BOOK REVIEW: Everyday Life in Imperial Japan by Charles Dunn

EverydayLifeImperialJapanEveryday Life In Imperial Japan by Charles J. Dunn

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This interesting little book is invaluable for anyone researching what life was like for people in Japan before the Meiji Restoration. While it’s an essential volume for a writer of historical fiction, those interested in Japan more generally will find it readable and packed with interesting tidbits of information. For example, I would recommend it for those who study traditional Japanese martial arts (i.e. kobudō)to get a better insight into the art they study through knowing the society from which it sprang.

This type of work is relatively rare, but is a writer’s dream come true. It’s not a history book, but–as the title implies–tells one how people of various classes and occupations lived day in and day out. That is, its approach is more anthropological than historical.

The range of occupations in Japan’s pre-modern period were far fewer than in society as we know it, and so the book takes broad job classes as its primary unit of organization. It begins with the group that undoubtedly draws the most interest, the samurai. It proceeds to the occupation which is most numerous in any pre-modern society, the farmers. Beyond that, it covers the lives of skilled craftsmen, merchants, courtiers, priests, doctors, intellectuals, actors and outcasts. The concluding chapter looks specifically at life in the city, and–in particular–life in Edo. Edo is the city that would become known as Tokyō, and which became the capital of the Shogunate in 1603 and eventually the nation’s capital.

Japan’s relative isolation throughout its early history has made for many intriguing national peculiarities. It’s true that Japan’s literary, religious, and philosophical systems were greatly influenced by China, but–in all cases–these cultural elements were forged into a uniquely Japanese form. This uniqueness provides many “ah-ha” moments while reading.

One learns why warriors were required to wear extra long hakama (a very billowy form of pleated pants that look like a long skirt–though having individual pant legs.)One learns about how one got around on the early highway system in a time when infrastructure (e.g. bridges) were minimal, and who was allowed to use the roads–such as the famous Tōkaidō road. The book tells how police went about arresting armed samurai. The roles played by women in society are discussed. While this was obviously a patriarchal society, women weren’t locked entirely outside the domain of power.

This was a feudal society with the samurai owning the land and the farmers toiling in hopes of having a little left over to support their families. While farmers made silk, they were, by law, not allowed to wear it. Farmers sometimes resorted to selling daughters to brothels to make ends meet.

There were many types of craftsmen from saké brewers to carpenters to makers of lacquer-wares. Japan has a long history of appreciation for master craftsmanship as is most apparent in sword-making. The Japanese sword was the cutting weapon perfected. Its folded steel design offered a flexible spine with a hard edge that could be honed to razor sharpness.

Merchants were a class that was both looked down upon and increasingly powerful during this period. Samurai were often barely making a living then, but merchants were beginning to flourish. Japan’s first indigenous money wasn’t introduced until 1636. Prior to that Chinese coins were used, much in the same way that some present-day countries use US dollars for currency–thus avoiding inflation that would be inevitable if they had their own currency and governance. There is an extensive discussion of the early sea trade.

Some of the most interesting careers were those more peripheral. Doctors practiced something akin to Traditional Chinese Medicine. There were wandering street performers and holy men of a wide variety.

I’d recommend this book for anyone interested in Japan’s history, and would call it indispensable for a writer addressing pre-Meiji Restoration Japan.

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