The Edo Period

Starting in 1603, which country experienced the Edo period, during which citizens were labeled either as a warrior, farmer, artisan, or merchant?

And the answer: Japan.

Photo courtesy: Cowardlion/Dreamstime.com

Also known as the Tokugawa period, the Edo period lasted between 1603 and 1867 and represents the final era of traditional Japan. Following a century of warfare, this new era aimed for stabilization through a military dictatorship, establishing a feudal society and four social classes for its citizens.

Like many other social realities at that time, the Tokugawa family instated an intensely rigid social structure. As part of the systematic plan to maintain stability, the social order was officially frozen, and mobility between the four classes (warriors, farmers, artisans, and merchants) was prohibited. Even though the emperor was at the top of the hierarchy, the shogun had the effective power, which made him the actual head of the state. Below him ranked the daimyo, who ensured the control of the regions that Japan was divided into, collecting taxes and ruling over local samurai. It was in this period of Japanese history that the samurai as a class began its steady decline. Thanks to the relative stability and peace of the Edo period, there was less use for the samurai’s influence, and many began to drop the code to join the ranks of the commoners or joined the palaces as bureaucrats.

At the bottom of the social hierarchy ranked merchants, peasants and artisans, who were free of any moral code or judgement and could spend their free time indulging in amusements such as gambling. As the economic interests of the daimyo moved into centralized locations, however, artisans and merchants followed them to begin to create what we now can identify as modern metropolises. Edo transformed from a town of a few thousand to a booming city center of over 400,000 in only a number of years.

Did you know?

During the Edo period, trade with other nations was highly limited. Tokugawa's concern for political stability came with a fear of foreign ideas and military intervention, leading to Japan’s isolationist policies. From 1633 on to the end of the Edo period, Japanese subjects were forbidden to travel abroad or to return from overseas, and foreign contact was limited to a few Chinese and Dutch merchants still allowed to trade through the southern port of Nagasaki.


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