Jan 312016


Today is the birthday (1543) of Tokugawa Ieyasu (徳川 家康), the founder and first shogun of the Tokugawa shogunate of Japan, which virtually ruled Japan from the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600 until the Meiji Restoration in 1868. Ieyasu seized power in 1600, received appointment as shogun in 1603, abdicated from office in 1605 (a formal norm), but de facto remained in power until his death in 1616. His given name is sometimes spelled Iyeyasu, according to the historical pronunciation of he. Ieyasu was posthumously enshrined at Nikkō Tōshō-gū with the name Tōshō Daigongen (東照大権現).


Ieyasu is famed as the founder of the Edo period (江戸時代) or Tokugawa period (徳川時代), in Japan, the period between 1603 and 1868 in the history of Japan, when Japanese society was under the rule of the Tokugawa shogunate and the country’s 300 regional daimyo. The period was characterized by economic growth, strict social order, isolationist foreign policies, a stable population, popular enjoyment of well known arts and culture, recycling of materials, and sustainable land and forest management. It was both a sustainable and self-sufficient society which was based on the principles of the highly practical management of finite resources. The shogunate was officially established in Edo on March 24, 1603, by Tokugawa Ieyasu. The period came to an end with the Meiji Restoration on May 3, 1868, after the fall of Edo.


In many ways, foreigners think of the culture of the Edo period as “traditional” Japanese culture — after a long period of inner conflict, the first goal of the newly established Tokugawa government under Ieyasu was to pacify, and stabilize, the country. It created a balance of power that remained (fairly) stable for the next 250 years, influenced by Confucian principles of social order. Most samurai lost their direct possession of the land: all land ownership was concentrated in the hands of about 300 daimyo. The samurai had a choice: give up their swords and become peasants, or move to the city of their feudal lord and become paid retainers. Only a few landed samurai remained in the border provinces of the north, or as direct vassals of the shogun — the 5,000 so-called hatamoto. The daimyo were put under tight control of the shogunate. Their families had to reside in Edo; the daimyo themselves had to reside in Edo for one year and in their provinces (han) for the next. This system was called sankin kōtai. This practice ended internecine wars among the daimyo.

The individual had no legal rights in Tokugawa Japan. The family was the smallest legal entity, and the maintenance of family status and privileges was of great importance at all levels of society. For example, the Edo period penal laws prescribed “non-free labor” or slavery for the immediate family of executed criminals in Article 17 of the Gotōke reijō (Tokugawa House Laws), but the practice never became common. The 1711 Gotōke reijō was compiled from over 600 statutes promulgated between 1597 and 1696. (Click the graphic to see the full social order).


During the Tokugawa period, the social order, based on inherited position rather than personal merits, was rigid and highly formalized. At the top were the Emperor and Court nobles (kuge), together with the Shogun and daimyo. Below them the population was divided into four classes in a system known as mibunsei (身分制): the samurai on top (about 5% of the population) and the peasants (more than 80% of the population) on the second level. Below the peasants were the craftsmen, and even below them, on the fourth level, were the merchants. Only the peasants lived in the rural areas. Samurai, craftsmen and merchants lived in the cities that were built around the daimyo’s castles, each restricted to their own quarter.

Outside the four classes were the so-called eta and hinin, those whose professions broke the taboos of Buddhism. Eta were butchers, tanners and undertakers. Hinin served as town guards, street cleaners, and executioners. Other outsiders included the beggars, entertainers, and prostitutes. The word eta literally translates to “filthy” and hinin to “non-humans”, a thorough reflection of the attitude held by other classes that the eta and hinin were not even people. Hinin were only allowed inside a special quarter of the city. Other limitations on the Hinin included disallowing them from wearing robes longer than knee-length and the wearing of hats. Sometimes eta villages were not even printed on official maps. A sub-class of Hinin who were born into their social class had no option of mobility to a different social class whereas the other class of Hinin who had lost their previous class status could be reinstated in Japanese society. In the 19th century the umbrella term burakumin was coined to name the eta and hinin because both classes were forced to live in separate village neighborhoods. The eta, hinin and burakumin classes were officially abolished in 1871. Their cultural and societal impact, including some forms of discrimination, continued, however, into modern times.

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Edo period cuisine is seen by many outsiders as “classic” Japanese food. It represents the height of sustainability – vegetables, pickles, rice, and fish. Livestock cultivation was largely forbidden. Even tofu was considered decadent and highly prized. Tofu, also known as bean curd, is made by coagulating soy milk and then pressing the resulting curds into soft white blocks. Tofu originated in Han dynasty China some 2,000 years ago. Tofu and its production technique were introduced into Japan during the Nara period (710–794). The spread of tofu throughout Asia probably coincided with the spread of Buddhism because it is an important source of protein in the vegetarian diet of East Asian Buddhism.

Tofu has a low calorie count and relatively large amounts of protein. It is high in iron, and depending on the coagulants used in manufacturing (e.g. calcium chloride, calcium sulfate, magnesium sulfate), it can have higher calcium or magnesium content.

Tofu is incredibly versatile and amenable to all manner of flavorings. One of my favorite snacks from Japan is to warm it in dashi (bonito broth) and serve it topped with a sweet soy based paste. This was my breakfast this morning:


But have at it. Serve it in miso soup, casseroles, fried, with vegetables – you name it.

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Jun 212013

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Today is the birthday (1730) of Motoori Norinaga (本居 宣長) often considered the most influential scholar of Kokugaku (Japanese Studies) in the Edo period (1603 – 1868) when Japan was ruled by the Tokugawa shoguns.  The Edo period was a time of political stability, national isolation, economic expansion, rigid social control, and artistic development.  What many Westerners think of as “typically Japanese” culture evolved in the Edo period.  The contemporary version of sushi, for example, was created at this time.

Norinaga was born in what is now Matsusaka in Ise Province into a wealthy merchant family.  With the death of his father and elder brother, Norinaga became the head of the family’s merchant house and was expected to run the business.  But he was more inclined to intellectual pursuits and showed little aptitude for business.  So, at age 22, his mother sent him to Kyoto to study medicine which was more suited to his temperament. Although medicine was less prestigious than the life of a merchant, it gave Norinaga time to read and absorb classic literature (as well as partying more than a little, as evidenced by a stern note from his mother advising him to cut back on the sake).  At this time Japanese intellectual life was dominated by Chinese ideologies, and ancient Japanese literature was poorly understood because changes over time in Japanese language had made the classics hard to read.  They needed detailed commentary and careful study to be properly interpreted.  Alongside his medical studies Norinaga was a student of several renowned Kokugaku scholars whilst in Kyoto.

At age 28 Norinaga returned to Matsusaka to practice pediatrics (which he did until 10 days before his death). Although having to devote much of his time to his patients, he was able to read and absorb the Japanese classics on his own.  He had a small study on the second floor of his house which had once been a tea room. Because of his love of bells he called the room, Suzu-no-ya (Room of Bells). He always pulled up the ladder to Suzu-no-ya so that he could study without interruption.

Norinaga was greatly inspired by the works of Kamo no Mabuchi and in 1763 was able to meet him in person for one night – now known romantically as “the night in Matsusaka” because they reputedly talked all night. The two never met again but corresponded frequently. Mabuchi supervised what was to become Norinaga’s greatest work, his annotations of the classic Kojiki (Records of Ancient Matters). Norinaga took the view that the heritage of ancient Japan, to be admired and emulated, was one of natural spontaneity in feelings and spirit, and that imported Confucianism ran counter to such natural feelings. For Norinaga true Japanese consciousness was embodied in the concept of mono no aware Mono means “things” and aware means “deep feeling.” For Norinaga poetry and literature had no other purpose than to evoke deep feelings (not to instill moral, or religious or intellectual values).

Norinaga’s life work was to strip Japanese culture of outside influences, notably Chinese, and return to what he considered to be a uniquely Japanese way of living.  As such he wrote in the ancient Japanese poetic style known as waka (as opposed to the up and coming haiku form).  He wrote over 10,000 waka, hundreds of which were devoted to cherry trees, his passion.  He brushed the following on a self portrait (pictured).

Shikishima no
Yamato gokoro wo
Hito towaba
Asahi ni niou

Asked about the soul of Japan,
I would say
That it is
Like wild cherry blossoms
Glowing in the morning sun.

Norinaga died on September 29, 1801 at the age of seventy-one. Publication of his 44 volume commentary on Kojiki had begun 16 years earlier, and took another 21 to complete. It is an unrivalled masterpiece. He was buried on top of Mt. Yamamuro, eight kilometers from the center of Matsusaka, in accordance with the will he had written the year before. Also in the will he requested a Buddhist funeral, but a Shintoist grave. “The grave should be seven shaku (2.1 meters) square. Make a mound slightly behind the center of the square, and plant a cherry tree on top of it.”

There are many sweet confections sold in Matsusaka in honor of Norinaga, some, such as Yamazakura and Suzu Monaka (pictured), in the shape of the bells he loved.  These, however, are best left to professionals.  Instead my recipe for the memory of Norinaga is a simple dish of fried tofu in broth, agedashi tofu, which comes from a cookbook of the Edo period (modified for the modern kitchen). The broth is traditionally made of three parts dashi (made from seaweed and bonito flakes), one part mirin (sweet rice wine), and one part Japanese soy sauce.  You can get all the necessary ingredients in Japanese markets or online.  If you are not up for making dashi, an instant (powdered) version is an acceptable and quick substitute.  Most times when you get agedashi tofu in Japanese restaurants in the U.S. and Europe the “broth” has been thickened with sugar and cornstarch.  This recipe is more loyal to Edo period style.

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Agedashi tofu


1 block firm tofu
corn starch for dredging
flavorless oil for deep frying
daikon (Japanese white radish) shavings
green onion chopped
1 cup (2.4 dl) dashi
2 tbsp (30 ml) soy sauce
2 tbsp (30 ml) mirin


Heat the dashi, soy sauce, and mirin in a small saucepan to just below the boiling point and keep warm.

Heat the oil in a deep fryer to 350°F (175°C).

Drain the tofu and pat it dry with paper towels.  Cut it into bite sized cubes.

Put the cornstarch in a shallow bowl and thoroughly coat all sides of the tofu cubes.

Deep fry the tofu a few at a time until they are golden.  Drain on wire racks.

Divide the broth among 4 bowls and then place 4 to 6 tofu pieces in each.

Top with daikon shavings and chopped green onion.

Serves 4

Ichiban Dashi
(Measurements here are deliberately approximate and can be varied according to taste.)


4 cups (9.6 dl) water
1 strip kombu (dried kelp)
1 handful of loosely packed katsuobushi (dried bonito flakes)


Place the water and the kombu in a pot and let the kombu soak for about 15 minutes.

After soaking, heat the water and kombu over medium heat until just below boiling.

Remove the pot from the heat and add the katsuobushi, scattering it over the surface of the water loosely.

When the katsuobushi sinks (3 to 4 minutes) strain the broth using a coffee filter or several layers of cheesecloth to be sure the resultant liquid is clear.

The dashi can be used immediately or stored in the refrigerator for up to 4 days.