Japan from the inside out

Life in the Edo period

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, December 27, 2012

MANY Japanese are fascinated by the Edo period, which extended from 1603-1868. Among the many reasons is that was a period of vigorous cultural activity that was distinctively Japanese, as the country had withdrawn from most interaction with the rest of the world. In the words of the Kodansha Encyclopedia, developments during the period “strongly influenced the political organization, social structure, ethical practices, and aesthetic perceptions of modern Japan.”

Author and columnist Tachibana Akira wrote an article published in the Weekly Purieibooi earlier this year whose intent was to keep the interest in the period grounded in reality. The title of his article was, If you want to learn about life in the Edo period, go to a slum in India. Here it is in English.

You sometimes hear people frustrated with the lack of growth in the Japanese economy say they would like to return to the ordered society of the Edo period. They seem to think that life was by far more humane in pre-modern society than today’s free market-based society.

Researchers in the new academic discipline of historical demography are studying past population trends using records of the population registers called shumon aratamecho and ninbetsu aratamecho. What can we learn about daily life in the Edo period studying the movement of people and changes in the population?

The historians have discovered some strange phenomena as a result. While the population increased in most regions during the Edo period, they declined in the (highly populated) Kanto and Kinki regions. These two regions contained the cities of Edo (Tokyo), Osaka, and Kyoto, which had more than one million people each. Why did the population grow in regional areas and fall in the cities?

It’s because living conditions in those cities at the time were foul.

Other than those instances in which their farmland was expanded through reclamation or other projects, all but the eldest sons of farm households went elsewhere to seek work. Most of them left home at age 14-15 to become apprentices. It was common to take up such work as the weavers of Nishin brocade or to become attached to commercial establishments.

The apprentices lived packed into the back rooms under the roof in commercial establishments. They became particularly susceptible to infectious diseases. Extensive harm was unavoidable if there was an outbreak of smallpox or dysentery.

While the infant mortality rate was high during the Edo period, it was not unusual for people in agricultural villages to live into their 60s. In the three largest cities, however, deaths from malnutrition or infectious disease in one’s teens or twenties were a frequent occurrence.

The population of Japan in the ordered society of the Edo period remained constant at roughly 26 million. This was not because of the stability of society, however, but because the population increases in the farming villages were weeded out in the cities. Edo, Kyoto, and Osaka were death traps for the young people who went there to find work.

The poor from outlying regions who came to Edo found employment as construction laborers, peddlers, or menials at commercial establishments. If they were thrown out of work, it is likely they had few options other than begging or prostitution to survive.

If you think about it, their lives must have resembled those of the poor in India or Southeast Asia. Those who can’t survive in Indian agricultural villages often wind up in the slums of Delhi or Mumbai. In impoverished countries, it is not unusual for women to find that prostitution is their only means to live. This gives rise to an immense sex industry that ranges from upscale establishments authorized by the government (police) to illegal street prostitution. It is very similar to the prostitution system of the Edo period that reached its zenith with the Yoshiwara quarter in Edo. (The name Yoshiwara became used for similar districts throughout the country.)

Conditions in impoverished countries are very similar. That poverty also existed in the Edo period, and many people had no choice other than to live in nagaya in the slum districts.

You don’t need a time machine to experience life in the Edo period. All you have to do is go to a South Asian slum.


Mr. Tachibana’s Japanese-language website has an English title: Stairway to Heaven. It features a photograph of the ladders to heaven painted on the side of a mountain near the sacred Yamdrok Lake in Tibet.

6 Responses to “Life in the Edo period”

  1. Ed_BR said

    Good point.
    Remembers us that sometimes all we have to do is stop whining and study some history.

    That was Bill´s philosophy, I guess.

    Still can´t believe that texts like these won´t be seen again.
    Here we are again, alone with those moronic pseudo-Japanologists.

    Once again, I feel sorry for his family, friends and students.

  2. […] He was a longtime resident of Tokyo, who had many unique insights into Japan as a culture. Sakovich did his own work, and by that I mean he really focused on providing some fact or perspective that the visiting […]

  3. hoofin said

    Reblogged this on Hoofin and commented:
    In case you missed it, a typical high-quality post from William Sakovich, who passed away last week in Japan.

  4. […] Life in the Edo period ( […]

  5. I’ve never quite gotten the fascination with the idea of the Edo period as some sort of golden age. It seems like more of a Dark Age. Japan entered it as a fairly major power and by the end was so far behind the rest of the world that only luck, skillfull diplomacy and casting off the Edo power structure saved the country from total collapse/colonization.

  6. Mac said

    Putting aside 250 years of relative peace, unity and order at a time most equivalent societies were tearing themselves to pieces, some interesting ethics and exceptional arts, it’s real wealth was that a largely plant based and entirely sustainable society. In that sense, it was way ahead of the world even to this day.

    That’s not something given a high value (yet) by today’s vastly destructive society.

    It was also a very level society.

    There’s never an excuse for colonization nor an apology enough good for the colonizers.

    The kind of value that you’re giving a high regard to is rapidly driving ourselves and our environment to total collapse and so it “glory” will be short lived.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: