Humanities 210 MIC/WIC- Cora Agatucci
Cultures & Literatures of Asia

Japan Timeline 3:
Tokugawa and Modern Japan
(17th - mid-20th c.)

Asian Timelines Table of Contents Literary & Cultural History
Learn more about selected Japanese topics by clicking the links embedded in these timelines.
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The timeline pages are under construction and probably always will be...

Tokugawa (Edo) Period 1600 -1868

1603 Tokugawa Shogunate: Tokugawa Ieyasu establishes 14 generations of Tokugawa Shoguns. The capital is moved to Edo (modern Tokyo). Tokugawa (or Edo) period is characterized by strong centralized rule, relative peace and stability. See Tokugawa Japan.
1609-1614 Christianity banned in Japan, as force weakening Japanese loyalty and cultural integrity. Christian revolt suppressed, leading to persecution of Japanese Christian minority.
1635 - 1638 Japanese travel and trade abroad is banned, and Japan is essentially closed to foreign visitors: Japan moves into self-imposed isolation, though interested in Western guns, ships and technology.
1640s Dutch capture Malacca from Portuguese; Dutch in Japan confined to Deshima Island community, off Nagasaki. Japan increasingly rejects "barbarian" foreign influences and falls behind Western technology & organizational development, but indigenous arts and literature flourish and Japanese commerce and manufacturing revive. Deshima Island, a "bustling port which over the centuries has played host to Chinese, Dutch, English and American trading vessels," "for 250 years between 1632 and 1854 served as Japan's only official link to the outside world" (from Teaching & Learning about Japan).

1755 - 1757

Dutch conquer Portuguese areas of Ceylon (modern Sri Lanka)

Dutch established as paramount power in Java.

Genroku Period Arts 1688-1704

With the establishment of peace in 1603 under the Tokugawa clan, with its seat of government in Edo (present-day Tokyo), commerce flourished and towns developed. The thriving merchant class of the Genroku era stimulated the development of a distinctively bawdy and worldly drama, art, and fiction. The general flowering of Kabuki and puppet theater, art prints from the ukiyo (floating world), and renewed interest in poetry and narrative fiction of the Genroku era created from movements and tastes often radically different in character from the literature and arts of the preceding period and were viewed with suspicion by the government.

Theater! Kabuki! (KA = song; BU = dance; KI = ability/skill)  

Kabuki "originated in Kyoto with new kinds of dances performed by a woman named Okuni in the early 1600s. These became highly popular, and Okuni was imitated by other actresses and actors. But the Japanese government, deciding that the performances were immoral, decreed in 1629 that women could no longer appear on the stage. Women's roles were taken over by men, and this practice continues in modern Kabuki" (An Introduction to The Grand Kabuki Theater. But see Nagoya Musume Kabuki ("Daughters of Kabuki"). The Genroku Period "was...the time when most of the conventions and stylizations of Kabuki, including play structure, character types, the art of the onnagata, took form." "Originally, the word was a verb --kabuku-- which meant something like "to stand at an angle," "to be off balance" or "lean to one side." This gave rise to its use as a term to refer to a person who was unusual, off beat and unconventional. Unconventional, particularly since the social trends of the time looked with disfavor upon those who were excessive and unorthodox. That included extravagance in dress and behavior. Therefore, kabuki also connoted the perception of being "excessively fashionable" and "faddish," even "avant-garde.""The fact that it was created and developed during a period Japan was shut off from the rest of the world by the policies of the Tokugawa military government, which also restricted the freedom of theater in many ways, makes the conventions and stylizations difficult to understand for many non-Japanese."( Kabuki for Everyone in Taiwan: see the Photo Library.)
Kabuki Actors; The names of illustrious kabuki actors, like Danjuro Ichikawa, also become part of the theater tradition, taken on by their successors in later generations: "The first Danjuro Ichikawa was born in 1660 during the Edo period."
Kumadori: Kabuki Faces: "In addition to brilliant costumes, many styles of makeup are used. One such called kumadori, or "making shadows," is an art form in itself. In kumadori, white foundation is applied to the entire face, and one of a set of established colorful patterns is painted on. The two most common colors used are red, which denotes virtues such as bravery, strength, and justice, and dark blue, which expresses negative traits like jealousy and fear. Black, terra-cotta, bronze, and gold are common as well." --Noh and Kabuki, from the Asia Society's Video Letter from Japan: Living Arts (1988, p. 34) See a modern interpretation in close-up!
Kunijo Kabuki Ekotoba, An Illustrated Manuscript of Japanese Classical Play Kabuki- Kuni's Kabuki, (Kyoto Univ. Library), is "one of the most important and distinguished materials for the study of the Kabuki, a classical play in Japan, established at the opening of the Tokugawa period about 350 years ago." The illumination is an example of a Naraehon (Picture books edited in Nara) manuscript, because they were produced by a group of painters, Edokoro, at the Kasuga and other shrines in the city of Nara.

