A Modern History of Japan: From Tokugawa Times to the Present

By Andrew Gordon | Go to book overview

2
Social and Economic Transformations

The formal status order of the Tokugawa system hardly changed for over two centuries. But this structure of political institutions rested on shifting socioeconomic ground. Two centuries of economic growth and social change eroded the boundaries between status groups and generated new tensions among the primary status groups of farmer and samurai. These tensions produced intense pressures for reform.

How intense? Was Tokugawa Japan a society on the verge of revolution by the early 1800s? Almost certainly not. In the absence of the turmoil generated by a renewed Western presence, the Tokugawa regime might well have endured for decades beyond the 1860s. But it is equally true that the reach and rapidity of the modernizing projects of the new Meiji regime owed much to gradual earlier changes in the cultural and socioeconomic spheres, as well as to growing calls for reform in late Tokugawa times. The chemistry of Japan's nineteenth-century revolution involved a powerful reaction between external catalysts and internal elements.


THE SEVENTEENTH-CENTURY BOOM

Cities throughout the Japanese islands were growing in size and number in the sixteenth century on the eve of the Tokugawa unification. Contending military rulers (the daimyō) fueled this urban growth by pulling their samurai warrior followers into semipermanent garrisons in castle towns. In addition to samurai, these towns were populated by service personnel: quartermasters, artisans, and traders clustered around the fortresses. 1

But the fortunes of the daimyō waxed and waned in the power struggles and warfare of the late 1500s. The foundation of these towns and their merchants was similarly shaky. Not until the Tokugawa regime consolidated its hold and gave new stability to the federated domains of the land did urban centers became more stable. When this happened in the seventeenth century, an unprecedented flourishing of cities and of commerce resulted. In most domains, the samurai become permanent citydwellers. Even a small domain's castle town would have about five thousand samurai residents, living on salaries and spending it all in the city.

A single innovation was most responsible for promoting both urbanization and the economic integration of separate domain economies with Osaka and Edo. This

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