Locked in Japan for 200 Years

Ukiyoe Woodblock Prints (details below)

History can tell us many interesting things. During the Edo period between 1639 and 1854, Japan had a national isolation policy that stopped contact with most of the wider world (except to China, Korea and Holland), and which ultimately provided an opportunity for a unique Japanese culture to develop and flourish. 

Edo scholar, Shoko Taguchi, in her book Edo people and Kabuki explains that Japan’s people-centered high quality culture was created as the result of there being no wars fought for 260 years, both before and during the lockdown: “It is unusual in world history” Taguchi explains.

This period began following a devastating and tragic fire which tore through the capital city Edo. In an attempt to rebuild, motivated wealthy civilians made a huge effort to recover their lifestyle and utilised this long period of peace and freedom to explore their interests and ideas, improving civilian life and enriching the entire community. Throughout this period, the Edo government ruled strictly, but the cultural movement that developed was supervised quite loosely. Interestingly this double standard, or grey zone, greatly helped this new culture movements growth, including the Yoshiwara red district and Kabuki (theatre performance).

In the Yoshiwara district a visitors social status did not apply and instead there was a clear hierarchy among the women working there. At the top of the pyramid were the high class prostitutes, or ‘Oiran’, who were highly trained in academic and artistic fields. One former scholar refers to the red district as having held the role of a cultural salon at the time.

Alongside this, the Kabuki became a popular art form with all generations and genders. It appeared as comical, dramatic, fashionable, poetic, philosophical and more for the ordinary people.

As this new cultural movement grew during this long period of isolation, it added a vital energy to the pre-Edo culture. It must have been an exciting time with many citizens discussing their trendy and fascinating experiences. The Ukiyoe painters and craftsmen busied themselves capturing the moment of popular performance and the beauty of Oiran and writers and musicians developed new plots and melodies.

Exploring freedom of thought and the analysis of traditional culture allowed people to have a variation of understanding of their life. Ultimately it created a form of art that still influences the modern culture it is connected to today.

Blog Image: Ukiyoe woodblock prints use a technique developed during the Edo period. Ukiyoe means “floating world picture”: the floating world is the world we live in temporarily and which keeps changing, like a leaf floating on the surface of the river being pushed away along the stream.