Debate and controversy has raged over the proper terminology for describing and discussing the Tokugawa era of Japan. 'Early modern' has recently made gains as the primary description of this period in Western discourse, but the definition of what exactly 'early modern' means in relation to the feudal, industrial, and post-industrial qualities that the Tokugawa era exhibited in fluctuating measure continues to be contested. This article outlines the cultural, economic, social, and political qualities that place Tokugawa era Japan in such a confusing limbo between pre-modern and modern. It also offers a definition to clarify the relationship of Japan to both Western modes of modernization and its own path of development.


From the perspective of traditional analysis and popular culture, Japan’s Tokugawa, or Edo era of history has appeared decidedly ‘feudal.’ The years spanning roughly from 1600 to 1860 were marked by a stratified society of rigid castes governed by autocratic fief lords under fealty to a central institution whose power passed through primogeniture. The country was secured against nearly all forms of foreign contact unauthorized by the ruling warrior family of the Tokugawa and organized under an economic policy designed to bind to the land the more than eighty percent of the population who worked as farmers, taxing their surplus production to keep them at subsistence level.

At the time of the Meiji Restoration, the Edo period was damned for its ‘evil customs of the past’ in the Charter Oath of 1868, the previous era viewed as a hindrance to the development of Japan on the international stage. Yet post-World War II scholarship has altered this view of an Edo period distanced and polarized against modernity, reconceptualizing the reign of the Tokugawa as rather a time of development with surprisingly close relationship to modernity.

In the search for a Western equivalent to the Japanese term for the era, kinsei, meaning ‘recent age,’ the label ‘early modern’ has emerged. The specific character of Japanese early modernity, or whether it is appropriate to use the term ‘modern’ at all in light of the term’s Western connotations, has been a matter of considerable debate.

Drawing on an analysis of Stephen Vlastos in his work Peasant Protests and Uprisings in Tokugawa Japan, I forward the definition that the ‘early modern’ of Tokugawa era Japan was a blending of economic and cultural developments spurred by native modernization with political developments grounded in premodern systems of thought and policy. These two trends sometimes conflicted, especially in the late Tokugawa era as economic and political crisis shook the foundations of more than two hundred years of stability and peace, but the trends also sometimes hybridized to produce characteristic Japanese variations on the process of industrialization and transition toward twentieth century market economy and political system.

While the ‘early modern’ Tokugawa era gathered the catalysts for the astoundingly rapid changes underwent by Japan in subsequent eras, it also produced a transformation not necessarily parallel to the that of the European nations that often constitute the standard of ‘modernization.’

The Controversy of 'Early Modernity'

In pre-War analysis, immediate proximity paradoxically yielded an impression of enormous distance between the Meiji era of modernization and the Tokugawa era of ‘feudalism,’ with the “newness” of Japan’s economic, political, and social institutions casting Edo in a negative light.

Yet close examination of pre-Meiji institutions reveals numerous parallels and antecedents to modern institutions, throwing into question Edo’s supposed backwardness. Chie Nakane, a prominent Japanese scholar of the field, characterizes the Edo period as, “marked by a highly organized administrative system and economic development based on unprecedented level of agricultural production.” Innovation encouraged enormous growth, doubling the Japanese population from pre-Tokugawa levels. Edo economic institutions were analyzed as laying the grounds for rapid modernization in later years, easing the adjustment to new forms of production and social organization and explaining Japan’s startling reinvention of itself following the Meiji Restoration. And in the arena of culture, Edo’s enormous popular market for pleasurable consumption—from the composition of senryū to the viewing of ukiyo-e prints to the construction of rustic tea houses—has at times been characterized as a leap over modernity into postmodernity.

But examination of peasant majority’s economic conditions has highlighted that Tokugawa taxation policy, in principle if not in practice, conforms with Marxist mode of production theory concerning the feudal stage of development, as all surplus agricultural production beyond the subsistence level was taxed. And some scholars have objected to the application of the term ‘modern’ in any variation, declaring it inseparable from teleological overtones that force Japanese history to conform to a European model of ‘progress.’

In order to address these concerns, Kären Wigen has proposed a model of ‘early modernity’ that places Japan in an international context of trade and development, a “particular configuration of global relationships,” noting that the policy of sakoku, or ‘closed country,’ by no means prevented Japan from interacting with its national counterparts both near and distant. Although there seems general agreement in the field of Tokugawa studies that there is at least a close relationship between the Edo period and subsequent periods of modernization, in contrast to the Meiji view of the Edo period as a hindrance to modernization, the character of Edo’s ‘early modernity’ remains under question.

