Why you should care

Think Europe did cultural renaissance first? Think again.

From technology to cinema to world politics, modern Japan is about as plugged in as it gets.

But just a century and a half ago, the West knew almost nothing about the island nation in the Pacific. For hundreds of years, Japan kept the door to the West firmly shut, even building an artificial island for foreign traders rather than letting them live among the Japanese.

While Europe was still fighting the Black Plague, Japan was running a high-functioning society.

While Europe was still fighting the Black Plague, Japan was running a high-functioning society marked by impressive literacy rates, flourishing arts and more than 250 years of peace and prosperity. Japan’s Tokugawa period may not have been a modern society as we think of it today, but in many ways, it was far more progressive than the West at the time.

Many economists and historians believe that traditions forged during the Tokugawa shogunate — a self-contained political system called bakuhan, which lasted from 1600-1868 — provided the framework for Japan’s modern financial success. Some even worry that Japan may be reverting to its “de-globalized” glory days due to the strength of its own cultural history. A Tokugawa-esque unified workforce and avoiding the temptation of foreign investment, according to some Japanese economists, is a tried-and-tested road to success.

Not convinced? Here are a few ways Tokugawa Japan might’ve known better than the West:

Divide and conquer

The Tokugawa bakuhan system depended on splitting power. An emperor presided over 250 domains controlled by local administrators called daimyo.

Daimyo ran efficient local governments based on the national model but rarely interacted with their neighbors, meaning central power remained with the emperor. (Just to be sure, some of the daimyos’ relatives ended up in court as “guests of honor” — i.e., hostages — to prevent possible uprisings.)

Make bureaucracy, not war

Samurai — the equivalent of European knights — had little to do once the Tokugawa regime established peace. So the government put many to work as educators, tax collectors and pencil pushers.

This state-run focus on education and agriculture laid a strong foundation for Japan’s future industrial revolution, which happened just as quickly, if not more so, than the West’s.

Arts keep things running

At a time when theaters were closing in London, Japan’s cities were exploding with artistic innovation.

The “Floating World,” or urban pleasure district, kept the nation’s bureaucrats and merchants entertained with colorful kabuki theater and bunraku puppets. Japan’s closed ports also meant that the arts had room to develop without foreign influence, creating unique art styles like ukiyo-e woodblock prints and tiny, precise haiku poetry. These arts traditions run deep — women are still forbidden from performing in modern kabuki plays.

Loyalty works wonders

Tokugawa Japan’s class system effectively prevented social mobility. During these years of peace, 80 percent of Japanese people remained peasants, but the strict hierarchy meant people made the system work for them. Poverty rates were low, famine was rare and everyone was guaranteed a functioning place in society.

Moreover, Tokugawa-era philosophy encouraged loyalty to the system regardless of class and, as academic G. Cameron Hurst points out, that same loyalty is now embedded in stereotypes about Japanese culture — and was crucial to marketing the public images of modern companies like Mitsubishi. Because of the established cohesion of such companies, Japanese industries have maintained their reputations long after the collapse of the shogunate system.

The result? Hundreds of years of prosperity, a constantly growing economy, improving quality of life and the groundwork for a culture that’s since survived civil unrest, world wars and natural disasters.

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