Monday, July 1, 2013

From Decades of War to Decadence for Warriors

Tokugawa Ieyasu truly was the ultimate warrior.  He was able to unite Japan in the early 1600s after decades upon decades of fighting between competing warlords.  He did this with a combination of strategic alliances, patient planning, and fierce loyalty to his family name.  Ieyasu's rise to power was his life's work and he built a military empire that was meant to last with strict structures and social classes in place.

Government and Social Hierarchy
The Tokugawa shogunate was a huge bureacracy, but unlike the inefficient double-dipping politicians we think of when bureaucracy is mentioned in the present day, the Tokugawa regime had a clear system of authority and everyone knew their role.  Most never questioned the authority of the shogun.  Society was divided into 5 classes, with the two at the top being of samurai stock and education.  Ieyasu himself defined the levels of society best as documented in the early seventeenth century:
…the 
true 
master 
of 
the 
way 
of 
the 
warrior 
is 
one who maintains his 
martial 
discipline
 even 
in
 time
 of 
peace.
...the 
farmer’s toil 
is 
proverbial ...He
 selects
 the 
seed
 from
 last 
fall’s
 crop,
 and 
undergoes 
various 
hardships 
and 
anxieties 
through 
the 
heat 
of 
the summer 
until 
the seed
 grows 
finally to
 a
 rice
 plant.
...The 
rice 
then becomes the 
sustenance 
for the 
multitudes.
...the 
artisan’s occupation 
is to 
make and
 prepare 
wares and
 utensils 
for the
 use
 of 
others.
...the 
merchant 
facilitates 
the 
exchange
 of 
goods so
 that
the
 people 
can 
cover 
their 
nakedness
 and
 keep
 their 
bodies 
warm.
…
Social/economic/political roles were clearly defined.  There was little room for conflict.  Since the warrior-elite had few battles to fight in Tokugawa Japan, the samurai spent their time "maintaining their martial discipline" as Ieyasu prescribed (in theory at least) and patronizing the arts.

Drama and Theater
Noh had a long history in Japan before the Tokugawa government came to be.  But it gained status once Hidetada, Ieyasu's son and successor, made it law that Noh was one of the official arts of the shogunate.  Performance troops were licensed and Noh gained popularity among both elites and commoners.  The Noh stage is simple and there are no large set props.  The actors, chorus, and musicians appear on stage together.  The music is simplified, like the set, so that the message can be conveyed through nuances in words and music.

Noh Stage from The-Noh
Noh theater is perhaps most well-known for its masks.  There are several categories such as elders, demons, men, women, and spirits.  Within each category, there are specific eye shapes, nose sizes, and expressions that are meant to show the audience about the nuanced background of each character on stage.
To read more about masks see The-Noh
Noh is reserved, detailed, and simple so that the distractions are stripped away.  It follows the philosophy of the elite in Edo, Japan.  Kabuki was in stark contrast.

Kabuki performers were eccentric, flamboyant, and were undoubtedly outcasts of the strict structure of Tokugawa society.  The art form was seen as counter cultural by the shogunate and was therefore suppressed and limited to certain districts of big cities, much like prostitution.  But, since merchants were still socially inferior even though they were becoming economically superior to even some samurai, it was a perfect way to spend money in a way that reflected their frustration with their lot in life.  The video below provides a 4 and a half minute introduction to the art form.

Kabuki was created by a Shinto priestess, but today only males can be performers and play both male and female characters on stage. It was created to express the frustration of the lower classes with the strict rules of society in 1603, just as the Tokugawa regime was establishing peace and setting nonnegotiable guidelines to live by.  Kabuki actors wear elaborate colorful make up, a noticeable difference from the bland masks what emphasize shape and expression over color on a Noh stage.
Actors use distinctive shadow painting.
Theater for All
The two types of theater are reflective of the two types of society under the Tokugawa regime.  Commoners lived very differently from the elite.  Warriors were without a war and were enjoying the arts that high society had to offer, including Noh.  Commoners were toiling and paying taxes and needed their own artistic outlet.  Kabuki was perfect.  Using the arts to teach about a culture and society is a great way to give students a more complete picture of a people they know little about.

This post is a reflection based on the author's coursework through Primary Source in an online class called Japan and the World.
For other arts that reflected Japan's society in this era:
Experience Chanoyu: The Japanese Art of Tea
The Floating World of Ukiyo-e and How to Read a Woodblock Print
Basho, Master of the Haikai and Haiku Forms