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The Politics of Arts in Edo CultureUtagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861) woodblock print made around 1838.

The Politics of Arts in Edo Culture

Japanese historian Katsuya Hirano explains how urban popular culture undermined Japan's Tokugawa regime. Listen to the podcast of Hirano's lecture.

By Vincent Lim
Staff Writer

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Duration: 1:02:56

Urban popular culture de-centered and displaced the symbolic system of Tokugawa power.

There are times when even strong governments can be overpowered by the gentle brush strokes of artistic representation. Katsuya Hirano of Cornell University explained how urban popular culture of the late Edo Period (1603-1868) may have played a role in the demise of Japan’s Tokugawa regime at a June 2, 2008 lecture at UCLA. The period is also known as the Tokugawa Period in reference to the shogunate that exerted strict control over its subjects in the longest span of uninterrupted peace in Japan’s history.

Hirano is an assistant professor of Japanese history at Cornell University. His talk, sponsored by the Paul I. and Hisako Terasaki Center for Japanese Studies, was based on the book manuscript for his forthcoming Politics of Dialogic Imagination: Power and Popular Culture in Early Modern Japan, 1750-1890.

In the lecture, Hirano explained how popular culture centered in capital of Edo undermined the Tokugawa regime’s rigid class system.

“Urban popular culture de-centered and displaced the symbolic system of Tokugawa power,” Hirano said. “[It] functioned to deprive the refined and established world of the culture of the ruling class—in which power resided—of its authority and authenticity and thereby de-naturalized and discredited the hierarchy of high and low.”

Hirano said the Tokugawa government considered urban popular culture immoral because it promoted and celebrated pleasure and play. The regime attempted to create subjects who devoted their time to providing labor that was necessary for the preservation of economic productivity for the government.

The mingling of samurai, merchants, artisans, and prostitutes in the commercial and entertainment districts of Edo created discourses that subverted the social order, Hirano said. A strict four-class system existed during the Edo period, with samurai at the top, followed by peasants, artisans, and merchants. Members of the four classes could not change their social positions.

From the late 18th century to the early Meiji Period (1868-1912), the idea of social mobility emerged in Edo. Through the use of parody in kabuki plays and other art forms, elements of high and low culture were fused together. Government edicts from the time show that the regime was concerned about these artistic productions that subverted Confucian ideals of propriety, loyalty, and righteousness that guided ordinary people in everyday life and maintained social stability.

Hirano said historians should take a closer look at Edo popular culture as another major actor in the story of the late Tokugawa Period. The emergence of urban popular culture among other more commonly cited factors—such as peasant uprisings, urban riots, famine, and other natural disasters—contributed to the collapse of the once rigorously controlled Tokugawa government.

A podcast of the June 2 lecture is available online.

Terasaki Center for Japanese Studies