Formation of
the Urban Class

After the death of Toyotomi Hideoyoshi, the dominant figure of his time, Tokugawa Ieyasu was conferred by the court with the title of shogun. Continuing the tradition of military administration, Edo (Tokyo) was established in 1603 as the site of his shogunate. In order to consolidate power, the shogun enfeoffed areas of land to related feudatories or those of military merit; they became known as daimyo. The places where these feudatories lived naturally became centers of commercial and cultural hegemony, resulting in the growth of numerous urban areas of various sizes. With their rising commercial and financial clout, three cities emerged as the so-called “Three Capitals”--Edo (Tokyo), Kyoto, and Osaka. Serving as foci for trade and commerce, their prosperity has continued to the present day. Of particular note was the city of Edo, the seat of power for the Tokugawa shogunate. Even in the early eighteenth century, its population had already exceeded one million, making it the largest city in the world at the time.

The social status system of the Edo shogunate divided people by profession into three general classes: samurai, farmers, and merchants (chōnin). The rise in urban economic activities around the country was accompanied by the appearance of merchants with both capital and specialized skills. Urban folk of means increasingly began to seek refinement in life for themselves, their creativity being the greatest catalyst for cultural development and yielding a unique form of urban culture.

Major Developments
in the Arts

In response to the idea of seeking refinement in life, wealthy residents of Kyoto sponsored the production of art or gave support as patrons of artists. For example, so-called “five-color (gosai)” ceramics were fired in Kyoto and became known as “Kyoto ware (kyo-yaki),” a favorite among aficionados of tea culture. And the artists in the Kōrin School with their highly decorative style favored not only painting but also spared no effort in other art forms. The elegant refinements of Chinese literati in Ming and Qing China likewise became a trend in Edo Japan, having a profound influence on developments in many areas of culture, including literature, painting (such as nanga), crafts, and tea (such as sencha).

Urban Life Among Commoners

The art of ukiyo-e (“floating world”) woodblock printing can be viewed one of the enduring symbols of Japanese culture. The world of ukiyo-e is filled with the imagination and amusements of Edo people. There are actors and performers popular at the time, beauties known by many, and scenic areas enticing visitors. These prints became a focus of attention among social groups, developing a function similar to the mass media we know today. In fact, the contents of ukiyo-e are like a databank for Edo history. The apparel, makeup, hairstyles, and local customs in these prints serve as a mirror of history for the social trends of this period.