Tokugawa Shogunate: Religion and Art

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Every culture has an era that defined many of their traditions. For Japan, it was the era of the Tokugawa Shogunate. In this lesson, we'll see how art and religion redefined Japan in this period.

The Tokugawa Shogunate

Picture in your mind traditional Japanese culture. If you're thinking of tea ceremonies, poetry, or perhaps the courageous samurai, you're thinking of the Edo Period. A great amount of what Japan considers to be its traditional cultural values date to this era, which lasted from 1615 to 1868.

The Edo Period was characterized by relative peace, wealth, and stability, when Japan was basically ruled by a powerful military lord called the shogun. There was still an emperor, but the shogun had the real power and controlled most of the emperor's decisions.

During the Edo Period, the shoguns of Japan belonged to the powerful Tokugawa family, so historians also refer to this time in Japanese history as the Tokugawa shogunate. The Tokugawa Period set many foundations for Japanese culture, including those in religion and art. Under the feudal system, warlords and samurai were also supposed to be intellectuals and poets, making this one interesting era.

Tokugawa Ieyasu, founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate

Religion in the Tokugawa Shogunate

Japan is an island nation where many ideas have passed through, and in the Tokugawa Shogunate four religions established a presence in Japan. Let's start with the one most favored by the shoguns.


The founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate, Tokugawa Ieyasu, was partial to neo-Confucianism, based on the Chinese Confucian philosophy. Neo-Confucianism was more religious than Chinese Confucianism, and focused on identifying the purest essence of things in the world. Its teachings also emphasized reciprocal relationships between parents and children, as well as between rulers and subjects, and promoted a government ruled by the most qualified. The Tokugawa shoguns relied on neo-Confucianism for centuries, to help bring order and stability to a previously war-torn Japan.


So how about the other religions in Japan? The most popular religion among the Japanese people was Buddhism, which had entered the island, via Korea, centuries before. Zen Buddhism, in particular, stressed self-discovery and harmony through intense meditation and focus, which fit in well within the disciplined civility of the samurai class.


By the 17th century, Japan had also been introduced to Christianity. Prior to the Edo Period, Jesuit and Franciscan priests had entered Japan. The Tokugawa trusted them at first, but soon became suspicious of all outside influences on Japan and the missionaries were banned or killed. Still, Christianity grew in isolated pockets of Japan, with those practicing it calling themselves the 'Hidden Christians'.


Shintoism is the last major religion during the Tokugawa Shogunate to be discussed here, and it's the only one actually native to Japan. Shinto is a nature-based religion that was widely observed by the peasants of feudal Japan. The Edo Period was one of strict class differences. Peasants were essentially confined to their own villages for most of their lives, which led to very strong devotion toward the local Shinto spirits of that region.

Art in the Tokugawa Shogunate

If religion defined half of daily life in the Edo Period, art defined the other half. The defined power of warlords and their samurai created a social obligation to act as a patron of the arts. A strong economy also made many arts more affordable to the growing merchant class. A focus on discipline and perfection, in all aspects of life that defined courtly behavior, motivated artists.

All in all, art thrived in the Edo Period. This was when the formal tea ceremony was standardized. Samurai armor reached new levels of exquisite craftsmanship. Poetry, and other intellectual arts, became among the most important parts of a child's education.

Wealthy samurai put lots of effort into the arts, which was reflected in their ornately designed armor

While there were many arts that thrived in this period, let's focus on two which have really come to embody traditional Japanese culture: theater and woodblock prints.

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