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|
|To read more about masks see The-Noh|
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