The Edo period of Japanese history lasted over two hundred and fifty years. Known also as the Tokugawa Period, the country was ruled during this time by the governing Tokugawa Shogunate, established in 1603 by the first Edo Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu. The Edo period was a time of contrasts. Japan saw international seclusion and isolation, followed by acceptance and openess. Military and political power shifted, and the eventual acceptance of Western ideas and opportunites was to have a major impact on Japan and it's culture.
The Edo period followed many years of political and social upheaval. The previous division of Japanese history known as the Sengoku period (warring states period) was dominated by wars faught between various political and religious factions for the control of the country. These wars came to an end with the unification of Japan by the great generals Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi and eventually Tokugawa Ieyasu who formed Japan's final Shogunate.
Ieyasu consolidated his power through a series of social changes including the introduction of a strict class system and the tight control of the ruling daimyo families from the capital city Edo. Individuals had no legal rights and the family became very important at all social levels.
Travel and tourism boomed during the Edo period. Travel guides became very popular, illustrated with the work of ukiyo-e artists such as Hiroshige and Hokusai.
Economic development occured throughout Japan during the Edo period, most prominently in the cities of Edo, Osaka and Kyoto. Edo's population grew to more than one million, which at the time made it one of the largest cities in the world. Japan's increased trade, both domestic and foreign, it's infrastructure of roads and a new governing system of bureaucracy, all contributed to the wealth and relative prosperity of the nation.
Although Japan's leaders imposed a general ban upon trade with the outside world, it was not exclusive. During the first half of the 17th century, the Shoguns issued a red-sealed patent to certain ships, allowing them to trade abroad. More than 350 ships sailed abroad using this system and travelled as far as India and Vietnam. They exported mainly precious metals such as copper and silver, and imported silks and spices.
Despite the isolationism imposed upon Japan by the Tokugawa Shoguns, the nations' culture flourished. The urbanisation that took place at this time provided the catalyst for the renewed development of mass culture in cities such as Edo and Osaka. The rising middle classes had the opportunity and the time to pursue cultural pursuits such as theatre (kabuki), art and literature. Geisha, musicians, actors, sumo wrestlers and poets all contributed to the rise of the ukiyo or 'floating world'.
Ukiyo-e prints became the symbol of this new culture. With their strong linear forms, complemented by flat areas of colour and strange angles, ukiyo-e was some of the first massed produced art in the world, giving normal people the chance to appreciate what had been until then the domain of the rich and privilaged.
Japanese theatre, or Kabuki, provided ukiyo-e artists with a subject matter that had wide appeal. Posters, postcards and portraits of actors were in demand in much the same way as they are today with modern audiences. Images like Famous Places in Edo: Oshichi by Utagawa Kuniteru depicted characters from kabuki shows and made household names of the actors/actresses who played them.
* top image: Map of Edo c1840