The period of Japanese cultural history reaching roughly from the sixteenth to the seventeenth centuries is often compared to Renaissance Europe, while some authorities have preferred instead a comparison with the so-called "Medieval Renaissance" of the thirteenth century. But comparisons between Japan and Europe, which differ radically in culture as well as in their political and economic conditions, are dangerous in the extreme, especially when they consist simply of setting one group of data down alongside the other.
The four or five decades from about the middle of the fifteenth century down to the early part of the sixteenth saw certain developments in Japan which completely altered the face both of Japanese society and of Japanese culture. In the political sphere, this was the period during which the foundations were laid for the system of feudal society which was to dominate Japan for several centuries to follow, and this establishment of feudalism meant that every political vestige of the earlier stages of Japanese society had to be destroyed.
Elsewhere in the society there were also far-reaching changes. The Buddhist church, grown fat and rich over centuries of a continuous tradition of faith, was soon to have its claws pared. In its place Japan was to see the cult of Confucianism growing into a position of greater and greater prominence. In Confucianism Japan was to have a system that, at least compared to Buddhism, placed a relatively high value upon a rational approach to the things of daily life and its experiences.
Nor was this all. Commerce and communications were opened with Europe, notably with Portugal, and soon trade was flourishing. As commerce of this sort began to hit its real stride, the economic influence and position of the persons most concerned with it were of course also enhanced. These persons were of the officially despised class of commoners, and their growing economic position tended more and more to give them a zest and an enthusiasm for living that they had conspicuously lacked up to this time. Their economic liberation, for that is what really transpired, brought about an amazingly sudden development in the arts, reaching out eventually into every imaginable area of creative activity in Japan.
The Japanese Renaissance, then, if we are to admit that one took place, centered around several different phenomena. All were important and interconnected, but each produced different developments in the arts.
We have already mentioned most of the important factors; they may be summed up as the denial of the tradition of the past, the establishment of a new feudal state, the development of trade, and finally the economic liberation of the lower classes. The present volume is concerned with a fairly detailed presentation of the changes and developments in the arts which these Renaissance-causing factors brought about; but before they can be inspected in detail a closer look at the social situation which brought them about is necessary.
We began above by simply referring to the period from the sixteenth to the first part of the seventeenth century as if it formed a naturally demarcated unit, but this of course is far from the fact. There are major differences between the fairly neat divisions into periods and eras which we can make in more or less routine historical investigation and those necessary in a general cultural history, especially one that attempts to include something about the fine arts. If our point of view were merely that of the general historian, it would be simple . . .