Welcome to the lives and culture of people who lived during Japan’s Early Modern period (late 1500s to mid 1800s). These centuries are also known as the Edo period because they coincide roughly with the ruling government of the Tokugawa Shogunate, which had its headquarters, or bakufu, in Edo (modern-day Tokyo). During the period, land was divided into territories defined by taxable agricultural output, or koku ("bushels"). The Shogunate assigned these territories to the heads of leading military families. If a territory were valued at 10,000 koku or above, the family head was labeled a daimyō ("great lord"). Independently of the Shogunate, these lordly rulers and the men who served them governed their designated territories, called han ("domains") by modern scholars, in a balanced political arrangement known as the bakuhan taisei ("Shogunate-Domain System"). For over two hundred years under this arrangement, there was no warfare on the Japanese archipelago and no wars against countries beyond its borders.

While the Shogunate outlawed Christianity and restricted overseas trade, it by no means isolated itself from the rest of East Asia. In Nagasaki, it traded with people from the Netherlands and China. It also maintained mutually voluntary diplomatic relations with the Joseon government on the Korean peninsula, and mutually involuntary ones with the Ryūkyūs (modern-day Okinawa). It further allowed the Matsumae Domain to maintain trade relations with the Ainu in the north.

On the one hand, Early Modern Japan was governed by a soldiering class whose members constituted a mere five percent of the overall population and resided in castle towns like Edo from which they ruled members of the townsman and peasant classes. On the other, advances in agricultural production and commercial development contributed to an unprecedented dissemination of people, goods, and culture throughout the country. It was a process that would eventually give birth to Modern Japan.

Early Modern Japan and the International CommunityThe Urban AgeThe Flow of People and GoodsA Village Perspective on "Modern Japan"Early Modern Japan in Maps

Early Modern Japan and the International Community

Early Modern Japan is often labeled a "closed country," but it was not isolated from the East Asian world. While Japan did not have formal political relations with China, it engaged in trade with both China and the Dutch via Nagasaki. Political relations with Joseon (Korea) and the Ryūkyūs (Okinawa) were facilitated by the domains of Tsushima and Satsuma respectively, while Matsumae Domain likewise facilitated trade relations with the Ainu in the north. People, goods, and information passed back and forth through these four openings, connecting Early Modern Japan to the international community beyond its borders.

A view of the gallery
The Dutch Quarter
This scroll depicts the exchange with Dutch and other foreigners.

The Urban Age

Early Modern Japan was the greatest period of urban development in Japanese history prior to Japan’s "modernization" in the late 1800s. Castle towns, designed and built to centralize a domain’s political and economic activities, and regional towns, which fed on the expanding market for goods, both shared institutions and cultures in common that laid the foundations of many of Japan’s modern cities. This exhibit introduces Japan’s greatest "castle town," Edo, a city whose population and scale were large even by global standards. It also examines the organization of urban society and the cultures that blossomed in Japan’s Early Modern cities.

The Great Avenue of Edo Bridge
The bridge in the foreground is Nihonbashi (Bridge). The city of Edo, built by its various townspeople and merchants, stretches beyond on the other side of the bridge.
Women's Clothe
Women's Clothes: Samurai Families

The Flow of People and Goods

As regional castle towns arose and attracted great numbers of people, agricultural and other commercial goods flowed between regions like never before. By the late 17th century, improved eastward and westward shipping lanes made it possible to transport mass quantities of goods between Edo and Osaka and distant regions, while rising agricultural productivity and improved transportation contributed to heightened travel by common folk. While common folk needed a reason or occasion to travel (e.g. pilgrimage to shrine or temple), they were also increasingly drawn to travel by the publication of travel-related books and prints.

View of the gallery
The Kadoya Inn in Mukumoto Village
This is the store front for one of the inns which catered to travelers from Kyoto on their way to Ise Shrine.

A Village Perspective on "Modern Japan"

Beginning in the late 18th century, villages used their day to day experience to develop technologies that increased productivity and which created time for leisure in their lives. Children were now expected to be educated and the number of temple schools grew in both urban and rural areas. Urban print culture also spread, helping to disseminate information. On the other hand, the gap between poor and rich widened. The confluence of these developments and a growing concern over foreign powers contributed to ideologies that were critical of the government and to questions about one’s own culture and history, engendering movements that gave birth to the inventors of Modern Japan.

The Four Seasons of Agriculture
Joseph Heco's Records of a Castaway (Illustrations)
This is a record of a castaway, Joseph Heco (Hamada Hikozou), who was lost in the Pacific and was rescued by an American freighter.

Early Modern Japan in Maps

A look at maps of Japan or the world that were produced during Japan’s Early Modern period reveals the ways people at the time regarded the world and their country. While some approaches are strongly ideological and imaginative, others reflect legacies of traditional learning, while still others pursue accuracy through the use of field surveys and measurements. There was, in other words, not just one approach to mapping Japan and the world, but rather a diverse range of approaches that co-existed simultaneously. In time, however, a realistic understanding of Japan and the world spread widely, preparing the way for Modern Japan.

Matteo Ricci-type oval map : Revised Map of the Earth and its Countries
This map was drawn by Nagakubo Sekisui.
Ino Tadataka's Map: Chugoku and Shikoku
This map was drawn by Ino Tadataka.