Everyday Life in Traditional Japan

Author: Charles J. Dunn
Publisher: Tuttle
ISBN: 9784805310052
Released: August 2008

I know very little about Japanese history beyond what I learned about World War II in high school. Well, that’s not entirely true. In regards to the “traditional” Japan of samurai epics, I’ve actually managed to pick up quite a bit from some of my favorite manga and anime (I’m particularly thinking of Blade of the Immortal and Samurai Champloo here). Perhaps not the most academic of sources, but I mange to hold my own pretty well among my history major friends—just don’t ask me for specific dates. However, I knew there was a lot that I was missing and so I turned to the LibraryThing community to ask for book recommendations about day to day life in Japan during the Edo/Tokugawa period. It didn’t take long for someone to suggest Charles J. Dunn’s Everyday Life in Traditional Japan which was pretty much exactly what I was looking for.

During the Tokugawa Shogunate (1603-1868), the Emperor became more of a figurehead while the majority of the power lay with the Shogun who was basically a military dictator. At this point in history, Japanese society was rigidly divided into a hierarchical class system and was mostly isolated from the rest of the world. In his book, Dunn provides an overview of the era, beginning with a brief introduction to the state of the land, people, and government when Tokugawa Ieyasu took power in chapter one, “A Country in Isolation.” Over the next four chapters, Dunn examines each of the four main classes of Japanese society separately: the samurai, the farmers, the craftsmen, and the merchants. Those who lived mostly outside of the class system are dealt with in chapter six, “Courtiers, Priests, Doctors, and Intellectuals” and in chapter seven, “Actors and Outcasts.” The final chapter, “Everyday Life in Edo” explores the typical issues encountered living in the capital city from day to day that aren’t necessarily limited to one particular group.

It’s quite impressive how much information Dunn is able to pack into under 200 pages, though the treatment is somewhat uneven. At times his approach is very generalized, making broad sweeping statements while at other times he is very specific focusing closely on an individual person family or event. He also has a tendency to wander a bit from topic to topic. Some issues, like education and schooling, receive little attention. He does include suggestions for further reading, but doesn’t really include much of anything in the way of citations or bibliography. I can only assume that the information remains accurate since the book continues to be published unchanged since its first printing in 1972.

Everyday Life in Traditional Japan turned out to be a great place to start learning about Edo/Tokugawa era Japan. I can tell by his phrasing that the book was written in the sixties and his style can be a bit dry at times. But, because I was so interested in the topic and because the book was so concise, I didn’t mind that much. The book includes as small index which is unfortunately not as comprehensive as it could be. The numerous illustrations, prints, and photographs are marvelous additions although they are not always conveniently placed. Overall, Dunn provides a great overview and introduction to Edo/Tokugawa Japan with Everyday Life in Traditional Japan—I know that I’ve certainly learned quite a bit about the era that I didn’t know before.