Ukiyoe  (Pictures of the Floating World)

Ukiyoe are paintings developed in the Edo or Tokugawa Period (1603-1867), most of which became widespread as woodblock prints. They began in the second half of the 17th century when Hishikawa Moronobu made a woodblock print to stand as one independent picture. See A Brief History of Japanese Prints (Shogun Gallery): "Japanese Woodblock Prints or Ukiyo·e (Pictures of the Floating World), came into being in the middle of the 17th Century, at the end of close to a century of feudal wars." The human subjects of ukiyoe--beautiful courtesans, kabuki actors and sumo wrestlers—closely associated them with the new and popular, but officially disapproved, form of theater kabuki. Famous among ukiyoe are the prints of beautiful women by Kitagawa Utamaro, Kabuki actors by Toshusai Sharaku. Ukiyoe also illustrated landscapes, especially those of Katsushika Hokusai, and the living conditions of the common people. In the 19th century, Van Gogh and the European Impressionists were influenced by ukiyoe art. See Painted screen of Women of Fashion at Leisure (early Edo/Tokugawa period, ca. 1600-1650); and Great Wave from Kanagawa from 36 Views of Mt. Fuji, by Katsushika Hokusai.

Theater! Bunraku!  

"The Japanese puppet show, known as bunraku, in which each puppet is operated by three men, requires a superior degree of skill in manipulation, and features elaborate forms of expression and superb artistry. In these respects, bunraku is a precious heritage of folk culture in which Japan can take justifiable pride."
A Brief Introduction to the History of Bunraku, evolving from a long tradition of ningyo-joruri, literally puppets and storytelling, can be dated from 1684, when Takemoto Gidayu set up his own theater in Osaka (by Matthew Johnson, B.A. Japanese, UCLA, currently residing in Japan, with a collection of Ukiyo-e woodblock prints, Otsu-e folk prints and pictures of Japanese dance worth a visit!--click the blue leaf.)

Edo (present-day Tokyo) developed its own distinct culture between 1603-1867. For example nagauta, long pieces sung with shamisen accompaniment, is Edo-originated, first emerging as a dance music for Kabuki theater, then developing and diversifying on a grand scale to incorporate Noh chant, Kyogen, folk songs, and then performed as storytelling, independent of dance, with only shamisen accompaniment. Kouta, or little ballads sung to finger-picked shamisen accompaniment, also derive from Edo period ha-uta (short love songs). Of much older origin are many min-yo (folk songs), some handed down for centuries, which express the collective life and emotions of the common people. Min-ya include rice-planting songs (taue-uta), tea-picking songs (chatsumi-uta), boat songs (funa-uta), featuring high notes, delicate melodies, drums, five-holed bamboo clarinets, and shamisen for accompaniment.
Courtesan reading a picture book, 0ne of the 167 girls depicted in Ehon seirô bijin awase, `Picture-book comparing the Beauties of the Green Houses' by Suzuki Harunobu. Five vols. (Edo, 1770) - Japanese Section, British Library Collections.

