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Six-fold screen

Six-fold screen; - The Battle of the Uji River by Tosa Mitsuyoshi, early 17th century. Museum no. E.3054-1910

Many objects in the V&A's collections come from the Edo period (1615 - 1868), a period of great significance in Japan's history. At the beginning of the seventeenth century, the country was unified under the Tokugawa family after years of civil unrest.

The following years were ones of unprecedented peace and prosperity, prompting an increase in artistic, cultural and social development. Although Japan remained a basically agrarian society, towns and cities grew and craft production flourished. Improved transport and communication networks meant that for the first time even the most remote areas had access to goods produced in other parts of the country.

Social structure in the Edo period

Edo period Japan was ruled by the Tokugawa family, with each successive head assuming the rank of Shogun. This was bestowed by the Emperor who, during the Edo period, was merely a figurehead and exercised no political authority. The Tokugawa shogonate created a strict 'four class' social order in order to stabilise the country . Below the shogun were the military lords of each province. Both shogun and lords were served by retainers called samurai who acted as soldiers and officials. The samurai followed a code of conduct called Bushido (The Way of the Warrior), which stressed the mastery of martial arts, frugality, loyalty, courage and honour unto death.  Tempered by Confucianism and Zen Buddhism, the samurai was expected to be educated, refined, honest and wise.

Model of The Yomei-mon gate the The Tomb of Shogun Ieyasu Tokugawa at Nikko. Japan, 1875 - 1900. Museum no. W.5-1918

Model of The Yomei-mon gate the The Tomb of Shogun Ieyasu Tokugawa at Nikko. Japan, 1875 - 1900. Museum no. W.5-1918

Below the military were three other main social groups. Next in social standing were peasants, the main producers of the rice crop that was taxed to support the needs of the ruling class. Below the farmers in status were the artisans and craftworkers who produced non-agricultural goods. In the lowest social group were merchants who were not directly involved with production.

Though this social division was based on the Confucian concept of the natural order of society, it became increasingly inconsistent with social realities. Many merchants benefited from Japan's peace and prosperity and became extremely rich, yet the strict social hierarchy prevented them from using their wealth to improve their status or acquire political power in an overt fashion. Instead they often channelled their money into social ritual, the pursuit of pleasure and the acquisition of beautiful and often expensive objects.

A period of isolation

Tankard of lacquer on wood with inlaid mother-of-pearl. Japan, 17th century. Museum no. FE.23-1982

Tankard of lacquer on wood with inlaid mother-of-pearl. Japan, 17th century. Museum no. FE.23-1982

It was in the sophisticated urban centres that some of the most important cultural developments of this period occurred. The greatest growth was in Edo (modern Tokyo), the city established by the first Tokugawa shogun as his new capital. By 1720 Edo had more than a million inhabitants.

Between 1633 and 1639 the Tokugawa shogunate, dismayed by the bitter rivalry among the few Europeans in Japan and the zealous work of Catholic missionaries, made an attempt to reduce foreign influence by expelling foreigners and forbidding all contact with the outside world. Exceptions were made for trade with the Chinese and Koreans, which was strictly controlled, and with the Dutch East India Company, which was permitted to operate only from the port of Nagasaki. The Japanese people were forbidden to travel abroad or to build ocean-going ships.

Despite these limitations large quantities of ceramics and lacquer were exported to Holland and from there sold to the rest of Europe. Such wares were made specifically for the western market and were immensely popular in European aristocratic circles in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In Japan there was a fascination with 'exotic' things from the West and a growing interest in western science and arts

The end of isolation

Tachi (sword), mounted in an ivory scabbard (detail). Museum no. 1708-1888

Tachi (sword), mounted in an ivory scabbard (detail). Museum no. 1708-1888

The period of self-imposed national isolation came to a dramatic end in 1853 when four American battleships arrived in Edo Bay. The US demanded that it be allowed to trade with Japan, with the result that ports were slowly re-opened to foreigners. In 1868 external pressure combined with growing internal unrest and led to the overthrow of the Tokugawa shogun and the restoration of the Meiji Emperor.

The new government realized that the only way in which Japan would be able to compete with the military and industrial might of the West was to transform itself along western lines. Japan modernized rapidly during the Meiji period (1868-1912) and this affected all aspects of life. In terms of arts, craft and design, western production methods were adopted and large numbers of goods were produced to respond to the growing western taste for Japanese objects.


The main periods of Japanese history are named after the places where successive capital cities were established. After 1868, the periods were named after the emperor, and this continues today.

794 -1185     Heian period The capital moved to Heian
(modern Kyoto)  in 794
898 -1185  Later Heian period  
1185 - 1336 Kamakura period Named after the first military
government which was established
at Kamakura, located approximately
30 miles south-west of Edo
(modern Tokyo)
1336 - 1573 Muromachi period The political centre returned to Kyoto
1573 - 1615 Azuchi - Momoyama period Momoyama was where the great general
Hideyoshiset up a
magnificent palace
1615 - 1868 Edo period Edo period - the Tokugawa family of
shoguns ran a strictly feudalistic military
government based in Edo (modern Tokyo)
1868 - 1912 Meji period The authority of the emperor was
restored under the Meji family; feudal
government was abolished
 Post - 1912 Modern period From 1912 Japan continued its
transformation into a modern,
industrialised, democratic country


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