Hybrid Vigor / Hybrid Stagnation

In his analysis of patterns of Tokugawa peasant protest, Stephen Vlastos provides a compelling argument for a particular interpretation of early modernity to explain the behavior and language of protestors in the late Edo period:

At no point did the protesting peasants actions indicate the desire to restore patterns of landholding and exchange that characterized the subsistence economy of the early Tokugawa village. Rather, they took from a political culture which had evolved in a pre-market feudal political economy such norms and values as could be used to mitigate immediate hardships.

I use this as the basis for presenting my own definition of Tokugawa early modernity. The economic and cultural developments of the Edo period form a continuity with those of later periods and distinguish themselves from pre-Sekigahara conditions, constituting grounds for viewing the period as ‘early modern,’ in the sense of chronologically earlier occurrence along a path of growth rather than in the sense of teleology. These developments, however, functioned and adjusted within a social and political structure rooted in systems of thought discontinuous with those introduced through contact with the West in the Meiji era. Rather, they were marked by characteristics that bear resemblance to feudalism.

The hybridization of these forces was a uniquely Japanese response to both international and domestic pressures, a response that began to show signs of great strain in the late Tokugawa era as incongruence between economic reality and political ideology threw the entire system into crisis. This definition addresses the ambiguity of the Tokugawa era and attempts to avoid Eurocentrism in favor of a contextual analysis of Japanese modernization that recognizes the significant roles played both by native sources of development and by the shock of widespread, unregulated Western contact in the last years of the Tokugawa era and into the Meiji era.

The Politics of Feudalism

The Tokugawa political structure exhibited distinct forms of rhetoric, organization, and behavior from later Japanese political structures, reflecting its basis in premodern feudal organization and perhaps explaining why an entirely feudal interpretation of Edo society was so prominent in the initial scholarship of its history. In evaluating the visual symbolism of early Tokugawa shrine building, Karen Gerhart notes that “the broader program of visual symbols manifested by Iemitsu displayed a new kind of authority in the early seventeenth century, an authority that has aptly been termed ‘kingly.’” Although not a monarch, the Tokugawa’s pattern of reign in such matters as primogeniture succession and foreign relations reflected that of a king rather than a central bureaucracy.

The most important aspect of the political system was the kokudaka cadastral survey, which enforced feudal modes of production by taxing all surplus harvest to support daimyo authorities. Significantly, tax was, in principle, assessed only in rice, not in currency, even for mountain and seaside villages. This policy bears the hallmark of a barter economy. The kokudaka system aided the enforcement of feudal class divisions between peasant and samurai, tying the former to the land through registration systems and the latter to the cities through strict laws concerning place of dwelling and through ties of fealty to domainal lords.

Though the Tokugawa family has been noted for its centralized control of the country, holding the Japanese islands in stability for more than two centuries, the domainal system led to a de facto state of multiple ‘countries’ within one country. Domains often identified themselves as koku, the same word for ‘country’ that was used in relation to Japan, Korea, China, and other nations. The term han, in contrast, was relatively uncommon until the late Edo period with its connotations of centrally controlled land handed over to daimyo, although in practice land was frequently confiscated and daimyo shuffled between domains in order to consolidate Tokugawa power.

The Tokugawa government also showed a tendency toward delegating out the duties and responsibilities of various classes at both national and local levels that transcended domainal boundaries, creating further feudal units as in the case of the guild of the blind outlined by Gerald Groemer or the relegation of the kawatauntouchable’ caste to specific, cross domainal regions under the central control of Donzaemon in the city of Edo.

All of these qualities of political structure were heavily grounded in premodern systems of organization, reminiscent of feudalism and discontinuous with later governmental methods that accompanied Japanese modernization.

Castes and Social Immobility

The social structure of the Edo period, in large part a reflection of the political order as it was vigorously coded de jure, offers another example of feudal characteristics. In solidifying its power base, Edo appropriated the Imperial naming and ranking system of the past, reinforcing its usage in all aspects of life. Among samurai, status distinctions dictated types of dress, houses, and carriages, audience rooms in Edo Castle, procession accoutrements, and numerous other spheres of life, having pervasive influence. In a time of peace, acquiring names and titles, not only for samurai but increasingly for other classes of society as well, was one of the only means of advancement in an otherwise extraordinarily rigid caste system.

For classes such as the kawata, widely considered ‘impure’ and ‘permanently polluted,’ status become so ingrained that it took on hereditary, racist implications unseen before the Tokugawa era. Discrimination, in the case of the kawata, survived onward past the Tokugawa era, but the specific legal and social organization that features as a prominent quality of the Edo period was divorced from modern, nationalist ideals of the united kokutai ("people of one body") society that later dominated in the Meiji era.