17th – 18th centuries: Haiku, a poem in 17 syllables derived from the opening verse of haikai (or comic linked verse), was perfected during the Tokugawa or Edo period. Haiku evolved from the earlier linked-verse form, the renga used extensively by Zen Buddhist monks in the 15th and 16th centuries. In the next 200 years, the verse form achieved its greatest popularity and success. Possibly the greatest Japanese aesthetic achievement in literature, haiku can be described as the distilled essence of poetry, and it reflects the influence of Zen, the form of Buddhism that prevailed in Japan at this time.

BASHO, pseudonym of MATSUO MUNEFUSA (1644-94), is considered the master of the haiku form. In his youth Basho was a samurai, but after 1666 he devoted his life to writing poetry. The structure of his haiku reflects the simplicity of his meditative life. When he felt the need for solitude, he withdrew to his basho-an, a hut made of plantain leaves (basho)—hence his pseudonym. Influenced by Zen Buddhism, Basho infused a mystical quality into much of his verse and attempted to express universal themes through simple natural images—from the harvest moon to the fleas in his cottage. This represents a departure from earlier haiku, which was treated as a literary game. A Zen Buddhist lay-priest, Basho took excursions to remote regions in the last ten years of his life, composing as the mood struck him, so that his poetry is set within travel accounts, the prose sections of which are also significant. These journeys provided more images to inspire his contemplative poetry. He is revered as the greatest of Japanese poets for his sensitivity and profundity and is particularly noted for the sensitive prose passages and haiku of his Oku-no-hosomichi (The Narrow Road to the Deep North, 1694; trans. 1966). See Basho's Narrow Road: Spring and Autumn Passages: Two Works by Matsuo Basho (Trans. Hiroaki Sato, Stonebridge Press announcement), with excerpts & images.

The close relationship between poetry and prose is well illustrated in the travel diaries of Basho, especially his posthumously published Oku no hosomichi, still read by most Japanese high school students and the poet’s tracks through remote regions of northern Japan followed by many contemporary Japanese as a literary pilgrimage. "Basho’s masterful prose is so finely wrought that in many passages it approaches the language of poetry itself." Basho moves in and out of lyric insights, forming the pattern of movement in much Japanese prose of the past and present. (J. Thomas Rimer in Hume 10-11).
Haiku is distinguished by its compression and suggestiveness. It consists of three unrhymed lines of five, seven, and five syllables. Traditionally and ideally, a haiku presents a pair of contrasting images, one suggestive of time and place, the other a vivid but fleeting observation. Working together, they evoke mood and emotion. The poet does not comment on the connection but leaves the synthesis of the two images for the reader to perceive. The haiku below by the poet Basho, considered to have written the most perfect examples of the form, illustrates this duality:

Now the swinging bridge
Is quieted with creepers …
Like our tendrilled life

Basho, like Sen-no-Rikyu, perfecter of the tea ceremony, aimed to achieve the aesthetic qualities of wabi and sabi in his haiku, a sense of quiet sadness in the mujo (transience) of life, an achieved oneness with nature expressed in suggestive, seasoned and refined simplicity, a rejection of gaudiness and a freedom from worldly human concerns.

