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Hokusai's People: The Life of a Labourer in Edo

Hokusai, 'Night and Day' album

Hokusai is well known for depicting the lives of ordinary people in his drawings and prints, but what do his artworks tell us about those ordinary people? While the lives of literate samurai or educated merchants and even geisha is reasonably well documented, the lives of the lower classes in Edo Japan - who rarely wrote their experiences down - are harder to fathom. Nevertheless, I believe that Hokusai left us some clues in his prints about what life was like, which we can extrapolate here. Despite the beauty of the prints and drawings, life could be hard in Edo (renamed Tokyo after 1868).

1) 'No Clothes'

Hokusai, 'travellers Passing Through Village' from the series 'One Hundred Poems Explained by the Nurse'

The first thing that strikes me when I see a Hokusai print (maybe the same is for you) is how scantily clad some ordinary people are - even in Autumn or Winter - laborers wear sandals and a loin cloth and maybe some other light coat. This was not just practical for those working up a sweat like the palanquin carriers shown above: for most people, the most expensive items they purchased was clothing. Sometimes a poor couple would have to share one kimono between them - taking turns to go out. According to Amy Stanley in Stranger in the Shogun’s City: A Woman’s life in Nineteenth Century Japan, the government even commended virtuous daughters for going without clothes in the dead of winter so their parents could wear robes.

Kataoka Nizaemon XV as Izaemon

To show that this is no exaggeration, in one Kabuki play - Kuruwa Bunsho (Love Letters from the Pleasure Quarters)- there is one character, Izaemon, that is so destitute he has to wear a paper kimono sewn together from love letters. In the play, this is symbolically represented by a kimono made of black and purple patches with white calligraphy. Although this may be a romantic prop for the play, paper kimonos really did exist (treated with persimmon juice as a form of insulation), and the concept at least reflects the expense of kimonos and decent clothing in an age before mass production and cheap clothing.

When Hokusai's grandson accrued huge debts that he had to pay off, Hokusai lost his house. As he wrote to publisher Hanabusa Heikichi, "This spring, no money, no clothes, barely enough to eat. If I can’t come to an arrangement by the middle of the second month, then no spring for me.” Clothes, along with food, were a constant worry for the poor.

"Fires and fights are the flowers of Edo"

Hokusai, 'Tatekawa in Honjo (Honjo Tatekawa)', from the series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, 1830-1

2) 'Fires and Fights'

It was said that 'Fires and Fights are the Flowers of Edo'. Houses and structures were largely made of wood and fires were common, but each time there was a fire, Edo was rebuilt and came back stronger.

In the anime film Miss Hokusai, Hokusai's daughter Oi is shown as someone who is drawn to fire and the excitement it induces. In reality, a fire would have been traumatic and devastating. In 1834 both Hokusai and Oi suffered, when a fire swept through their neighbourhood. Tragically the wooden cart containing all of Hokusai’s sketches, supplies and reference materials was immolated, and father and daughter were described as almost beggars.

Ordinary people would have suffered greatly and found refuge in other tenements, temples, or makeshift shelter until they could get back on their feet. Those who could afford it however, would have bought wood and kept it in lumberyards as an insurance. In one print, Honjo Tatekawa (shown above), Hokusai depicts a lumberyard. Note that in the bottom right, some calligraphy is inscribed on the planks of wood. These say: "the storehouse of Nishimura" (the publisher of this series of prints), the publisher's address, "the stock of Eijudō," and "the stock for the new edition of the Thirty-six views of Fuji." Although this is a little joke by Hokusai to include his publisher here, it reflects a practice done by wealthier people to have a stockpile of lumber in case of fire.

People, including the poor, accepted the precariousness of life and their property, and tried their best to live out their lives. In Hokusai's prints, workers and laborers seem to happily accept their lot: there is no depiction of great suffering although surely they must have. The great haiku poet Kobayashi Issa (1763-1827), spent 24 years in poverty in Edo and perhaps best encapsulated the hardy mood of the people when he wrote:

Even the homeless
observe the Edo
New Year.

Hokusai, 'Ehon Azuma Asobi' (A Picture Book of the Amusement in the Eastern Capital), collection of Edward Luper

3) Migration and Natural Disasters

Many of Hokusai's labourers would not have been Edokko (a Child of Edo), someone from Edo born and bred. Many of these laborers would have been from surrounding areas and poorer parts of the country and spoken with their regional accents and dialects. So many displaced people from the provinces found their way into Edo that the city became known as the ‘the nation‘s junkyard’.

