Tokyo is Japan’s capital city, the world’s largest metropolitan area, and also the center of political and imperial power in Japan. Japan is a constitutional monarchy, which means that they have an emperor and a constitution. This is different from England, where there is a monarchy (The Queen), but no written constitution, or America, where we have a constitution but no King, Queen or Emperor. The Emperor and imperial family of Japan, however, have very little real power. Instead, most important decisions are made by Japan’s prime minister and members of the Diet, which is like the U.S. Congress – elected officials who represent regular citizens.
While the emperor may have lost much of the power that the title once held, he has not lost the traditional home of the imperial family: Tokyo’s Imperial Palace, a piece of history located in the heart of modern Tokyo.
In November 1868, the imperial family relocated from Kyoto (which literally means “Old Capital” in Japanese) to what was then called Edo – now modern-day Tokyo. Edo Castle – now known as 皇居 (Koukyo – “imperial residence”) – has largely been destroyed and rebuilt throughout the centuries, due to fires and earthquakes, but within the outer walls one can still see some of the original castle walls. Walking on walls built hundreds of years ago, by people who shaped Japan’s history, was an experience that I’ll never forget.
This process of destruction and re-building is a common theme throughout Japanese history, especially in Tokyo, which has seen wars, bombings, earthquakes and fires. Because Edo (old Tokyo) was built entirely from wood and paper, fires were serious business – In 1657, one fire burned for three days and killed more than 100,000 citizens of Edo.
The area that now survives as the Imperial Palace East Gardens is where Tokugawa Ieyasu originally began construction of Edo Castle, around 1600. Altogether, 3,000 ships were required to haul all of the stone used to build up the castle walls and fill the moat.
The castle was built of wood and stone, facing Edo Bay on one side, so that it would be more difficult to attack. The castle’s design also tells us a lot about how Japanese government worked at this time – inside the castle’s inner walls lived Ieyasu and other top government officials. In the outer walls lived the samurai, who defended and served them, and in the outer reaches of the city (then called the “low city”) lived merchants, craftsman and common people. Do you guys have any ideas about why Portland might have been built and organized the way that it was? Often the way a place is built tells us about why people built it and what they planned to do.
Tokugawa Ieyasu, who had the castle built, is a very important figure in Japanese history. He ruled from only 1600-1616, but in this short time he created what was called a shogunate system of rule, and his Tokugawa Shogunate ruled Japan for more than 200 years. This shogunate was a system of feudal rule, which also existed in a different form in Medieval Europe. In Japan, Daimyo ruled each region, taxing merchants, samurai, and various other classes. The Daimyo then paid taxes to the Shogun, who held all of the actual power, even while the Emperor was “officially” in charge. Because this system has strict divisions between different classes of people, life was hard for the lower class. However, this system brought Japan its longest period of peace in centuries. For more than 200 years Japan had peace under Tokugawa rule, after centuries of bloody civil wars.
The system of rule that Tokugawa created was, in fact, highly influenced by Chinese Confucianism, which also emphasized the dividing of classes based on “natural laws of heaven.” The classes were samurai, farmers, artisans and merchants. The samurai class was on top, and weren’t only the protectors and guards, but also the rulers and emperors.
One way that peace was maintained during this period was through something called “Sankin Kotai” which means “alternate attendance.” Every other year, each Daimyo, had to make a trip to Edo and live there for one year. How did this help to keep peace? Travel was hard and expensive back then, and it kept them too broke to ever have enough money to overthrow the government. During this time, Daimyo were also required to have some of their family members live in Edo, at the Imperial Palace – while these people would have lived a nice palace lifestyle, enjoying arts and leisure, they were essentially hostages, meant to keep the Daimyo doing what the Shogun wanted them to do.
Recently, I attended a traditional Japanese kyogen performance, at the National Noh Theater house. This is the same kind of entertainment that people living in the palace would have appreciated at the time. Kyogen (which literally means “wild words”) is a hilarious kind of drama based on physical comedy, and often features poor servants outsmarting their masters – usually to steal some sake. It was shown between performances of the much more serious noh plays. Take it from me, noh plays are depressing and pretty boring, and kyogen really helps keep you awake between shows!
You won’t be able to understand these “wild words,” but I’ll bet you can get the idea from the performances!
Japanese politics is no longer quite as brutal as it used to be, but the old system has influenced both Japanese political power and Japanese life. Japanese society still has very strict divisions between classes and different professions. While people can associate with anyone that they want, people who are ‘higher’ in Japanese society (politicians, doctors, lawyers, teachers) are spoken to with special honorific language, which is called “keigo.” Keigo is also used with people who are older, or classmates who are ahead of us in our studies. In old Japan, merchants would have used “keigo” when speaking to samurai, who were the upper class, and among the only people to get an education in feudal Japan. You guys have learned about the knights of the round table – how were they similar to the samurai? How were they different? Did they receive an education?
In politics, the Japanese emperor still lacks real power, but is an important symbol for many Japanese. Since the year 660, Japan has had 125 emperors, who are supposedly part of the same continuous family line. Real political power in Japan is found in the prime minister, as well as the members of the diet, who function like America’s congress or Britain’s Parlament.
Japan is a liberal democracy, which means that the support of the people is important for politicians. You might have noticed in the news that Japan currently has political tensions with both China and Korea. Both of these tensions arise from the fact there has been a lot of war between these nations throughout history, and both involve small, worthless islands that each country wants to claim for themselves. Why make such a big deal over islands that aren’t worth anything?
Well, according to Shigemura-sensei, a professor at Waseda University, where I am studying, part of the reason is that the politicians in each of these countries wants to become more popular with their citizens. One way to become popular with citizens is to stir up feelings of national pride, and because China and Korea have been been Japan’s enemy in the past, each side occasionally resorts to bringing up the past in order to bring their own citizens together against a common enemy – even if they aren’t really an enemy at all.
My class with Shigemura-sensei is interesting, mostly because we talk about political issues concerning Japan, China and Korea – in a class with Japanese, Chinese, Korean, and American students. It is very interesting to hear the different perspectives that everyone has on these issues. When we discussed the issue of these disputed islands, Japan recently purchased the Senkaku Islands from a private seller, but they once belonged to China, and the Chinese students in my class explained why they felt this Island couldn’t be part of Japan. One of the reasons they were so offended is because China is a communist society, where everything that belongs to China technically belongs to the people. Japanese politicians chose to make this an issue, but they underestimated how strongly that common people in China feel about it. My classmate said he felt that some part of his own home was sold to Japan, and he can’t accept it.
Korean students, meanwhile, felt very strongly that the Takeshima Islands remain part of Korea. Meanwhile, most of the Japanese students said that they aren’t concerned about history or about these islands – they just want to get along, and stop paying for rivalries that happened before they were born. They aren’t that interested in politics or politicians, based on what they said.
This was a good reminder about how important it is to get multiple perspectives on important issues. Have you guys ever heard someone’s opinion that made you think differently about something? Have you ever changed your mind after someone else told you their point of view?