Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



From Textiles in Trade: Proceedings of the Textile Society of America Biennial Symposium, September 14–16, 1990, Washington, DC


Copyright © 1990 by the author(s).


Any discussion of the textile trade in Tokugawa Japan (1600-1867) requires that the socio-economic and political context first be outlined. Japan was a state divided into many separated political jurisdictions, with around one-quarter of the country controlled directly by the Tokugawa Shogunate and the other three-quarters under the local control of around 265 local barons or daimyo. While each of these local power-holders was subordinated to the shogun and required to spend half his time in attendance on the shogun at the Tokugawa capital of Edo (modern Tokyo), within his own domain he was an autonomous ruler. Each daimyo owed fealty to the Tokugawa, but they paid no taxes and were left alone so long as they were not abusing the residents of their domains. Tokugawa power was centered in the Kanto plain around Edo but included direct control of the major cities of Edo, Kyoto, Osaka, and Nagasaki as well as the foreign trade conducted out of Nagasaki with Dutch and Chinese merchants.

Major features of the Tokugawa era were domestic peace, following a century of warfare in the battles for unification before 1615; the political integration of the country through the system of alternate attendance required of the daimyo; urbanization; and economic growth together with greatly expanded demands for consumer goods. As a consequence of urbanization and the withdrawal of most samurai from the villages into the cities, the agrarian model of society with a clear separation between warrior-bureaucrats and aristocrats at the top of society and farmers, artisans and merchants supplying their needs broke down. Over the course of the Tokugawa era, increased commercial agriculture and by-employment activities by farmers blurred the distinctions between handicraft industries and trade, on the one hand, and farming, on the other. This had a major impact on the textile trade in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.1

While largely secluded from the outside world, Tokugawa society was by no means static and unchanging. Between 1600 and 1867 the economy became increasingly monetized and commercialized, farming shifted from subsistence to market oriented cropping patterns, and new systems of production and distribution developed. In the seventeenth century Kyoto and Osaka were the primary foci of commercial activity. The Kinki region surrounding the imperial capital of Kyoto and Osaka had long been the center of the Japanese economy and of handicraft industrial production. While Kyoto was the center of silk textile production, Osaka became a center for the cotton trade. When cotton cultivation and processing expanded in the sixteenth century, the Kinki region was of major importance.