skill; Michael Angelo, moreover rising to a knight’s status i. e. : Joan of Arc. One can not refer as the early Tokugawa government being socialist but it is evident it generated numerable familiarities with Juche ideology.
Fukuyama6, 1786 (6); Resulting from crop failure, peasants were to get taxed further on crops in order to maintain the local daimyo and his samurai’s lifestyle elevated. The repercussions were that starvation and death among the peasant class was opulent; a case very familiar to the DPRK. To maintain social order, the Japanese commoners and the elite “enjoyed” the help of Confucian morals manuals7, having for purpose to lay down rules on how one should behave according to their social status.
Created by Kaibara Ekken (1630-1714), those etiquettes manuals were split in titles such as Precepts for Children and Greater Learning for Women. One could look at these manual as fragmented ersatz to the role of the bible in Europe or to some extent to Mao Zedong little red book. No sources I have encountered illustrate their effectiveness nor their popularity, it is therefore assumable there were a form of propaganda to set up the system.
The economist Kaiho Seiryo (1755-1817), believed that non-productive classes of people, such as literature professors, priests and merchants, should be strictly regulated, for an overpopulation of economically useless people would lead to disaster. However the strong intellectual regulations strengthening the Confucian model of governance resulting in The Kansei Edict (1790), a law forbidding the teaching or propagation of “heterodox” studies, that is, anything in disagreement with the teachings of Neo-Confucianism and the like, didn’t stop the merchant class to rise gradually in power and financial terms8.
The latter half of the period witness merchants enriching themselves and the samurai class overspending. As the daimyo had to pay his samurais in cash, he had to acquire its funds from an average of 50% tax on peasant’s crops that he would indirectly sell off to the commoners via middlemen: the Merchants. Merchants were gradually acquiring wealth by setting crop prices and later obtaining security as they acted as money-lenders to the Daimyos.
Socially, it resulted in a power vacuum since ethical issues arose as the samurai’s society’s example image was dependant on merchants’ funding. On the whole we see the Tokugawa political scene slowly decaying after about 1700’s and a merchant uprising defying the ideological structure of the society. The Bakufu intellectuals found grounds on which changing or transforming the system were deemed acceptable; Ogyu Sorai (1666-1728) recommended major policy changes and argued that Daimyo who failed to govern could properly be stripped of their titles and privileges9.
Despite remnants of the initial Neo-Confucian ideologies introduced in the early period such as The School of Prosperous Peace, leader in the teaching of Confucian thoughts until the Meiji restoration, Japan’s intellectual diversification intensified from various Chinese, Japanese and western platform of thoughts10 to accommodate errors from the past century such as the emergence of floating world quarters.