“Pax Tokugawana: The Cultural Flowering of Japan, 1603-1853” by Toru Haga

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Few nations can boast eras of peace and prosperity as long as the Tokugawa period in Japan, which lasted almost 300 years from the 17th through 19th centuries. Pax Tokugawana: The Cultural Flowering of Japan, 1603-1853 by renowned Japanese studies professor Toru Haga offers a detailed and nuanced portrayal of life under the strict rule of the Tokugawa Shogunate, and how the peace established by the stringent policies of the ruling warrior class defined the zeitgeist of the era.

Relying on a wide variety of resources, including art, literature, and original records, Haga’s work bridges a variety of academic subjects, and would be of interest to those with backgrounds in history, art history, anthropology, natural history, literature or linguistics. The book is separated into five parts, each consisting of multiple essays written over the course of his distinguished career. As a result, some topics are brought up more than once, but are refreshed by being explored from a different angle or contextualized using different information. The style and focus of each essay varies greatly, with one sometimes discussing the history and composition of a single painting, and the next delving into the earliest portrayal of rhinos in Japanese print culture. In general, they all explain how material culture reflected, or evolved in response to, the culture in which it was created.

 

Pax Tokugawana: The Cultural Flowering of Japan, 1603-1853, Toru Haga, Juliet Winters Carpenter (trans) (Japan Library, March 2021)
Pax Tokugawana: The Cultural Flowering of Japan, 1603-1853, Toru Haga, Juliet Winters Carpenter (trans) (Japan Library, March 2021)

Japan entered into the Tokugawa (or Edo) period with the momentous Battle of Sekigahara in 1600 when the Tokugawa clan won a final, decisive victory over a coalition of warriors loyal to the ruling Toyotomi family. It would take several years before the former were able to consolidate power and establish a regime that has often been labelled as oppressive and totalitarian. Through such measures as the institution of an isolationist policy that prevented almost everyone from entering or leaving the country and efforts to censor politically subversive materials, their rule succeeded in preventing further regional military conflicts. The new nationwide stability made it easier for people to travel than it had been in centuries, and many flocked to cities (which were then among the largest in the world) in search of work, famous sites, or entertainment. The dynamics of the growing urban world were of particular interest to artists, who portrayed them in a wide variety of media.

In the introduction, the author initially compares the circumstances precipitating extended eras of peace and cultural development in both the nation of Japan and the Roman Empire. Since they were politically and temporally disparate, this mechanism does not suggest that the two histories developed in tandem so much as it puts them within an frame of reference familiar to a wider audience. This approach forces readers into thinking of Japan in a global context, which is necessary to understanding discussion of interactions between East and West in later chapters.

 

Pax Tokugawana is strongest when the author combines high resolution pictures and descriptive language to draw parallels between art from the Tokugawa period and the themes explored in each chapter. Many essays are accompanied by full images as well as zoomed-in details, acting as a magnifying glass to support Haga’s analysis. This approach is especially fascinating when the piece was copied one or more times, each iteration becoming a way to explore how the artists were putting their own spin on the same composition, the minute changes revealing how they were responding to their culture context. For instance, in the first chapter, three screens depicting life in urban centers during the Edo period differ widely in terms of the landmarks portrayed and the sorts of people included; in an earlier version the people from all walks of life are portrayed, but seems to be adhering to the activities/responsibilities of their allotted class (artisans, merchants, warriors, and peasants), whereas a later one shows that the lines between them had become blurred as Japanese culture was increasingly influenced by the culture of the “floating world”, a metaphysical space of popular entertainment, fashion, and other ephemeral pleasures.

Pax Tokugawana will fascinate anyone interested in the history of art or science in Asia. The very effective translation captures the voice of the mind of one of the world’s most eminent scholars of Japanese cultural history. The length of the chapters and the at times humorous tone makes it a manageable yet thoroughly educational read.


Fiona Collins is currently a postgraduate student researching Japanese art history and material culture at SOAS, University of London. She has a professional background in art preservation, and has worked in a variety of museums, libraries, and other cultural institutions.