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Daily Life In Early Modern Japan

Book Review

Daily Life In

Early Modern Japan

By Louis G. Perez

In the past ten years it is remarkable how sophisticated the material concerning Japan has become. Previously, it was disheartening to see how many misconceptions about the country and its culture were disseminated. It was reminiscent of that benighted time years ago when Mount Fuji was referred to as “Fujiyama.” (“Fuji” being the proper name of the mountain and “yama” the generic word in Japanese for “mountain.” But this is a puerile way of rendering the name.) Research appearing today in English is as refined and authoritative as anything produced in Japan itself.

A case in point is Daily Life In Early Modern Japan by Louis G. Perez. Here is what the author has to say about the work in the Introduction:

This study has two primary purposes. The first is to examine the neglected “everyday Japan” of its common people. The idea is to capture a flavor of “nonelite” people and attempt to recapture what the ordinary life of everyday Japanese was like. In so doing, I wish to examine what the common people did in their normal lives. What were their lives like? How did they live? What did they eat? What tools did they use? What was “normal” and “natural” for them? We have a better (though still imperfect) idea of what the social, political, and economic elite did in their lives through governmental documents and through their diaries and letters. The lower classes, as defined by the Neo-Confucian ethos employed by the government, constituted perhaps 95 percent of the population, yet we know very little of the lives of peasants, artisans, and petty merchants except what the elites tell us about them. The primary goal here, then, is to give voice to the common man and woman in eighteenth-century Japan.

My second goal is to capture Japan in its most natural and normal state―that is to say, to study Japan before it became “modern,” or, more properly, “Western.” The question of when Japan became a distinct and unique society has long been debated. Many have argued that Japan absorbed a Chinese cultural paradigm in the sixth century and then spent the next millennium adapting it to its own reality. Then, in the mid-nineteenth century, Japan sloughed off that Chinese influence, as if it were merely an outer garment, to be replaced by a new Western paradigm. When, then, was Japan most “Japanese”? … I believe that the best way to see Japan at the height of its uniqueness is to examine the eighteenth century.



Perez then goes on to offer a perceptive analysis of the history of Japan and its culture. He briefly recaps the history of Japan up to the eighteenth century before examining the country in depth during that period. However, even this summary is expertly presented and filled with unusual insights. For instance, Shōtoku Taishi, the imperial prince and regent who officially introduced Confucian and Buddhist ethics to the country in the sixth century, is described as Japan’s first boddhisatva, or enlightened soul who postpones nirvana for himself to help others attain salvation. Perez elaborates on this to say that magnificent temples were built all over the country to give Buddhism legitimacy among the people and to act as a form of political control.

Moving on to the main theme of the book, the following chapters cover the Population, Governance, Religion, Language, Time, Food, Clothing, Buildings, Village Life, Cities, Rural Work, Urban Work, Cottage Industries, Nightsoil, Trade, Customs, Family, Sex, Women, Amusements, Chōnin [merchants and residents of the cities] Amusements and Travel. Each chapter is approximately five to twenty pages and covers the topic in depth. For instance, the Governance chapter begins by explaining the elaborate system of administration that Tokugawa Ieyasu put in place in the early seventeenth century and then goes on to explain its ramifications in the eighteenth.

The chapter on “Buildings” is the longest at 28 pages. This is not surprising when one considers the unusual nature of Japanese history. There is information conveyed here that goes back two millennium. During that time, there were all sorts of palaces and temples built, as well as houses for farmers and merchants. But Japan also went through a lengthy feudal period, so there were numerous castles erected as well. And along with castles came the supporting services that arose in the surrounding area.

That includes “red light districts.” Japanese society has always been free of social stigmatization regarding the sex trade and in the “Sex” chapter that matter is explored. The Yoshiwara section of Tōkyō was actually set up for the citizens of the city, but samurai also would sneak in to enjoy themselves despite government strictures against it. Hoods were supplied at the entrances to Yoshiwara so that the samurai could hide their topknots, and there were rooms where their swords could be checked. “Early Modern Japan” is filled with such trivia.

The only criticism that might be raised concerns the inconsistent rendering of Japanese terms. Ōsaka is always presented with the long “Ō,” but Tōkyō is always spelled “Tokyo” and Kyōto as “Kyoto.” And sometimes words (such as “daimyō” = “warlord”) are rendered with long vowels in one place and as regular vowels elsewhere, at times even in the same paragraph! This might seem somewhat irrelevant, but the book features a glossary of Japanese terms, so if one is going to go to the trouble of assembling that information, one would assume that care would be taken over the correct presentation.

However, this is a minor point. If one is interested in a detailed account of everyday life in Japan before it entered the modern age, this is an excellent book to start with.

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