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The Edo Period (1603-1868)
1603, Tokugawa Ieyasu, who emerged from the power struggle as the most powerful
statesman in the land, established his shogunate government in Edo (present-day
Tokyo). To secure his supremacy, he instituted laws that managed to keep feudal
lords in check for another 260-some years. In 1639, the Tokugawa shogunate adopted
a policy of isolation and banned all international trade. The sole exception was
Nagasaki, where a small colony of Dutch and Chinese merchants were allowed to
trade, giving Japan only a small peephole through which to view the rest of the
world. For the next two centuries, Japan lived a life cut off from the modern
world, with its own feudal system of samurai, farmers, craftsmen, and merchants.
Kabuki theater and festivals emerged as a popular form of entertainment for the
masses, while woodblock printmaking, silk for kimono, and lacquerware became status
symbols for the merchant class' nouveau riche. To maintain control over
the nation, the shogun required feudal lords throughout the land to travel to
Edo every other year, bringing with them a seemingly endless procession of samurai.
To accommodate them, Japanese inns sprang up in post towns along designated highways,
some of which remain today.
By the middle of the 19th century, a budding commercial economy led by the merchants and a sophisticated urban culture had arisen to challenge the feudal system under the Tokugawa shogunate. In 1853, Commodore Perry of the U.S. Navy sailed his fleet to the port of Uraga, near Edo, eventually forcing the shogun to enter into a trade agreement with the U.S. Two ports, Shimoda and Hakodate, were opened to trade. This sudden encounter with the West and its advanced technology contributed to the downfall of the Tokugawa shogunate and ignited Japan's desire to catch up with the outside world.