It’s Tuesday and I got to the Ryōgoku Kokugikan stadium two days too late – the sumo season ended on Sunday. You might think nothing of this, but I grew up watching episodes on the lives of sumo wrestlers with my dad almost every, single, weekend as a kid growing up.
Musashimaru (sumo wrestler on the left) is a figure I long remember and to see an almost life-sized picture of him just along the Ryogoku station earlier in the evening filled me with excitement (this despite the fact that Musashimaru-san actually retired in 2003). But it was not meant to be and since there was no sumo action to be caught, I decided to head over to the Edo-Tokyo Museum.
Located just next to the famed sumo wrestling stadium in Sumida, one of Tokyo’s 23 wards, the museum chronicles the history of the Edo period, established by the shogun (General or Commander) Ieyasu Tokugawa in the 17th century and lasting till 1868, when the Meiji Restoration brought the emperor back into power and ended feudalism in Japan.
The museum captures – in the form of articles, artefacts, illustrations and re-eneactments – what life was like during those 250 years, as Edo became the new centre of Japan. Before this period, Kyoto had been the capital of the country.
There was a separate floor of the permanent exhibition – which explained bushido or the life of the samurai warriors, Japan’s eventual easing of its isolationist policy at the end of the Edo era and the start of its exposure to westernisation, but I didn’t have enough time to finish the entire exhibit.
I won’t bore you with too many historical details, though so many things here were interesting to look at. I was struck particularly by the Japanese wood block printing style known as ukiyo-e, where various woodblocks used to imprint different colours of a single image were then pressed on paper.
The museum also served as a fascinating means of understanding longstanding cultural facets of the Japanese that continue to prevail today.
Chief among them was a strong sense of communalism and an unbending adherence to public order. Under the Tokugawa shugunate, hierarchy penetrated almost all layers of an individual’s life – his social standing, his employment, the location of his house, options for entertainment, and in the case of the 300-odd daimyo or feudal lords, even who to marry. Common toilets and baths were, well, common (no wonder no one bats an eyelid at the public bath here in my sharehouse).
Social norms were also tightly regulated – the Edo period was a time of heightened isolation from the rest of the world and it’s interesting that in spite of this, the Tokugawa era was also when the arts, popular culture and a class of intellectuals thrived – the performance art of kabuki and ukiyo-e printing developed greatly during this period.
I did a bit of reading up after the visit to the museum and it seems the era’s isolationist policies mentioned earlier – which included the banning of all foreign books and limited contact with the outside world save with the Chinese, Koreans and the Dutch from the late 1600s – fuelled an even stronger sense of nationalism. If anything, the Edo period has given me a beginner’s understanding into the complex and perhaps even hardened perceptions that many Japanese have had towards foreigners in previous years. Has all of this changed today? My understanding of the country’s nuances and complexities are too shallow for me to even attempt to make an informed conclusion, right now at least.
History is nothing new, but it always helps to frame perspectives. Tokyo today holds similarly to a lot of the values that were deeply ingrained during the Edo period – but so much has also changed – individualism has crept in and the country is struggling to arrest its economic slump using Abenomics.
The easing of immigration policies, among other solutions, has been regarded as an important tool to encourage long-term growth, though how and to what extent this will actually be executed has long been a matter of debate. But that’s a whole other story for another day.
The Edo Tokyo museum, for a first-time visitor to Japan like me, provides a great backgrounder and a starting point from which to understand and analyse the history, culture and politics of this fascinating nation.
I’ll be back to finish that second floor, for sure.