Katsushika Hokusai, Ukiyo-e & Edo Period Japan

What was Japan like then?

During Hokusai's lifetime Japan was a nation ruled by strict social class, a feudal regime and military dictatorship. The Edo period, as this division of Japanese history came to be known, saw great social and economic change and would eventually lead to the downfall of the ruling elite and the beginning of Japan's Modern Age. Foreign influence was beginning to shape the political future of the nation and as a direct consequence of this Japanese culture would begin to affect the West.

The Edo period, named after the city of Edo (now present day Tokyo), lasted for over two hundred and fifty years. The rulers of Japan during this time were the Tokugawa Shoguns. Through an unbroken line of fifteen Shoguns, the Tokugawa clan governed Japan and shaped it's destiny. Listed here are just some of the Tokugawa Shoguns and a brief summary of their time as Japan's ruler. Through these rulers can be seen the political backdrop against which the ukiyo-e artists produced their work.

Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616)

Tokugawa Ieyasu c1600, Tokugawa Shoguns, Edo Period

Tokugawa Ieyasu c1600

The first Tokugawa Shogun was Tokugawa Ieyasu (shown right). Ieyasu unified Japan after hundreds of years of war and strife during which rival lords or daimyo fought for power. Ieyasu eventually succeeded in gaining absolute power in 1600 and established his capital in the city of Edo. Prior to this Japan's capital city had been Kyoto where the Emporer had his palace. However the Shoguns were now the real power in Japan.

Besides being a great military leader, Ieyasu was a shrewd and calculating politician who changed the social structure of Japan, enabling him and his heirs to control the various factions. He established a dynasty to ensure that the Tokugawa clan continued to rule long after his death. He also supervised early diplomatic relations with Europeans and passed an edict banning Christianity from Japanese shores.

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Tokugawa Yoshimune (1684-1751)

Tokugawa Yoshimune c1720, Tokugawa Shoguns, Edo Period

Tokugawa Yoshimune c1720

Yoshimune was the 8th Tokugawa Shogun and the great-grandson of Tokugawa Ieyasu. He became Shogun in 1716 and would serve in the post for 30 years. During this time he instigated reforms aimed at making the Shogunate financially solvent, these were known as the Kyoho Reforms. He also established the Gosankyo to augment the Gosanke.

Yoshimune is also remembered for his impact on Japanese culture for he relaxed the rules which banned foreign literature from Japan, thus allowing an infux of foreign ideas and images to enter the country. This foreign influence had an immediate and lasting effect upon the ukiyo-e movement in particular.

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Tokugawa Ieyohsi (1793-1853)

Tokugawa Ieyoshi c1820, Tokugawa Shoguns, Edo Period

Tokugawa Ieyoshi c1820

Ieyoshi became Shogun in 1837 and was the 12th of the Tokugawa Shoguns. He is most remembered as the Shogun who instigated the Tenpo Reforms.

The Tenpo Reforms were a series of government reforms introduced in 1842 aimed at strengthening the Shogunate through the repression of ideas which were believed to be subversive or would bring about social disorder. Included in these reforms was a ban on the representation of kabuki actors, geisha and courtesans as these professions 'represented a luxury which society could not afford'. Consequent rules affected niskiki-e printing in particular and the printing guilds which produced them, the Shogunate claiming that these guilds had failed in their duties as regulators of illustrated material. These reforms had a big impact on ukiyo-e as some of the main subject matter was now banned from representation.

During this period many political figures and artists were arrested for 'breaking' the rules. Rangaku (Dutch Learning) was also banned. Prohibitions were introduced across much of society including those that affected festivities, fireworks, luxury goods, home decoration, rare birds and flowers.

Tokugawa Ieyoshi was Shogun in 1853 when Commodore Matthew Perry of the United States Navy sailed into Edo Bay and demanded that Japan open herself to foreign trade. At this critical moment in Japanese history, Ieyoshi became ill and died shortly there-after.

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Tokugawa Yoshinobu (1837-1913)

Tokugawa Yoshinobu c1900

Tokugawa Yoshinobu c1900

Tokugawa Yoshinobu attained the rank of Shogun in 1866 following the death of the previous ruler Tokugawa Iemochi. Yoshinobu's rulership began with an overhaul of his administration and steps were taken to strengthen the regime. Yoshinobu invited foreigners to advise on the modernisation of his army and navy, in particular a French mission led by François Léonce Verny. Unfortunately this made enemies of those who believed that the Shogun was becoming too powerful and that his friendship with foreigners was bad for Japan.

An alliance of samurai from the Satsuma, Choshu and Tosa clans and others started a series of events with the aim of restoring Imperial rule and rejecting foreign influence. Tosa persuaded Yoshinobu to step down as Shogun in 1867, the intention being that he would then lead a governing council of daimyo. However Satsuma and Choshu rejected Tosa's plan and there followed what was called the Boshin War and eventually the Meiji Restoration and the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate.

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