1700s and the Rise of the Merchant Class (Society)
We can assume that given the period and the staunch leadership of the time that evolution of this period would be slow and carefully watched. Ironically this can often be witnessed even in modern day Japan, that is a turtle crawl approach to change and new thinking (comparatively to the western democratic countries). We are discussing another full century and really it was a long winding movement towards the rise of the Merchant class. This period while deep in the shogunate rule also created the first Metropolis arguably in the world, that being Edo aka Tokyo, with Kyoto and Osaka also coming into their own. One key thing to understand is while the Shogunate continued a tight grip on the mobility (outside of communities) and social order, the population reached a very high literacy rate as the creation of regional economies led to a surge in education for the masses. The Shogunate turned to Shintoism vs Buddhism as the Shinto ‘ways’ were more favorable to the ruling class. The Shinto religion being developed in Japan was a nationalistic way of ‘thought’ and became preferred to the imported ways of China and India.
A quick summary:
- Significant Rise of the Merchant class
- Highly educated and large city populations
- Shinto based nationalism develops and is allowed as portions serve the Shogunate’s leadership
Arts/Entertainment: With this rise in an urban lifestyle and incomes that reflect more abundance for pleasure a culture grew to meet these demands.The entertainment industry flourished with the ‘kabuki’ plays with trapdoors, revolving stages and simplified plots with colorful sets and costumes. The live theater scene was alive and booming and with this came all types of performances. Many kabuki actresses were barely distinguishable from prostitutes and often shows would conclude with what could be considered to be orgies on stage. With this new ‘entertainment’ and lack of a strict religious moral code and the printing press the other arts scenes also blossomed with new literature, poetry and painting. The popular books of the time were ‘choninmono’; stories of successful merchants or inspiring stories reflecting the rise in the new hidden power of tycoons, this laid the seeds for future industrial conglomerates such as Sumitomo and Mitsui. Other story categories were 'sharebon', with a lighthearted wit for the masses, romantic stories of the age known as 'yomihon' and the ever famous 'uikyo-zoshi' the r-rated versions which the main topic for consumption was lust and the exploits of the sexual world. With this last category mirrored in woodblock print as 'shunga' or pornography of the 1700s Japan. For the painting and calligraphy genre, this urban culture from Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto were the seeds for the most infamous art form known in international art circles from outside of Japan what is called ‘ukiyo-e’ or 'images of the floating world'. These images came to life in this period as the title may mislead the western concept of what a ‘floating world’ would look like. As westerners might think that this floating world would be depictions of heaven and living in the clouds as per the renaissance art of the same period would suggest.
Actually the ukiyo-e art depicted was a escape from the mundane life of the average citizen. It showed the ‘evanescent world, impermanent, fleeting beauty and a rhealm of entertainments…Asai Ryoi from his novel Tales of the Floating World would summarize it best.
…living only for the moment, turning our full attention to the pleasures of the moon, the snow, the cherry blossoms and the maple leaves; singing songs, drinking wine, diverting ourselves in just floating, floating; …refusing to be disheartend, like a gourd floating along with the river current: this is what we call the floating world.’
Interestingly as it fell out of favor with the Japanese at the end of the Meiji restoration many European artists found it to be of great inspiration including Vincent Van Gogh and Claude Monet.
- Wikipedia, ukiyo-e
For the painted art genre, three schools should be noted for this period. First as mentioned in the previous section on the 1600s, the Rimpa school, which can be identified by it’s extensive use of gold leaf backgrounds and bold imagery. Often these images were of traditional stories and tales from the previous periods including the Tales of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu.
Another style of note was ‘namban’, which was heavily influenced by the western methods and the depiction of the foreigner as the theme. Often this was limited to what the locals of Nagasaki actually had access to, as Nagasaki was the only place in the country that was open to foreign vessels.
Quick Summary of Japan Arts of the 1700s (as per our article)
- many new artforms blossomed under the new merchant class
- the propagation of the ‘ukiyoe-e’ floating world arts (the simple pleasures)
- three key schools of painted art, Rimpa (classic Japan), Namban (Foreign Influence), and Nanga or Bunjinga (Chinese Influence)
Sources: Discovering the Arts of Japan by Tsuneko S. Sadao, Stephanie Wada
A History of Japan by Kenneth Henshall
Wikipedia; Ukiyo-e, Nanga, Bunjinga