In addition to Basho, important haiku poets include Yosa Buson, whose haiku express his experience as a painter; and Kobayashi Issa, a poet of humble origin, who drew his material from village life. Comic poetry, in a variety of forms, also flourished during the Edo period. The precise and concise nature of haiku influenced the early 20th-century Anglo-American poetic movement known as imagism. The writing of haiku is still practiced by thousands of Japanese who annually publish outstanding examples in the many magazines devoted to the art. For more see Haiku links (Yahoo); Introduction to International Haiku; Dhugal J. Lindsay's Haiku Universe, plus links to Renga/Renku and Tanka; and Otsuji on haiku


Fifty Three Stations of the Tokaido (Tokaido gojusantsugi), a stunning series of woodcuts.The Tokaido "('Eastern Sea Route') was the main coastal road linking the headquarters of the period's military leadership in Edo (the modern city of Tokyo) with the site of the Japanese imperial court in Kyoto, several hundred kilometers to the south and west. They were completed originally during the middle of the nineteenth century by the Japanese print artist Hiroshige Ando (1797 - 1858).
1800 - 1850

1841 - 1843



1860 - 1868

Growth of "Dutch School" of Western-influenced Japanese thought, influenced by Deshima Island European colony

Brief Shogun reform effort

Perry (U.S.) expedition to Edo Bay, displays Western power.

Follow-up visits of U.S. and British fleets open Japan for Western trade.

Civil strife intensifies between forces in favor of modernization and those championing Japanese isolation and tradition.

1867 Mutsuhito becomes Emperor Meiji of Japan, and civil war ends shogun rule, overthrown by a samurai alliance. The capital is re-established at Edo, renamed Tokyo.

A sunny spring day,
People are doing nothing
In the small village.

Shiki Masaoka, 1867-1902
Shiki and Ishite-ji or Hum 210 Haiku page)

Meiji Reform Period 1868 - 1912





1894 - 1895

1904 - 1905



Meiji Reform era begins: Emperor Meiji leads westernization of Japan by promoting industrialization & modernizing military on Western models, while seeking to preserve Japanese independence & interests; students sent to West to study institutions, science, commerce, & industry.

Japanese Ministry of Industry established.

Final Samurai uprising.

Japanese constitution and new legal code instituted.

Sino-Japanese War: Japanese fleet defeats China

Russo-Japanese War demonstrates Japanese military superiority over Russia

Japan "annexes" Korea

Growing parliamentary party strife ends Meiji period.

Modern Period: In its more recent history the Japanese language has been influenced not only by the Chinese language, but later by some Western languages. Native Japanese words constitute the largest category in Japanese vocabulary, followed by words borrowed in earlier history from Chinese, and the smallest, but rapidly growing, category of words borrowed in modern times from Western languages such as English. A small number of words have also come from other Asian languages. Today, of the three types of written Japanese characters, or moji, katakana is mainly used for writing foreign words, and kanji (Chinese characters) and hiragana for composing Japanese sentences. In addition, it is possible to write Japanese, and transcribe Japanese moji, into romanized phonetic characters, (Roman alphabet letters).

Throughout the modern period, dating from the Meiji Reform Era, Japanese writers have been influenced by other literatures, primarily those of the West, and they refashioned many foreign literary concepts and techniques in fiction and poetry.

Meiji Era Literature: The humorist Kanagaki Robunis a transitional figure who attempted vainly to adapt himself to the new age but basically adhered to the comic style of the Edo period. Translations from Western literature, at first primarily from works of British authors, gave impetus to the political novel, an interesting if not highly literary genre that prevailed throughout the 1880s, is an extravagant and unintentionally humorous work tracing the travels and fortunes of a young Japanese politician.

The critical work Shosetsu shinzui (The Essence of the Novel, 1885), by the writer Tsubouchi Shoyo, argues for a prose art grounded in realism, on the Western model. The next step forward in modernization was The Drifting Cloud (1887; trans. 1967) by Futabatei Shimei, the first serious novel in the colloquial language.