The Facts of the Tokugawa Economy

The upper place of samurai in the social hierarchy did not, however, guarantee them economic dominance, for Edo period economic development pursued a different course than social or political development. A wealthy elite grew from town merchants and rural entrepreneurs who could sometimes buy their way into positions of social dominance. Some of these members of the ‘new wealth’ became creditors who lent sums exceeding the annual revenues of major daimyos, both to the government and to other commoners.

The liquidity of wealth, especially in the countryside, was far more reminiscent of a modern capital economy than of a feudal economy. As Ronald Toby observed, there was considerable continuity between this economic development and later modernization, as “Japan was able to generate sufficient capital to proto-industrialize in the early nineteenth century and to industrialize later without resort to foreign borrowing.” Indeed, domainal governments actively encouraged the proto-industrialization of the countryside in a bid to augment their tax revenues and improve the situation of their peasant subjects, with cash crops forming a vital part of the economy by the Edo period’s end.

At the small scale, hallmarks of a modern economy remained visible even among peasants, where a willingness to adopt technology and improve silkworm-rearing methods, for example, brought Japanese sericulture to a level superior to contemporary European sericulture, even in the absence of automation and labor-saving devices. The economic developments of the Edo era ran a course of modernization and industrialization independent of significant Western involvement and in contrast to feudalistic social and political institutions.

Cultural Achievements and Foresight

Tokugawa culture, too, showed such trends of modernization that reflected a continuity with later eras despite the social and political structure. Japanese cultural production during the Edo period was vast and extremely productive, inventing and refining many of the forms now considered characteristically Japanese. Unlike the situation generally attributed to premodern societies of an aristocratic elite dominating culture, the common people were the driving force for both creation and consumption of art, music, writing, and leisure, evoking a true ‘pop culture’ that struck later observers as so modern, almost postmodern.

In addition, the Tokugawa popular culture was not averse to foreign imports, despite the sakoku policy of seclusion, with Dutch goods and images infusing Edo period culture with influential currents of thought. Unlike the case in cultural exchange of colonial or near-colonial societies, Japan’s interaction with the Dutch was founded on an internally generated conception of the distant land and proceeded on more or less equal grounds. In such ways, popular culture too showed numerous parallels and predecessors to modern Japanese culture, and patterns of modernization in general.

The Rise and Fall of Tokugawa Hybridization

In many ways, the combination of feudal surface structure and modern underpinnings could produce fruitful hybridization, as in the example of Japanese sericulture. Tessa Morris-Suzuki writes that, “French silk was produced for a relatively large and standardized market, while in Japan the status system and restrictions on foreign trade created a limited but highly diversified market.” The rigidity of the status system encouraged proto-industrializing trends toward the maximizing of labor output, rather than the minimizing of labor input, that fit well with rural domestic organization and cultivation. This was a sort of proto-industrialization much different than that of Europe, for example depopulating urban centers as rural trade grew more attractive, counter to the modernizing norm, but nonetheless this Japanese path of proto-industrialization showed economic success.

Many of the enormous strains on Tokugawa society near the end of the Edo period, however, may be attributed to the incongruence between the ideals of governance and social structure set beside the realities of the economy. Poor peasants found themselves still working at a subsistence level even as a capitalistic economy emerged, using money from cash crop production only to buy food to support themselves. They were now not only trapped in a feudalistic social structure, but exposed to the vagaries and dangers of a modern economy. Peasant protests of increased size and fury reflected an enormous tension between old and new ways that could not hold out much longer. Samurai discontent with an economic status extremely incongruent with their social status, Tokugawa government bankruptcy due to inability to properly assess taxes using the old kokudaka system, and the pressure of newly opened foreign trade all helped to create the conditions that allowed the radical shift in the alignment of Japanese nation that marked the start of the Meiji era, reflecting both continuity and dissonance with institutions of the whole of the Tokugawa era.


Examining evidence across many spheres of human interaction during the period from 1600 to 1860 in Japan, the Tokugawa era’s ‘early modernity’ as analyzed by Western scholars may be said to constitute currents of modernization and industrialization in economy and culture that were closely connected to later Meiji patterns, working within the bounds of primarily feudal political and social organization instituted by the ruling warrior family. The distinct character of Japanese development that has fascinated scholars and non-scholars alike may be traced to this hybrid of the pre-modern and the modern.

In its progress and development, the Japanese nation and people have exhibited characteristics that both tie them to global trends of history and distinguish their unique responses to commonly shared pressures and impulses.


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