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The City of Edo and the Edo Period (1615-1868)

Media only: Megan Krefting 202-633-0271; kreftingm@si.edu
Public only: 202.633.1000

March 22, 2012

Edo (present-day Tokyo) was probably the most populous city in the world during much of the 18th century. Its population was approximately one million inhabitants.

The early 17th-century settlement of Edo was the result of deliberate measures undertaken by the shogun, or feudal overlords, to create an imposing metropolis. Samurai were ordered to move from the countryside with their lords and reside within the precincts of the new capital. The resulting frenzied construction and reconstruction of the majestic Edo Castle, the large-scale building of samurai residential quarters, and temples and shrines at the city’s periphery, subsequently lured craftsmen in large numbers. Unprecedented levels of consumption also attracted goods and workers from throughout Japan. Diverse opportunities for employment—as servants, shopkeepers, entertainers, hired laborers, or apprentices in nascent industries such as publishing—lured migrants from near and far. During the 18th century, the largest wooden city in the world experienced a series of disastrous fires. Between 1703 and 1721, Edo’s two largest theaters burned to the ground eight times and more than one-third of the city went up in flames in 1772.

The city of Kyoto was Japan's ancient capital, serving as the seat of the imperium from the late eighth century until the end of the Edo period in 1868. Whereas Edo served as the new locus of political power with the establishment of the Tokugawa shogunate, Kyoto maintained its vibrant role as a repository of traditional cultural knowledge and artistic practices throughout the premodern period. Against this backdrop, innovative artists from Kyoto's mercantile community—such as Ogata Kōrin (1658–1716) and Itō Jakuchū (1716–1800)—emerged during the Edo period.

It is estimated that more than 25 percent of the total land area in Japan belonged to temples and shrines during the 18th century.

Artists in the Edo period worked in many media. A famous artist such as Ogata Kōrin was as likely to paint on a ceramic bowl or a woman’s kimono as to design a lacquer box or paint on paper or silk.

Strict sumptuary laws in Edo Japan were designed to limit the conspicuous display of wealth by the merchant class. For example, merchants were not allowed to have household articles with gold lacquer decorations, use gold and silver leaf in their structures, build three-story houses, have elaborate weddings, or wear long swords or large short swords

In Edo Japan, rice was such an important commodity that it was used for samurai stipends and formed the basis of the economy. As living standards increased, a greater percentage of the population could use rice as the primary source of food. As such, the farmer and rice cultivation became symbols in Japanese art for economic prosperity, peace, and stability as well as for the simple rural life.

The art of the Edo period speaks to viewers in the West in a direct and powerful way, not only for its inherent qualities but also because so much of its aesthetic concurs with what we consider modern. Late 19th- and early 20th-century Japanese art, especially color woodblock prints, had a strong influence on artists such as Van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec.

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