Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Technology of the Edo Period

When Japan entered the 19th century, it was in the waning stages of the Edo Period. That period is defined by the dominion of the Tokugawa Shogunate. Inaugurated in 1603 when Ieyasu Tokugawa consolidated power under the shogun, or military general, the Edo Period lasted for 250 years. Effectively a military dictatorship, the Tokugawas were able to bring unprecedented stability to a Japan that had, in the previous 100 years, suffered through the Warring States Period and Oda Nobunaga's rise to power.

This stability allowed the Tokugawas to reorganize Japanese society and patronize the arts. The result is the image of feudal Japan with which most Westerners are familiar. In terms of actual power, the pinnacle of authority was the shogun. The emperor still existed through the Edo Period, and given many lavish gifts and castles by the Tokugawas, but was reduced to a mere figurehead... A ceremonial position expected to validate the actions of the shogun. Next were the regional lords, or daimyo. Samurai, formerly the landed gentry, were forced to give up their land and become either peasants or paid vassals of the daimyo. Beneath the samurai were the peasants, and beneath them were the craftsmen. Finally, at the bottom, were the merchants. Two classes resided outside of this system, whose jobs broke the taboo laws of Buddhism and thus rendered them "unclean". These were the eta ("filthy"), who dealt with the corpses involved with butchering, tanning and undertaking, and the hinin ("non-human"), who did the dirty work of guarding the town, cleaning the streets and executing criminals.

This period began mass urbanization in Japan. At the insistence of the Tokugawas, the families of daimyo stayed in the city springing up around Edo Castle. Today this city is known as Tokyo. Edo was "modern" in some ways and "primitive" in others, those quotation marks indicating the subjectivity of the terms. While London was flushing its waste into the Thames, the citizens of Edo were collecting it as fertilizer for the fields. In large parts of Japan, this process continued well into the 1980's, yet the society rarely suffered the same massive outbreaks of disease pocking European cities.

With a stable, urbanized, affluent hereditary hierarchy in place, the arts were able to flourish. This was the age of ukiyo, the "Floating World" of perfection in beauty and leisure. Ukiyo-e woodblock prints depicted this world and reflected it in an idealization of nature and everyday life. The great 19th century stars of the medium were Hokusai, most renowned for his Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji in 1831/1832, and Hiroshige, who produced The Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido in 1833/34. Kabuki theatre developed to satisfy the growing middle class with more expressive drama on more familiar subjects than theatrical styles like noh and kagura could produce. Kabuki stars, characters and scenes became favorite subjects of ukiyo-e artists. Likewise, the sport of sumo developed and also became a subject for illustration.

Hokusai's Great Wave off Kanagawa.

Contrary to Western notions of the "bourgeoisie", the urban middle class of chonin developed high aesthetic ideals. Iki and tsu embodied sophisticated simplicity and an unrefined, uncomplicated, unpretentious ephemeral quality. These could be seen as a more contemporary version of the traditional value of wabi-sabi, a style reflecting the impermanence, incompleteness and imperfection of life and nature. Wabi-sabi is said to be able to inspire "a sense of serene melancholy and a spiritual longing" and is seen most frequently in the pottery utilized in the famous tea ceremony. Perhaps the most unique and iconic expression of all these ideals coalescing during the Edo Period is the geisha. Embodying iki, these artist courtesans specialized in creating a sense of the Floating World within their sequestered districts. Theirs was a complex position not comprehensible in straightforward Western labels like "prostitute", and a sophisticated fantasy made possible through the hard reality of financial affluence.

The Floating World

The common misconception of Japan during the Edo Period is that it was isolationist. That is not entirely correct. Trade was actively conducted between the country and China, Korea and Ryukyu. Commerce was held both in material goods and in ideas. The first knowledge of modern science to disseminate through Japan came from the Chinese. Neo-Confucian ideas of order and reason dominated Japan's political philosophy. During the Meiji Restoration, Japan's relationship with the rest of Asia came under criticism. In 1885, Yukichi Fukuzawa, in his editorial Leaving Asia, wrote:
The Japanese learned about the Industrial Revolution of the West when Perry’s Black Ships appeared in Edo Bay. Since then the Japanese have gradually begun to recognize the need to accept modern civilization. However, the Tokugawa shogunate was the obstacle. As long as the Tokugawa shogunate existed, we could not accept modern civilization. We had only two choices: modern civilization or sticking to the old regime. If we had chosen the the old regime, the independence of Japan would have been in danger. It's because Westerners, who went out to the world while taking advantage of technologies and competing with each other, would have had no mercy and left this Oriental island country asleep. Hereby, the faithful retainers, faithful to the country and the Emperor, destroyed the Tokugawa Shogunate and built a new government. This way, Japan as a country and the whole nation decided to accept technologies and modern civilization born in the West. This was the first amongst the all Asian countries and, for Japan, this meant leaving Asia.

What the Tokugawas were concerned about was regulating Japan's interaction with Europeans and eliminating it altogether with peoples deemed "incompatible". A series of prohibitions on and executions of Christians culminated in a 1635 edict outlawing the faith altogether. This cut-off more evangelistic nations like the Portugese while permitting more commercially-minded traders like the Dutch and English to remain on Nagasaki's artificial island enclave of Dejima. Technically, this island was not considered Japanese soil, and any European found on the mainland could be executed on the spot. Likewise could any Japanese person engaged in unauthorized travel who was foolish enough to return.

Curious Japanese watching Dutchmen on Dejima.

Nevertheless, Europeans remained an object of curiousity for Japanese scholars. A whole school of thought developed, called rangaku, that studied the Dutch and their technology. For the duration of the Edo Period, there was little distinction between "science" and "technology"; the only value of science was the practical effect, the technologies and articles that scientific research produced. As a result, the first field of study to migrate from the Chinese and Dutch traders in Nagasaki was medicine.

