The Chronicles of Old Edo, Vol. 2. The Magnificent Men of Old Edo.
By the mid-18th century, the city of Edo (Tokyo), with its population of over one million, was the world’s largest urban centre. Constantly coming up with new concepts to improve their society and enhance their way of life, the imagination and creativity of the people of Edo gave rise to a unique culture. Looking at Edo design, we might just pick up a few tips for enriching our own lives. From a design standpoint, we explore the ‘Edo Culture’ that blossomed during the peace of the Edo Period.
Assembling a Workforce to Build a City
Male Population Rises with Influx of Single Workingmen
By the mid-18th century, the population of Edo had topped a million and the city was the largest in the world. The allocation of land within a population strictly divided along class lines, however, was massively unequal. Although the townspeople (the artisans, merchants and other commoners), numbered roughly half the population by this time, only fifteen percent of the city area was allocated to their homes and businesses. Meanwhile, the estates and residences of the samurai families and their retainers took up seventy percent of the land, and the remaining fifteen percent was given over to space for temples and shrines.
The majority of townspeople lived in densely packed, cheaply-built nagaya row houses, most of which were single-storey. These tiny dwellings were the Edo Period (1603 – 1868) equivalent of one-room bedsit flats, each just four and a half tatami mats in area, or slightly over two and a half metres square. Taking the population of the time and dividing it by the number of nagaya in the city, we can conclude that each of these tiny spaces must have housed two to three people on average.
Men far outnumbered women in Edo at this time of high-density population growth. Labourers made their way to Edo from all over the country, many of them second and third sons of farming families, who had no right of inheritance and no prospect of becoming the heads of their own households. They came to provide manpower for shōgun Tokugawa Ieyasu’s vision for a new stronghold on the shores of Edo Bay from which he could rule the country. In under five decades, the obscure fishing village of Edo was transformed into a metropolis, with Edo Castle rebuilt, entire hills pushed into the sea to create more land, aqueducts constructed, rivers rerouted and flood control measures put in place.
Massive Overcrowding Leads to Frequent Outbreaks of Fire
Then, in 1657, the disastrous Great Fire of Meireki devastated the population of Edo and destroyed much of the city, including most of the buildings of Edo Castle. The city was rebuilt in the wake of the fire, land reallocated and the urban layout reconfigured with fire safety in mind. Nevertheless, frequent fires continued to plague the overcrowded city.
The firefighting system that was in place at this time existed to protect samurai properties, not the densely crowded homes and businesses of the common folk. All this changed in 1720, when Tokugawa Yoshimune, the eighth shōgun of the Tokugawa Shogunate, set about instituting a comprehensive disaster prevention system. An official fire brigade, the machi-bikeshi, was created to protect townspeople’s properties. The areas where common folk lived and worked were divided into zones, with a machi-bikeshi association allocated to each. The machi-bikeshi associations responsible for the forty-seven zones in the area west of the Sumida River were known as the Iroha Forty-seven. An additional group added later brought this number to forty-eight. Another sixteen groups were responsible for the Honjo and Fukagawa areas east of the river.
Firefighters dressed to impress, particularly the chiefs of each association. Each group had its own distinctive uniform and carried an identifying flag and matoi (tall pole with decorative marker at the top) so that they could be easily distinguished from other groups at the site of a fire.
Firefighters, Police Lieutenants and Sumo Wrestlers – Celebrities of the Edo Period
Fire chiefs cut such a dashing figure that they were revered by the townspeople. They weren’t the only celebrities of old Edo though, yoriki and rikishi (sumo wrestlers) also enjoyed huge popularity. Together, these men were known as the Edo no San Otoko (literally, the “Three Men of Edo”), and were urban heroes in this city of men.
Yoriki were men from samurai families who held positions of responsibility, similar to police lieutenants, in the law-and-order arm of the feudal government. Granted an annual rice stipend of two hundred koku (one koku being 150 kilograms), yorikiworked out of the machi-bugyōsho offices that combined judicial, administrative and law-and-order functions. For most of the Edo Period there were two machi-bugyōsho in Edo, each with twenty-five yoriki. Each yoriki had two machi-dōshin sergeants under his command. Their investigative duties required them to pass among the townspeople undetected, so rather than dressing in typically austere samurai clothing, they dressed to blend in with the more fashionable townspeople and merchants. Some yoriki demonstrated such style and fashion sense that they became fashion leaders and celebrities in their own right.
The third Edo no San Otoko group were the sumō wrestlers, who were held in high esteem by samurai and commoners alike. Regular public tournaments known as kanjin-zumō (the forerunner of today’s professional sumō league, the Grand Sumo) were held to raise funds for temple and shrine maintenance. Tournaments took place in the grounds of temples and shrines such as Tomioka Hachiman Shrine in Fukagawa or Ekōin Temple in Honjō. Public as they may have been, the world of sumō was a man’s world. Women were prohibited from watching the wrestling at all.
Popular wrestlers received the patronage of samurai lords and were granted privileges usually reserved only for the samurai class, such as being allowed to carry swords and being granted a rice stipend.
Kabuki – One of Edo’s Top Entertainment Attractions
In 1673, Edo-born performer Ichikawa Danjūrō burst onto the Edo kabuki stage, transforming kabuki with his dynamic performances. The swaggering and strutting style pioneered by Danjūrō came to be known as aragoto and provided a contrast to the more tender wagoto style of Kyōto kabuki. In his caricature-like oversized costumes and exaggerated kumadori makeup, Danjūrō played to the gallery with powerfully dramatic poses and foot-stamping, rampaging movement based on the mannerisms and behaviour of Edo’s samurai class of the 17th century. His heroic performances strongly appealed to the citizens of Edo, both samurai and commoners, and he achieved tremendous popularity.
Kabuki attracted large audiences, but protecting the large-scale kabuki theatre buildings from Edo’s frequent fires was no simple matter. In 1841, ostensibly for this reason, the three officially-licensed kabuki theatres, Nakamuraza, Ichimuraza and Moritaza, were ordered to relocate to Saruwakachō in Asakusa, just northeast of Sensōji Temple. Along with the tea houses and eateries that sprang up to meet the needs of theatre-goers, this move created a large and lively entertainment district that lasted until the modern era.
The Yoshiwara Pleasure District – a Melting Pot of Trendsetting Fashion and Culture
Another of Edo’s top nightlife attractions was also located just north of Asakusa’s Sensōji Temple, and had already been there for almost two hundred years by the time the kabuki theatres were relocated nearby. This was the Yoshiwara red-light district, the officially-sanctioned brothel area and a big presence in this city where men vastly outnumbered women.
The pleasure quarter was originally located in the (present-day) Ningyōchō neighbourhood of Nihonbashi, a stone’s throw from Edo Castle and near the old entrance to the city. After the Great Fire of 1657, the red-light district was relocated to the northern outskirts of the city, just beyond Asakusa, but maintained the name ‘Yoshiwara’. In addition to attracting men to its brothels, the Yoshiwara district also attracted poets, artists and dandies who set up their own cultural salons, staging exhibitions and literary competitions.
Japan in the Edo Period operated under a strictly hierarchical hereditary class system. Beneath the aristocracy were the samurai nobles, then the commoners – the farmers, artisans and merchants, in that order. While nobles and commoners rarely mixed in daily life, class and social status were largely ignored in Yoshiwara. Samurai had to leave their swords at the entrance to the walled pleasure quarter and, providing that the male patrons had the means to pay for their entertainment, nobles and commoners alike were welcome. Among the girls of Yoshiwara, those possessed of the greatest wit, intelligence and beauty might be selected to train as tayū or oiran, the elite courtesans. Not only were tayū and oiran required to be well-read, highly literate and proficient in the performing arts in order to entertain their male patrons, they also had to maintain a lavish and expensive wardrobe. These young women were revered as fashion leaders and celebrities, with their hairstyles and outfits on display in daily parades, and closely watched by the wives of well-to-do merchants and samurai. Culture and fashion news from Yoshiwara was eagerly consumed via the media of the time – ukiyo-e woodblock prints, kawaraban handbills, and kabuki plays – and these in turn fuelled the fascination that surrounded the Yoshiwara district.
Overcrowding, a Lack of Indoor Plumbing and an Unlikely Social Venue – the Public Bathhouse
When Tokugawa Ieyasu decided to establish his eastern stronghold in the fishing village of Edo in the 1590s, the shoreline came very close to the eastern Ōtemon Gate of Edo Castle. The area southeast of the castle that now contains the Imperial Palace Kokyō Gaien National Garden and Hibiya Park was a shallow area of estuarine mudflats known as Hibiya Inlet. Even after land reclamation, wells dug in this low-lying area continued to yield mostly brackish water, unsuitable for drinking. To solve this problem the Tokugawa Shōgunate provided for the construction of a system of aqueducts, beginning with the small Kanda Aqueduct, and later the ambitious forty-three kilometre-long Tamagawa Aqueduct that drew water from the Tamagawa, a major river west of Edo.
Fresh water was a precious commodity in Edo and indoor plumbing practically unheard of. Naturally, the overcrowded nagaya, which shared communal outdoor privies, had no bathing facilities. Yet, the streets of Edo were dirty (the high clay content of the Kantō loam soil meant that the streets were dusty when dry and muddy when wet) and the common folk of Edo, who were also either dusty or muddy depending on the weather, needed somewhere to wash. Commoners performed their nightly ablutions at public communal baths, which did a roaring trade.
Men and women bathed in separate pools in the public bathhouses of Edo, but with little separation between the baths and undressing areas, these communal facilities were no place for modesty. The communal baths were social venues for men and women alike, but while women were expected to return to their homes after bathing, many bathhouses had space upstairs for the exclusive use of their male patrons. Here, men could unwind and socialise over tea, while playing play igo (the boardgame, ‘go’) or shōgi. Edo certainly was a man’s world.
Award-winning designer, Hideji Takemasa, lectures in Industrial Design at Tama Art University in Tōkyō, specialising in the field of production design. He is a member of the Japan Industrial Designers’ Association (JIDA) and serves on the judging panels of a number of design competitions, including the G-Mark Good Design Awards and the Jewelry Design Concours. Takemasa has authored several books and articles in Japanese on the subject of design.
Judy Evans is a high school teacher of English and Japanese, and a Japanese-English translator. She has a Bachelor of Arts in Japanese and Art History and has studied production horticulture and landscape design. Judy has a keen interest in the internet environment and has administered websites for a number of organisations. She lives on a small farm in rural New Zealand and is a frequent visitor to Japan.