Tōkaidō Introduction

Introduction to the Tōkaidō

From 1600 to 1868, Japan was governed by a military dictatorship headed by the Tokugawa family, whose capital was in Edo, present day Tokyo.  There was another political and religious authority located in Kyoto.  This was the Emperor and the Imperial court.  The Tokugawa family maintained its authority because of its military power, but also because the Emperor recognized its authority by appointing each succeeding head of the Tokugawa family as The Great Eastern Barbarian Conquering General.  In Japanese the title is Seii Taishōgun, or simplified Shōgun.  In English, we call this form of government “the Tokugawa Shogunate.”  The Tokugawa Shogun ruled large parts of the country directly, but most of Japan was governed on a day to day basis by warlords, called Daimyō, or “Big Names” in English.  They ruled over semi-independent domains, and the Shogun pretty much left them alone as long as they followed a few rules.  One of the most important of these rules was that the Daimyo had to be in attendance in Edo every other year and that they had to leave their wives and children in Edo as hostages.  This all seems like a very complicated, messy way to run a country, but the Tokugawa Shogunate was actually pretty successful.

The rule of the Tokugawa family lasted for 268 years.  How long did the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics last?  How long did Hitler’s Third Reich last?  How long has the US government been in existence?

One of the first policy decisions Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate, made after his decisive victory at the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600, was to designate 5 major official highways that would extend throughout the country.  Chief among these was the Tōkaidō, the “Eastern Seacoast Road.”   This highway ran from Edo to Kyoto, a distance of about 300 miles.  The road was approximately 18 feet wide and was constructed of a roadbed of crushed gravel overlaid with sand.  The Shogunate assigned official post-station towns along the route, and ultimately these numbered 53.  These post-stations were expected to maintain a certain number of horses and human carriers of freight and people.  They were used in relays, switched out from one station to another.  Runners were also employed to carry messages in relays, quickly from one location to another.  However, the overwhelming majority of traffic on the Tōkaidō was people walking.  The Daimyo and men of high rank on their journeys to and from Edo (of the country’s approximately 250 daimyo, about 150 used the Tōkaidō) would ride horses, but their large number of retainers/samurai and attendants accompanied them on foot.  The highway was constructed and maintained by labor drafted by the Shogunate from the areas under its direct control and by the Daimyo of the domains through which the road passed. The post-station towns were responsible for providing inns with fine rooms and gardens for the distinguished travelers.  In the end, it was taxes levied on the local people living within the areas around the post-stations that paid for the road.  If you were the Shogun/dictator of Japan, why would one of the first things you do be creating a road system?  How long would it take you to walk from Edo to Kyoto?

At first, travel was restricted.  Barriers were set up between domains to inspect the travel permits and proof of identity of travelers.  Travel permits were only issued to those who had a legitimate reason to travel.  But as time went on, and Japan became more prosperous and populated, the restrictions became looser, until thousands of people were travelling the road, many for tourism, with the ostensible purpose of going on religious pilgrimage.  Further, as commerce increased, more and more merchants were sending products borne by pack horses around the country and using runners to communicate the latest information about financial transactions from the great commercial city of Osaka to Edo.  As the foreign traveler, Francis Hall, observed in the mid-eighteen fifties, “From early morn till night this national highway is a scene of busy life. . . . Crowds of people are passing through it, from the haughty grandee of the empire . . . to the naked coolie with his burden pole of bamboo.” All of this traffic made the post-station towns prosperous and income generators, no longer a tax burden but a source of income.  Hundreds of inns sprung up in each town; not the beautiful inns for the high-born, but cheap inns for common people.  Local shops, gambling, yakuza gangs also prospered.

The link provided below is an interactive map of the Tōkaidō with contemporary photographs.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *