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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