1896 Imported movies stimulate a strong fascination with Western culture.
After 1890: The Kenuysha (The Society of the Friends of the Inkstone), a student literary society founded by the novelist and poet Ozaki Koyo, became important in Japanese literary life after 1890. The society influenced the creation of a new literature that maintained traditional aesthetic values while incorporating Western techniques. A young writer so influenced, Higuchi Ichiyo, deftly traces the psychology of children and young lovers in a number of short stories. Her Growing Up (1896; trans. 1956) is generally considered her masterpiece.
Modern Poetry: Although poetry has been less important than fiction throughout the modern period, Masaoka Shiki created of notable modern forms of the tanka and haiku during the Meiji era. Because haiku can express the beauty of nature and the depths of the human heart in a brief form, it now has spread throughout the world. Since the end of the 19th century, a vigorous movement for the writing of poetry in the Western style has arisen, and several prominent poets have emerged in this genre
Japanese Naturalism: French naturalistic fiction attracted young Japanese authors, who soon developed a naturalism of their own with less social content and far greater subjectivity. The leading figure in this naturalistic style is Shimazaki Toson, whose Hakai (The Breaking of the Commandment, 1906), describing the confession of an outcast youth, firmly established the movement. Other important Japanese writers drew from other Western literatures.

Taisho Period1912 - 1926

1912- 1926 Taisho Period
1923 Great Tokyo earthquake; bill for universal suffrage is defeated.
Mori Ogai drew his inspiration primarily from German literature. He was active in writing poetry, drama, novels, and historical biography. Perhaps his best work of fiction is The Wild Geese (1911-13; trans. 1959), which examines with remarkable acuity the feelings of a girl who is forced to be the mistress of a usurer.
Natsume Soseki was a scholar of English literature before he turned to imaginative writing. His monumental achievement in the psychological novel makes him unquestionably one of the greatest writers Japan has produced in modern times. In his works written between 1905 and his death in 1916 he created a fictional world that constitutes a ruthless indictment of modern egoism. His incomplete last work, Meian (Light and Darkness), is perhaps the only modern Japanese novel that in scope and depth resembles the achievement of the Russian masters.

Akutagawa Ryunosuke, a disciple of Soseki, created a highly structured, polished short-story form that, in English translation, has found admirers throughout the world. "Rashomon" (1915), which was later made into a motion picture by celebrated filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, is one of his tales that was translated in Rashomon and Other Stories (1952).

Showa Period from 1926






Showa period begins

Japan invades Manchuria & represses Korean rebellion; height of global Depression; bad harvests

Political leaders are assassinated, and young army officers rebel.

Army officers firmly established in power of imperialistic Japan; invasion of China

War budget, military state controls economic life.

1930s Literature: The militarist domination of Japanese life in the 1930s largely stifled literature, although a few writers retreated into an uncontroversial aestheticism. Kawabata Yasunari (the recipient of the 1968 Nobel Prize for literature) and Tanizaki Junichiro are foremost among the authors who emerged from World War II to continue perfecting their craft. Their work is known to readers of English through the excellent translations by Edward Seidensticker of Kawabata's Snow Country (1935-47; trans. 1956) and Tanizaki's Some Prefer Nettles (1929; trans. 1955).






World War II begins.

Japan attacks Pearl Harbor, U.S. enters WW II; fall of Singapore to Japanese

Japan occupies French Indochina

Atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima & Nagasaki, and Japan is defeated; Japanese imperialism ends and U.S. occupation of Japan begins.

United Nations established

Marshall Plan inaugurated in Japan; Cold War begins.

Japanese, the official language of Japan, is spoken by virtually all of the country's approximately 125 million inhabitants today, as well as by Japanese living in Hawaii, the Americas, and elsewhere. It is also spoken as a second language by Chinese and Korean people who lived under Japanese occupation during the first half of the 20th century.

Japan Timeline 1:  Early Japan (to CE 1185)
Japan Timeline 2:  Medieval Period (CE 1160 - 1568)
Japan Timeline 3: Tokugawa and Modern Japan (17th - mid-20th c.)
URL of this webpage:
Japan Timeline 4:
Post-World War II Period & Japan Timelines Sources

Asian Timelines: India China Japan
  were first prepared by Cora Agatucci, in 1998.