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Edo Period (1615–1868) Culture and Lifestyle in Japan

Beauties on laundry day

Beauties on laundry day, by Torii Kiyonaga (1752–1815). Japan. Woodblock print; Ink and colors on paper. Gift of the Grabhorn Ukiyo-e Collection, 2005.100.68.1-.3.

Edo Period (1615–1868) Culture and Lifestyle in Japan
The Edo (present-day Tokyo) had a distinct consumer society born of the necessity to support the immense numbers of military living there. Although the daimyos’ provinces supplied directly to them, they were nevertheless dependent on local goods and services. The professions required to build and sustain a new capital were traditionally held by men, such as artisans, merchants, construction workers, carpenters, tailors, surveyors, draftsmen, storekeepers, clerks, tatami makers, scholars, and legislators. As a result, the city’s population was primarily male. Men outnumbered women two-to-one. The city’s residential areas were segregated into areas for each of the four classes.

Lifestyles of the People
An urban culture developed that stressed an appreciation of nature and artistic cultivation. The banks of the Sumida River, with its great bridges, provided places for outdoor activities: daily strolls, spring cherry-blossom viewing, relief from the summer heat, fireworks on summer nights, viewing the moon in autumn and snow in winter

Following the lead of Chinese culture, women and men of all classes engaged in the traditional arts of music, painting, calligraphy, and games of skill. With their rapid accumulation of wealth, Edo townspeople also became patrons of art, creating a previously unprecedented artistic pluralism. For the first time, the aristocracy no longer dictated artistic trends and production, despite attempts by the shogunate to curtail artistic consumption among its subjects. The artistic trends in Edo reflected a growth in popular culture and a demand for art with mass appeal.

The shogunate built an extensive network of waterways and five major highways that connected the three major cities of Edo, Kyoto, and Osaka with smaller towns and ports, which facilitated increased travel among all classes. Besides business, pilgrimage was the most common reason for travel. Commoners made pilgrimages to sites of religious importance, such as famous Buddhist temples, ancient Shinto shrines, famous places such as Mount Fuji, etc. People often traveled under the pretense of religious pilgrimage, desiring to leave their routine life for awhile.

Publishers produced various types of guides and gazetteers that catered to the public’s fascination with travel and pilgrimage. Unlike earlier travel books, which were more like works of literature, Edo period travel books were practical guides for the masses that included not only lodging information and advice on road conditions, but also historical tidbits about a place and its references in poetry. They were usually illustrated with black-and-white woodblock prints.

The "Licensed Pleasure Quarters" (Yoshiwara)
The Yoshiwara, the licensed pleasure quarter of the city and center of social life, added to the vibrant culture of Edo. Although there were other pleasure quarters in every major city, such as Kyoto and Osaka, the Yoshiwara was most famous. The pleasure districts have been likened more to fantasy theme parks of romance and adventure, rather than the crude modern-day concept of red-light districts. A self-contained community, the Yoshiwara was deliberately located away from the main section of Edo, as a conscious effort by the shogunate to prevent it from “polluting” the rest of the city. It housed approximately ten thousand people, and was packed with brothels, Kabuki theaters, teahouses, restaurants, bathhouses, and puppet shows. People of all classes walked the streets, including samurai, street performers, beggars, gamblers, sumo wrestlers, courtesans, merchants, artisans, and travelers who had come from far away to visit this tourist destination. Whereas the rest of Edo was segregated among the classes, within the Yoshiwara, Japanese of all classes could socialize more or less as equals.

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