The emphasis on practicality also helped to develop mathematics and astronomy. The former developed a limited type of calculus to determine area and volume of complex shapes. The latter was primarily used for calculating increasingly accurate calendars. Aristotelian, Ptolemaic, and most significantly, Copernican worldviews were imported through Jesuit astronomical texts prior to and immediately following the 1635 edict, to little negative effect. The syncretism of Japanese belief systems and natural philosophy of Confucianism enabled the easy absorption of ideas like heliocentrism.

Diagram of a telescope.

Samurai were well-represented amongst Edo-Era Japanese scientists and inventors. The dignity of medicine and astronomy lent itself to improving the state of these former gentry. One such samurai-scientist was Gennai Hiraga. Born of a relatively low-ranking samurai family, Hiraga became a polymath, studying medicine, art and rangaku. He wove a flameproof fabric out of asbestos (kakanpu) and wrote a satirical essay on the virtues of passing gas. The accomplishment for which he is most known is his version of the elekiter.

Elekiter were Dutch devices for creating and storing static electricity. Hiraga purchased such a device during a 1770 visit to Nagasaki and developed his own version of it in 1776. An elekiter was essentially a well-decorated box with wires extending from the top, through which a current would pass when a crank was turned. Unfortunately, as no practical application could be discovered, elekiters were essentially demoted to novelties in curio shops.

Elekiter in demonstration (top) and on display (bottom, right panel).

Hiraga, born in 1728, was also known for studying different ores and for mining. During one circumstance he was so frustrated by an assistant that he killed the man. The samuari subsequently died in prison in 1779.

The introduction of clocks innovated Japanese technology and opened the proverbial gates for any number of applications. Clocks themselves became very elaborate, as a function of the Japanese lunar calendar. Time was not measured in discrete, equal components, as in the West. Japanese clocks were able to distinguish a non-fixed duration of day and night, which were each in turn divided into six components. except for the equinoxes, day and night segments were unequal. As the hours of daylight and nighttime changed throughout the seasons, these clocks compensated.

Japanese clock, or wadoshi.

An innovative use of clockwork technology was the karakuri. These devices embodied what was termed "Wakon Yosai" or "Japanese spirit, Western learning". The effect was a diminutive robot, running on an elaborate system of springs and gears, in the shape of human beings. Three types of karakuri existed: butai karakuri used in theatre, zashiki karakuri used in homes and dashi karakuri used in religious parades.

Zashiki karakuri best articulate the capacities of these automata. Most often their use was in serving tea, if a wealthy or eccentric enough host wished to provide an extra novelty for admiration during an informal tea ceremony. A full cup of tea would be placed on a serving tray in the hands of the karakuri. This would depress a lever that would cause the karakuri to turn and "walk" in a straight line (actually run on wheels that also moved a small set of feet poking out from underneath the karakuri's kimono) to the recipient of the tea. When it reached its guest, the tea would be picked up, releasing the lever and causing the karakuri to bow its head. When the tea was finished, the cup was placed back on the tray, the karakuri would turn and walk back to the host.

Schematic of a karakuri.

Through careful engineering, karakuri could be devised to enact any number of tasks or roles. In religious parades, dashi karakuri would be set on floats to dramatize stories from Japanese mythology. Some karakuri could be "programmed" to not only paint calligraphic figures, but even alternate between different figures. Others could be programmed to load a bow from a quiver on its back, pull the bowstring and shoot the arrow, and repeat the process for as many arrows as it held. The highly stylized and ritualized motions of noh and kabuki theatre seemed tailor-made to the capabilities of karakuri.

Some cultural observers have suggested that karakuri may be a focal point in understanding the differences in the Japanese and Western attitudes towards robots and artificial life. The dominant Western paradigm is that of Frankenstein, the creation of humanity's ingenuity that supplants its creator. This is not, it should be noted, an irrational fear. The Industrial Revolution in the West conducted itself in exactly this manner, eliminating traditional crafts, displacing skilled craftspeople and effectively enslaving the new urban population to industrial machinery.

Japan did not share this experience, retaining a significant degree of control over the introduction and application of industrial technology, from the edicts of the Edo Period clear through to the American occupation. Therefore, the dominant Japanese paradigm is that of the karakuri, the creation of humanity's ingenuity that becomes a fully-integrated helpmate to the creator. Nearly a straight conceptual line can be drawn from karakuri to Asimo, Aibo, Pokemon and Vocaloids.

Karakuri on display.

Not so straight a technological line can be drawn between the Edo Period and the subsequent Meiji, Taisho, Showa and Heisi eras. Commodore Matthew Perry arrived in his Black Ships in 1852-54, threatening the Japanese with destruction if they refuse commpliance (a running trend in Japanese-American relations). Literally at gunpoint, the old edicts of the Tokugawas were overturned and the country was forced to deal with the world outside. Modernization was forced upon it and Japan could not adapt quickly enough to satisfy those who keenly felt the need to confront the West on its terms or die. A military arms race began between the shogunate and the revolutionary forces dedicated to the restoration of the Emperor, in whom they saw the freedom and opportunity to advance Japanese science and technology. This cold war erupted in a violent and bloody civil war through 1868-69, which saw the irrevocable defeat of the Tokugawas and the onset of the Meiji Era.

Arrival of the Black Ships. The term "black ship" became
synonymous with the application of oppressive Western technology.

From the Meiji Era on, the Edo Period was seen as a backwards time to be relegated to the past. The scientific and technological advances of the period were largely forgotten even as they set the stage for the ready adoption of Western ideas and lifestyles. Given time to continue development, who knows where the Renaissance-style technologies of the Edo Period might have ended up. Many existing plans and sketches prove quite provocative.

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