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There’s a Japanese saying: Edo no rekishi wa junintoiro. Tachiba ni yotte mattaku. “For every ten people, there are ten versions of Edo history.” As so it is. No-one however disputes the fact that the Edo period (1603 to 1868) was crucial in the development of the nation. Tokyo, as the city is known today, owes much of its identity and outlook to events of 400+ years ago.
It was the vision of one man.
The Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu declared, at the beginning of the 17th century, that the capital, and its Emperor, must move from ancient Kyoto eastward, instigating a sea change in values, systems and tastes. Kyoto was not pleased, but the die had been cast.
Flushed with victory in his defeat of Hideyori loyalists at the pivotal Battle of Sekigahara in 1600, Tokugawa embarked upon the unification of the nation, and radical reforms. A new mighty city would be built, the marvel of the age. Its name would be Edo, ‘the door to the Bay’. The site chosen for the new development was low-lying marshland where the fertile Kanto plain met the huge, fish-filled bay. Its construction was a gigantic task. Hills were leveled, and land reclaimed from the sea.
Tens of thousands of craftsmen, laborers and artisans were shipped in to realize Tokugawa’s megalomaniac vision. As the city took shape, there came thousands more, to feed the workers, to trade, to barter, to serve Emperor and Shogun, and soon a vast metropolis grew out of the muddy, uncultured swamp.
By 1721 its inhabitants had reached the million mark, making Edo the largest city in the world. 75% of the city’s population was male.
It was during this period that Japan closed its borders to the outside world, forbade Western books, and enjoyed 270 years of political stability and unbroken peace.
Many Japan scholars have traditionally portrayed this time as something akin to the Dark Ages, in which a starving and downtrodden commoner class was severely controlled, taxed, and kept in poverty by a ruling military elite. The Meiji Period that followed Edo, and brought with it the trappings of Westernization, is correspondingly described as Japan’s Enlightenment.
In part this is indeed true, but those 270 years of peace, sometimes dubbed the ‘Pax Tokugawa’ echoing Europe’s ‘Pax Romana’ under the Roman Empire was also a time of huge prosperity and wealth. During the Edo period agriculture boomed, as did the arts and popular culture. This was when kabuki theater and ukiyo-e painting emerged, as did irezumi tattooing and shunga erotic art. Various appetites had clearly been whet.
Industry boomed too. By the end of the period, Japan produced a quarter of the world’s silver and gold, and all of its copper. The volcanic nation’s sulfur, vital in creating ignition, was sought after across the globe.
With this wealth came, in certain strata of society at least, considerable disposable income. And nowhere is that more dramatically reflected in the huge development of its food culture. The growing metropolis was hungry.
If you are interested in John’s closer look at the food culture of the period, check out these posts too.
A Brief History of Japanese Cuisine: Edo And Food, Overview
An Edo-Tokyo Culinary Timeline 1 (1603 to 1756): Soba From The Start
An Edo-Tokyo Culinary Timeline 2 (1757 to 1836): Edo Goes Foodie
An Edo-Tokyo Culinary Timeline 3 (1836 to today): Black Ships and Ramen