Amazing Facts About Japan - Edo Era

By Yasu Shimizu (Japan Luggage Express)

Tokyo about 200 years ago

Tokyo 200 to 400 years ago

1) Seventy to eighty-six percent of children in Edo (Tokyo) went to school circa 1850. This rate is significantly high because even in the industrialized big cities of England back then, only 20 to 25 percent of children went to school.

2) There were 550 public baths in Edo around 1860. Most people took a bath every day and many took them twice daily.

3) A samurai’s salary was paid not in cash but in rice.

4) One of the punishments for criminals (convicts) was to be sent to remote islands now known as Izu Seven Islands (popular today as a tourist destination), located south of Japan’s Main Island. However, because the islands were rich in nature, the climate was mild, and the people were humble and often helpful (they gave the criminals food, etc.), some convicts would not go back to Edo after they finished their terms. Some went back to the island after returning to Edo. There were some who even married local girls and settled down there. However, in some islands the situation was severe and some convicts starved to death.

5) There was a hierarchy system called Shi-nou-kou-shou. The highest in the hierarchy were the samurai, the next were farmers, the third craftsmen and the fourth merchants. In reality, the farmers suffered, as they were poor, but the Shogunate government’s purpose for placing farmers second in the hierarchy was to convince them that there were craftsmen and merchants who were lower in the hierarchy and therefore that the farmers must be patient with their situation. There were outcast classes as well.

6) In the beginning of the Edo era, samurais were allowed to kill someone in the other hierarchy for no reason, and even if they killed someone there was no punishment. However, in the mid Edo era, this was forbidden. They could get punished unless there was some reason to kill.

7) It was prohibited to grow facial hair in Edo Era. Tokugawa Shogunate government enforced the law of prohibiting growing facial hair when the 5th Shogun was in power. There were some exceptions and people such as doctors or retired men were allowed to grow facial hair.

8) People in Edo had many kinds of pets, such as cats, dogs and birds. Cats were most popular. There was a pet cemetery in Edo as well.

9) Sushi was a fast food. Edo had a large population of single men who came there as construction workers. They did not know how to cook well. Therefore, there was a high demand for food places and delicatessens. First sushi was invented in Tokyo, 200 years ago.

10) They used much more salt and soy sauce in everything in Edo than they did in the Kyoto area. As mentioned, most of the population in Edo were construction workers and they needed salt because they sweated. Even nowadays, people from Osaka or Kyoto say that foods, especially noodles, in Tokyo are too salty/strong for them to eat.

11) In the Edo era, the temporal hour system was used. Therefore, one hour in the summer was longer than one hour in the winter. The temporal hour system is a way of measuring time by dividing the daytime and nighttime first and then dividing the daytime and nighttime into certain numbers of hours. Daytime is longer during the summertime; therefore, one hour in summer was longer.

12) They had no equivalent for words such as “privacy” and “freedom”. Although they had a word for “time” as in “what *time* is it now”, i.e., time as in “certain time”, they did not have any words for time as in “duration of time” or “long time”.

13) Seventy percent of the population in Edo were men. Women accounted for only 30 percent. Most women got married between the ages of 15 and 18. It was considered an embarrassing thing for women to remain single after the age of 18. Men, on the other hand, normally did not have any opportunities to get married before the age of 25 because of their jobs. Mostly, they had to spend their entire time as servants to some business. If men worked for a relatively large retailing business or shop, most of them did not have the opportunity to marry before the age of 40. This inevitably ended up in what we now call an “age gap marriage”.

14) During the 267 years of Edo period –between 1601 and 1867, there were 49 cases of major fire. (The number is quite large as during the same period there were only 9 cases of major fire in Kyoto and only 5 in Osaka. There were 1798 cases of fire including those that were not considered as major fire in Edo during Edo Era. The death toll of the major fire in March, 1657 was 170,000. In those days as it was not possible to provide enough water to extinguish fire, the job of fire brigade was not to extinguish fire with water but to destroy the houses/buildings nearby to prevent further spread of fire. The character of Edo locals is often described with the expression, “It is no use to possess money to spend tomorrow.”, which means it is better to use all the money they have today because one may lose everything tomorrow because of fire. To them fire was a part of their daily lives and they considered it is something that could not be helped. Many people did not have much interest in owning things in their houses. Store or the houses of ordinary people were built in the way they were easy to be destroyed by the fire brigade at the time of fire. Some rich business owners used lumber dealer’s facility to store lumber enough to rebuild their shops in the event their building are destroyed in a fire.

15)In the Edo period, public baths were mixed. The Edo Shogunate temporarily banned mixed bathing because it was not good for public morals. However, the public bathhouse industry opposed the ban because of the high fuel costs of having separate bathhouses for men and women, and soon mixed bathing became the norm again.

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