Researching Edo Period Japan

Aug 05, '13 books, writing, affiliate-links

I've been working on a fantasy story set in Japan in the 1700s, known as Edo Period Japan. There's a lot of stuff on the internet about that era but most of it is depressingly topical. You don't get a lot of feel for the culture.

As an entry into your own research, I'm going to recommend a book, a documentary, and a Wikipedia article to start with. Together, they made it possible for me to imagine a fantasy Japan set in the late 1700s. I'll also cover some additional internet resources that you can use to flesh out your own story.

Everyday Life in Traditional Japan (Book)

This is basically a small textbook. It's pretty small at 208 pages. Easy finished in a couple of evenings. It's a bit hit or miss topic wise.

Starts off with some history and then dives into the different social classes, and then meanders into random facts. There's a lot of nice little details on how farming was done, how houses were laid out, and some details on the food of the time. I found meals to be especially interesting. Ideally they are silent, quick, and boring affairs. Talking during a meal in the Edo Period is rude. This isn't medieval Europe with roaring fires, groaning banquet tables, and busty tavern wenches!

Japan: Memoirs of a Secret Empire (DVD)

Made up of 3 hour-long documentaries, it's pretty easy to set through. The voices of the narrators, readers, and professors are pleasant to listen to unlike some other PBS productions.

The documentaries evenly cover a mixture of history, politics, and culture. It paints with a much broader brush than Everyday Life in Traditional Japan. At the same time it covers topics the book doesn't mention in detail such as the toll roads and geisha.

Shinto (Wikipedia)

Neither the book nor the documentary really cover the Shinto religion in any great detail. It's a huge influence on Japanese both now and in the 1700s. I recommend reading this after seeing the two resources above. This wikipedia article fills out some of the gaps in understanding specific rituals like the tea ceremony.

Reading about the tea ceremony without a cultural background isn't going to do much for your story. It's not just having a beer on the porch!

Other Resources

Now that you have a baseline to start from, here's some articles I think you would find useful or at least interesting. You can skip the food ones if you don't plan on covering meals in detail. Remember, meals are boring!

Female Characters

Women in the Edo Period weren't valued as much as they were in previous or later periods. They really don't have much information on them. I was forced to look at other eras for what a woman in my story could look like.