The huge population expansion gradually reduced Edo’s greenery, but Shogun Tokugawa Yoshimune (1684-1751) recognised the problem and provided parks and had cherry trees planted at Asukayama, Sumidagawa, Shinagawa Gotenyama, and Kogenai. Below, Hokusai depicted the cherry trees at Shinagawa Gotenyama.

Hokusai, Fuji from Gotenyama, at Shinagawa on the Tôkaidô (Tôkaidô Shinagawa Gotenyama no Fuji), from the series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, 1830-1

The causes of migration to Edo however, were not so pleasant. In the spring of 1783, a drought upset the farmers' planting schedules, and that summer, rainstorms for days on end caused severe flooding throughout the provinces. In Edo a particularly heavy rain on the seventeenth of the sixth month left parts of Senju, Asakusa, and Koishikawa under water. The summer was also unseasonably cold, and day after day people wore their winter clothes. Adding further to the misery was an eruption of Mount Asama in the seventh month, which covered an enormous portion of the northern Kanto area with ash and destroyed vast amounts of produce and livestock. In Edo it turned day to night, and soon Edogawa River began bringing down broken trees, debris from ruined houses, and parts of animal and human corpses. The failure of the crops was a nationwide disaster, reportedly resulting in 200,000 deaths from starvation in the northeast alone.

Hokusai, 'Earthquake', from the 'One Hundred Views of Mt Fuji',

For many farmers already suffering from high taxes, the great famine was, so to speak, the last straw, and they left their lands to find work as day laborers in Edo, inundating the city. Soon the city was overflowing with drifters and the homeless, and crime soared. Rice prices also skyrocketed, filling the poorer inhabitants with despair. Eventually in 1787, rice riots broke out in Osaka and then spread across the country.

In 1790 and 1793 Sadanobu twice issued laws mandating that absconders be sent back to their farms. Popularly known as the "Kansei Rustication" (Kansei no hito-gaeshi), these laws stipulated that farmers be provided with travel money and farm implements and sent home. Other homeless were forgiven the crime of vagrancy and given jobs in agriculture or fishing. But the policy was not a great success, for it proved hard to keep people down on the farm after they had seen the big city; they usually preferred a life in the smallest urban tenement to the hardships of living off the land.

Hokusai, details of illustration from 'The Story of Shakyamuni's Life'

Hokusai, 'Begging for Alms'

Another crisis emerged with the Tenpo famine in the 1830s. As rice prices rose, wealthy commoners in Edo braced for riots. They put off construction projects, in part because they didn't want labourers to assemble near their stores. When tenants stopped paying rent, threatening signs appeared on gates and walls, and rumours of violence spread through the back alleys. The great merchant houses were forced to open their storehouses and distribute rice and cash. Meanwhile, the shogun's men worked feverishly to keep the city calm. They established soup kitchens and distributed rice rations to hundreds of thousands of people. Officials also tried to keep rice affordable for those who still had cash. When prices spiked, they mandated lower retail prices and broke the strangle-hold of Edo's established rice wholesalers. For three years, between 1836 and 1839, anyone could bring rice into the city and sell it. Thanks to the combined efforts of the Shogunate and the major merchant houses, the expected riots never materialised. Prices returned to their pre-famine lows.

4) Bathing and Sanitation

The Edo day started in the morning with the calls of peddlers hawking their wares. The local baths opened at about 6 A.M, and they soon filled with youngsters washing up before breakfast and retirees enjoying a leisurely morning dip.

Hokusai, 'Bathers' from Hokusai Manga

The public baths were a cheap pleasure, at only six coppers for an adult and four for a child, and they stayed open till about six in the evening. Edo had a paucity of wells, which meant that even many rich households did not have their own hot baths. Public bathhouses became favourite places for relaxation and a bit of gossip. But as one can imagine, there was little privacy.

Edo did not develop a correspondingly complex and wide-reaching sewer system, however. One reason was that scientific concepts of sanitation, such as those which motivated the development of the Paris sewers, had yet to evolve. But another cause was that human waste was a major source of fertilizer for the surrounding agricultural communities in the great Musashi Plain. Waste from downtown Edo was bought at high prices and transported to the neighboring farms, either by "fertilizer boats" (koebune) from the eastern parts of the city served by canals, or by horse or coolie from the districts further west. Such fertilizing allowed the cultivation of Sunagawa burdock, Takinogawa carrots, Komatsu rape, Senju leeks, Meguro bamboo shoots, and much other produce for Edo's million and more people. The garbage that the huge population produced went into dustbins in each district, and was then taken away and used for landfill at Eitaijima.

5) Religion and Disease

To help alleviate suffering in the world, religion played a key part. This is perhaps the hardest thing for us to realise today in our largely secular world. Religion was not just a set of beliefs, but rather something that was entirely internalised and was simply a way of life. Hokusai's own devotion to Mt Fuji was part of a larger Fuji cult, with pilgrims ascending the sacred volcano.

Hokusai, 'People Climbing the Mountain' (Shojin tozan), from the series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, 1830-1

Religion, in the form of temple fairs and religious festivals would have also provided much needed holidays and periods of rest for the people. Keeping in mind that Japan did not have the Christian calendar and the concept of Sunday as God's day of rest, laborers would have only had the lunar new year and Buddhist and Shinto festivals to have time off.

Detail from the Hokusai Manga, showing a doctor

In the face of disease and pandemics too, religion would have been key in giving comfort to people. There were of course doctors who practiced traditional medicine based on ancient Chinese principles; and there were a few influenced by Western learning brought by the Dutch, but for the common people too poor to afford this, there would only have been recourse to prayers at temples and shrines, as well as home remedies. Another famous ukiyo-e artist - Hiroshige - in fact died from a cholera epidemic in 1858.

Despite the allure of new Western science, Edoites continued to believe in the ancient Buddhas and gods and to pray to them for miracles. It was still the practice, for example, to worship at Chanoki Inari Shrine to cure eye ailments and at Takao Inari Shrine for headaches.

Some deities were thought to lodge in the humblest locations. Another place to go to cure a headache, for example, was Kyobashi Bridge, where a prayer at the railing might prove successful. A prayer at the railing of Nihonbashi Bridge, by contrast, was thought to be efficacious for whooping cough. And one had to touch the iron in a wooden gate to cure beriberi. One rumoured cure was enough to set the town abuzz, but if no miracle was forthcoming, the god was promptly forgotten. Such deities were therefore called "popular gods" (hayarigami). They could be appealed to not only for health but also for success in money matters or in conceiving and rearing children. One example was the God of the Poor (Binbogami). Lodged in a small sanctuary on the grounds of Koishikawa Tenjin Shrine, this god drew constant supplicants, who had started visiting upon hearing of a destitute bannerman who, as he worshipped a picture of the god at his home and made daily offerings of ritual sake, gradually grew rich. Even so insubstantial a "miracle" had considerable appeal.

Hokusai, Nihonbashi in Edo (Edo Nihonbashi), from the series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, 1830-1

It became popular to make pilgrimages to the sites of such popular gods. For those without the time and money for such activities, there was the Sazaedo shown below ("Turbo Hall," a turbo being a spiral shell), at Rakanji Temple in Honjo. Inside was a spiral staircase in which worshippers could climb to the third floor, praying to one hundred Kannon Bodhisattvas modelled after those in Kansai, to the west, and other distant spots. The view of Edo from the top was splendid, and the place became a magnet for tourists and worshippers.

Hokusai, 'Sazai Hall', from the series '36 Views of Mt Fuji', 1830-1

Hokusai often painted Shoki, the demon queller as a response to common fears about mortality and disease. In Japan, auspicious images of Shoki were displayed for the Boys’ Day Festival, celebrated on the fifth day of the fifth month. Here, Hokusai, aged eighty-seven, painted with red pigment, as that colour was thought to have magical efficacy in warding off smallpox. In fact, there was a smallpox epidemic in Edo in 1847 when this was painted.

Hokusai, 'Red Shōki, the Demon Queller', dated 1847, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Ukiyo-e prints largely depict the floating worlds of the pleasure quarters and kabuki theatres: they are like Hollywood posters of glamorous women and actors selling a fantasy. Its easy to forget that aside from the fantasy portrayed in colourful woodblock prints, life in Edo Japan could also be very difficult indeed.

A recent exhibition in Tokyo 'Edo Livelihoods by Hokusai' explains more on their website.

Further reading:

Akira Naito and Kazuo Hozumi, Edo, the City that Became Tokyo: An Illustrated History

Nishiyama Matsunosuke, Edo Culture: Daily Life and Diversions in Urban Japan, 1600-1868

Sumie Jones, et al, An Edo Anthology: Literature from Japan's Mega-City, 1750-1850

Amy Stanley, Strager in the Shogun's City: A Woman's Life in Nineteenth-Century Japan

Timon Screech, Tokyo Before Tokyo: Power and Magic in the Shogun's City of Edo


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