Sunday, September 22, 2013

PBS videos on Edo period Japan

The US Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) has a YouTube account. A while ago, I found a series of programs from 2009 that they produced about Japan's Edo period. If you're interested in Japan, I think these videos are a good general introduction to that time in Japan's history, a period covering over 200 years, when the Tokugawa shoguns ruled and Japan closed its doors shut to the rest of the world. I thoroughly enjoyed watching this series and gained interesting insights into this period in Japan's history.

If you're Japanese and trying to learn English, I also think that this is a good series to watch to practice your English listening comprehension ability. It's also a chance to see and analyze, and perhaps critique how Japan is portrayed in this particular production from a generally well-regarded US media network.

The series is titled, "Japan: Memoirs of a Secret Empire," and is mostly based on written accounts of European eyewitnesses in Japan during that period—Christian missionaries during the early part of the period, and then other Western foreigners who were able to stay in Japan during its self-imposed isolation.

The quality of the series is what one might expect from a PBS production—high quality, beautiful cinematography, engaging, intelligent, accessible. The series features several experts on Japanese history who take turns in explaining some of the historical events and ideas, and who seem to be engaging storytellers in their own right. It is narrated by Richard Chamberlain, if that means anything to any of you. Ehem.

I've looked at the html source code of the YouTube pages, and it doesn't look like there are geographic restrictions for these particular PBS videos, which means that those outside the USA can probably watch these videos. There are three episodes, each about 55 minutes long:

Episode 1: The Way of the Samurai
Episode 2: The Will of the Shogun
Episode 3: The Return of the Barbarians

The three episodes cover consecutive time periods, although there is some overlap in the storytelling.


Episode 1, "The Way of the Samurai," begins in 1543, when the first Portuguese merchants and Christian missionaries arrived on Japan's shores. It gives accounts of these first Europeans' impressions of Japan, which they were surprised to discover as having a well-developed culture. In turn, the Japanese regarded the Europeans as "southern barbarians," or so the narration goes.

The episode also follows the life of Tokugawa Ieyasu (徳川家康) and narrates how, through his ambitions and those of Oda Nobunaga (織田信長) and Toyotomi Hideyoshi (豊臣秀吉) before him, a century of civil war ended and Japan's unification came about, with Ieyasu eventually being appointed shogun by the Emperor.

The episode ends with an account of the Battle of Osaka in 1615, in which Ieyasu launched an attack on forces loyal to Toyotomi Hideyori (豊臣秀頼)—Hideyoshi's heir and whom Ieyasu perceived as a threat to the Tokugawa rule.


Episode 2, "The Will of the Shogun," begins in 1600, when the Englishman William Adams washed onto Japan's shores. Adams later became Ieyasu's shipbuilder and an influential figure in Ieyasu's court, particularly with regard to matters of foreign trade, and was able to negotiate favorable terms for the Dutch East India Company, who had been his employers.

The episode also touches on how the great city of Edo, the shogunate seat, was built.

And then it goes on to describe the repressive rule of Tokugawa Iemitsu (徳川家光), Ieyasu's grandson and the third Tokugawa shogun. Events during this period include the formal imposition of the sankin-kotai system (参勤交代), or the system of alternate-year residency in Edo which was required of the more than 200 feudal lords all over Japan. It touches on travel during this period on the five government highways, including the Tōkaidō road which connected Edo and Kyōtō.

It describes a period when Japanese Christians were persecuted and farmers were heavily taxed. And the episode ends with an account of the Shimabara rebellion (島原の乱) of 1637-1638, which started out as a revolt by disgruntled farmers, but which developed into a Christian rebellion. With the crushing of this rebellion, we also see Japan's doors being shut close to Western influences, not to be opened again for more than 200 years.


Episode 3, "The Return of the Barbarians," starts around 1690, and provides a broad view of general conditions in an isolated Japan, particulary conditions in Edo, which was fast becoming an advanced and prosperous city. It was a period when merchants, formerly relegated to the bottom of Japanese society, saw considerable improvements in their living standards, while samurai, in a time of peace with no wars to fight, faced an uncertain future. Lines which demarcated formerly rigid social class structures were becoming smeared.

The episode describes the reign of the fifth Tokugawa shogun, Tokugawa Tsunayoshi (徳川綱吉), as a time when scholarship and the arts fluorished. It was a time of widespread literacy, and a time when Japan's urban citizens patronized popular arts like the kabuki theater and ukiyo-e prints. It describes the Chūshingura (忠臣蔵), a performance based on the story of the Forty-seven Ronin. And then the episode also spends quite a bit of time describing the Yoshiwara (吉原) district of Edo, a gated, regulated, exclusive pleasure district where elite courtesans and geisha worked.

In an era of peace, some in Japanese society, including samurai, became attracted to Western ideas and knowledge, and they engaged in rangaku (蘭学), the study of Western sciences by means of the Dutch language.

The episode ends with an account of the arrival in Edo Bay in 1853 of American steamships—evil Western ships called kuro fune (黒船)—commanded by Commodore Matthew C. Perry, his demand to the Japanese to open the country to foreign commerce, Perry's return the following year, and the eventual signing of a peace and amity treaty between the United States and Japan.

A little more than ten years later, the last Tokugawa shogun would step down, ending 265 years of Tokugawa rule, and ushering in the modern era of Japan.

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