When exploring the Sutro Library’s rare collections, one notices that Japan’s Edo Period is well represented amongst the stacks. Hundreds of ukiyo-e (a genre of woodblock prints and paintings) images join travel narratives and thousands of photographs to tell the story of Japanese art and culture from 1603 through 1868 known as the Edo or Tokagawa Period. This historic period was known as the “floating world” (ukiyo-e in Japanese): a time of movement and travel, art and culture. The pleasure quarters were the main arbiters of taste at this time, and many of the prints focus on Geishas, Kabuki, tea houses, Sumo wrestling, brothels, and courtesans.

Politically, the Edo Period saw Japan governed by a feudal system, with the people existing under isolationist policies called Sakoku – laws forbidding and limiting interactions with the outside world. Japanese citizens were prohibited to leave Japan on pain of death.  It was ruled by the Tokogawa Shogunate whose capital was Edo – now the modern day capital of Tokyo. The Tokogawa emerged from a period of extended internal strife, and constant civil wars – bloodshed that had left the Japanese people traumatized and ready for change. Under Tokogawa rule, stability, peace, prosperity, arts, and culture blossomed.

Social structure

A person’s vocation was determined at birth and every citizen knew his or her place within the social order. And upon closer inspection, the images in the Sutro Library collection provide insight into this strictly regulated society. The Emperor (with almost no power), and the shōgun and daimyō were at the top of Society and controlled every aspect of Japanese society, including what types of clothing could be worn based on status. Underneath that, there were four classes of citizens ranking in the following order: samurai, peasants, craftsmen, and at the bottom, merchants. Because merchants didn’t produce anything, per se, they were the lowest on the social ladder. Each class of citizen had very elaborate rules of conduct. For example, merchants were not allowed to wear silk kimonos.

Yoshiwara and the Pleasure Quarters

The pleasure quarters were legally sanctioned and licensed by the Tokogawa Shogunate. These districts were alive with activity, vibrant and colorful, full of tea houses, music, and food vendors and luxury clothing shops, Kabuki theaters, Geisha, and brothels. The actors, Geisha, and courtesans were the celebrities of their day, influencing fashion, style, manners, and culture throughout Japan. The Tokogawa understood early on that these districts could curtail unrest in the merchant class, as well as provide entertainment to the many Samurai who guarded the cities, who were in fact required to live in half the year, away from their home towns.

These red light districts were usually walled-in, with a heavily guarded gate, and often moated.  No one could enter or leave without the proper documents or permission, and Geisha were never allowed to leave after 6pm. The largest pleasure quarter was in Edo called the Yoshiwara. It was a city within a city spanning 20 acres. And here were the places where the least powerful in society were able to exert some autonomy and agency. For example, Geisha were listed on the Yoshiwara registers as professional entertainers: musicians, singers, and dancers. The Tayu was the most elite courtesan of her day, and was highly educated, skilled in conversation and highly sought after. They had agency in that they could and often did reject clients, and they were trained to think that their social standing was often better than their clients. They were sometimes booked six months in advance so that the client could prepare for the honor. These districts were places where an increasingly wealthy merchant class could rise above their station and socialize with those higher up in ranking. For example, Haiku and Literary clubs formed where men from different walks of life met and interacted. It is noteworthy that 80 percent of the population of Edo was literate, and books stores were also a part of the Yoshiwara.

Travel and Identity

Another aspect of Edo Japan was travel as recreation. It was a time not only of increased urbanization, but consumerism which fostered a new travel culture. As time wore on people felt safe to travel to monuments, temples, and landmarks.  They were also motivated by curiosity, venturing out of the circumscribed worlds of their small village or farms. The major roads were well maintained, and a cottage industry of rest stops and tea houses along the Tōkaidō, the major artery from Kyoto to Edo, was born. The Tōkaidō originally had 53 stations (rest areas) along the road.  The gorgeous ukiyo-e prints in the Sutro collection reflect this travel culture, and served as souvenirs and mementos.

Religion and Philosophy

The underlying foundation of Edo society was neo-Confucianism focusing on ethical humanism and rationalism, a more secular view of the world than had hitherto been embraced by the Japanese. That said, Buddhism and Shinto were still extremely important, albeit less so politically. As previously explained, travel was a popular recreation for all walks of life, with more and more citizens leaving their closed enclaves to take to the open road. Economics would overcome many restrictions in Edo Japan allowing women to flex the boundaries previously attached to certain prohibitions. For example, women were able to obtain limited access to Temple spaces after making a “donation” or be allowed to purchase “an amulet against menstrual defilement while on the premises.”

Opening up Japan to the West

Sutro Library holds a first edition of Engelbert Kaempfer’s 1727 work, The history of Japan, giving an account of the ancient and present state and government of that empire; which for a long time remained the only source of information about Japan that Westerners had in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In 1848 United States Navy Commodore Perry arrived in Edo Bay with three warships forcing Japan to open up trade to the West. While the West praised Japan’s highly developed culture, Japan, for their part, viewed Westerners with suspicion and saw them as barbarians. Until 1848 Japan did not engage in any trade outside the country, with the exception of the Dutch. When a foreigner was granted entry, it was only for a short time, and every step tightly regulated. Even Western books were forbidden from being translated – with few exceptions. So when Perry arrived forcing a trade agreement, Japan entered into the modern world for good or ill.

The End of Edo

The images found within the Sutro collection reflect the “floating world” and the rich culture of Edo Japan. The photographs are part of ten volume set that was created to provide westerners with souvenirs, but also to provide western audiences, who were fascinated by Japanese culture, with a look into a culture blanketed in secrecy for over two hundred years. The images tell stories of a Japan which was rapidly disappearing; an iconic culture that was quickly replaced by the modernizing that took hold after Commodore Perry entered Edo’s harbor.  

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