Book: Everyday Life in Traditional Japan by Charles J. Dunn

OK, could be much better

Charles J. Dunn
Everyday Life in Traditional Japan
Tuttle, 1972
ISBN: 0-8048-1384-1
191 pages

The "traditional Japan" of Charles Dunn's book Everyday Life in Traditional Japan is Japan from 1600 to 1850. That's commonly called the Edo period (after the former name of Tokyo) and is the period during which members of the Tokugawa family ruled Japan from Edo as military dictators called shoguns.

The book begins with a brief history of Japan up to the end of the period and then there's a chapter each on the four main divisions of the feudal society: samurai, farmers, craftsmen, and merchants. After that are chapters on people who were mostly outside the main feudal system: one on courtiers, priests, doctors, and intellectuals and another on actors and outcasts. The final chapter is about everyday life for the citizens of Edo.

That's a reasonable, if rather unimaginative, way to organize the book. Unfortunately, the lack of imagination doesn't stop there. The majority of the book is a joyless recitation of facts. That's certainly true for the first four chapters. Mr Dunn is able to muster some enthusiasm for Japan's merchants and there are bits about daily life in Edo that seem to animate him as well. But most of the book reads like a tedious, extended encyclopedia entry. Take, for example:

    Besides priests and doctors there were other
    leaned persons active in Japan. These included
    Confucianists and also those who studied the
    literature and history of Japan. The life of the
    great poet Basho can well serve as an example
    of how some Japanese became removed from
    the class system, especially if they had some
    literary or intellectual status. (p. 134)

I'm sure that Mr Dunn is quite right in saying that. But most authors wouldn't make the point in quite such leaden sentences.

The book's last paragraph is the one bit of subtle analysis in the whole thing. It's pretty insightful, but the reader could have used a bit more.

There are potentially very interesting things that Mr Dunn mentions only in passing. For example, wheels were illegal. (More exactly, their use was reserved almost exclusively for the Emperor's court.) Imagine the difficulties of collecting taxes in kind from farmers without any carts. And there are themes that could have been profitably explored. For example, during the period, contact with the outside world was virtually nil and new ideas were generally discouraged. With two and a half centuries to work on existing crafts and arts, they often reached a very high, even occasionally absurd, degree of refinement.

There are about 100 illustrations in the book but, as far as I can tell, most of them were drawn for it. Those aren't of any special artistic merit and since they're not useful as historical evidence, they just save the author from writing some description.

There are aspects of the book that aren't quite politically correct, but that's not surprising since it was written in the 1960s. There is lots of information here, but you'll learn more about (somewhat later) traditional Japan and have much more fun doing it by reading Junichi Saga's books (1, 2),

Posted: Sun - February 12, 2006 at 06:55   Main   Category: