Edo Technology and the Art of Heart-to-Heart Transmission
In spring, it is the dawn that is the most beautiful. As the light creeps over the hills, their outlines are dyed a faint red and wisps of purplish cloud trail over them.(1) Thus begins the famous Makura no sôshi (Pillow Book), a literary record of daily events and musings written by Sei Shônagon, a lady of the imperial court around the middle of the Heian period (7941185). Virtually every Japanese can call to mind this simply described scene of a richly tinted sunrise in spring. We can share in Sei Shônagons perceptions even though separated from her by a millennium.
Many of the traditional Japanese names for colors are taken directly from objects in nature, such as minerals, flowers and plants, and birds and beasts; uguisu-iro (bush-warbler-colored, or olive green), toki-iro (ibis-colored, or pink), nezumi-iro (mouse-colored, or gray), tamamushi-iro (jewel-beetle-colored, or iridescent), sakura-iro (cherry-blossom-colored, or pale pink), and yamabuki-iro (kerria-colored, or yellow) are just a few examples. But these color names number only about 300, far less than in the West, where the spectrum was broken down to define colors in the tens of thousands. The Japanese approach to color was different from that of the West, where light, like the rest of nature, was regarded as something to be conquered through reason and analysis. Thanks to an observant and refined sensibility, nourished in a culture that valued harmony with natureas seen, for example, in the wealth of Japanese words describing various forms of precipitationthe Japanese could use these 300 names to describe an endless variety of colors and natural scenes. This subtle and refined response to natures myriad phenomena, from the change of seasons to the chirping of crickets, may be the ultimate source of a Japanese phenomenon that I call ishin denshin no waza (literally, the skilled art of heart-to-heart transmission).
Over the centuries, the Japanese have developed, refined, and elaborated on this sensibility in many waysfor example, through such nearly untranslatable concepts as wabi (a refined minimalist aesthetic), sabi (an outwardly natural, unpolished aesthetic), iki (a particular brand of sophistication and stylishness), and inase (a dashing or rakish quality). It seems to me that one of the ways this sensibility was transmitted and refined was through kata, or forms. That is to say, through the repetition of prescribed actions or gestures, as in etiquette, people were able to refine their behavior and actions and make them beautiful. Cultivating the ability to behave beautifully, yet naturally, also led to a deeper understanding of and ability to embody the aesthetics of wabi, sabi, iki, and inase. In this way a culture of form emerged. Of course, this is not a state that anyone can easily attain, nor is it something that everyone perceives identically. The forms begin at a level that anyone can master and then progress in difficulty as the learner advances, ultimately leading one to the stage where one can recognize such subtle qualities as wabi, sabi, iki, and inase. Only through long training in the forms anyone can master is it possible to achieve waza, the pinnacle of skill, and only after achieving mastery can one pass it on to others. Such Edo-period (16031868) expressions as isshi sôden, indicating transmission from father to son, and menkyo kaiden,suggesting full mastery through initiation into the secrets of an art, give some indication of how arts and skills were perceived during that period.
In the early years of the Meiji era (18681912), a German scientist by the name of Gottfried Wagener, working in the employ of the Japanese government, submitted a document titled Kôgyô no hôshin (Policy for Industry), in which he extolled above all else the ishin denshin no waza of the Japanese people, saying, If Japan wants its industry to withstand competition from foreign countries, it should preserve its unique Japanese flavor and aesthetic sense forever and never let the Japanese people forget it. During the Edo period people in almost every sector of Japanese societynot just the aristocracy and the ruling warrior class but also farmers, artisans, and otherswere economically comfortable enough to cultivate and polish ishin denshin no waza. On the material level, this gave rise to the artistic lacquerware, ceramics, and textiles for which Japan became famous around the world during this period, and it also gave rise to the everyday articles that were later treasured as mingei, or folk art, by people like Yanagi Muneyoshi (18891961), articles that were to be found virtually everywhere in Edo Japan. The foundation for this rich culture was a society well endowed with information and the means to exchange it, very similar to what we see today.
During the Edo period, although the Tokugawa shogunate had authority over all Japans feudal domains, or han, it interfered only minimally in their internal affairs. With peace firmly established, the daimyô, or lords, were allowed to rule independently over the domains they had been granted by the shôgun. Eager to see their han prosper, the administrations of the daimyô promoted diligence and hard work among all the classes. By the middle of the Edo period, han academies and privately run elementary schools had sprung up all around the country, spreading even to farming and fishing communities by the first quarter of the nineteenth century. As a result, literacy was regarded as a matter of course even among the common folk, who came to share a large body of knowledge and skills. Each region of Japan vied with the others in culture and learning, and as a result, local arts and crafts subtly distinct from those in other areas arose in each locale. This rivalry gave rise to artistic traditions, including lacquerware and such pottery as Imari ware, that were admired the world over. Even in modern times, it has been rare for a single company to hold a monopoly on any popular product; instead, rivalry among a relatively large number of companies producing comparable products with subtle differences has led to steady improvement. It is not hard to see the continuity between this characteristic of modern Japan and the underlying climate and culture of ishin denshin no waza.
TECHNOLOGY AND MASS CULTURE
During the era of civil strife prior to the Edo period, the warlord Oda Nobunaga (153482) had a large number of firearms manufactured domestically and became the first military commander to use them strategically in warfare. At that time, Japan was one of the most heavily armed countries in the world. But after the rise of the Tokugawa shogunate, the country was at peace, and such weapons were all but abandoned. During the same period, however, Japan became the first country in the world to put such technology to use in daily life. In 1819, Kunitomo Ikkansai, gunsmith to the shôgun, repaired an air rifle that had been presented to the shôgun as a gift from the Dutch. By examining the mechanism, he was soon able to produce his own air rifles, which were said to be superior to those made in the West. Although he sold these guns to various daimyô, there was little use for air rifles in a country at peace. However, the principle underlying them became the basis for an automatically refueling lamp called a mujintô (inexhaustible lamp). It was not Ikkansai who created this device, however. Once a top-class engineer like Ikkansai had laid the groundwork, there were any number of able artisans capable of applying the technology elsewhere. After mastering the principle of the air rifle in some form, they applied it to an everyday utilitarian object, the oil lamp.
From the midEdo period on, even the common people were extending their active hours into the night with the help of oil lamps, and the new mujintô proved popular. Unlike the air rifle, this lamp was easy to operate. When the cylinder containing the oil was pumped up and down, the air pressure would cause the oil to rise to the top and soak the wick. The device was designed to be convenient, easy to use, and durable.
While air rifles made for specific daimyô were accompanied by detailed manuals filled with technical information, the mujintô were generally sold with nothing more than a flier that served as the makers product catalog. There are countless such fliers remaining to us from the Edo period. They used words and pictures to indicate the sizes, designs, and prices of a variety of products in such a way that customers could choose the one that suited their tastes and pocketbook.
This practical use of cutting-edge technology in the everyday life of the common people during the Edo period is testimony to the unique technological and social systems built around the mass culture that flourished during 260 years of peace. Nor did this culture value utility and efficiency alone. It also sought that which could beautify ones surroundings or which, by virtue of some added feature or innovation, provided a heightened sense of style or comfort. The Japanese have long been fond of products that show a heightened attention to detail, quality, and convenience, and the flier-catalogs dating from the Edo period boast of the variety of products developed to please such tastes.
Another product of Edos mass culture was a clock designed to measure time according to the traditional Japanese system of unequal hours. The first mechanical clocks in Japan were imported from Europe around the beginning of the seventeenth century. Mechanical clocks had appeared in Europe between the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, and from the fifteenth century on, time in European society was measured by clocks that used the force of a weight or spring to mark regular intervals. This signaled an important shift in the cultures consciousness of time. In an unequal-hour system the daylight period and the nighttime period each have the same number of hours regardless of the season, so that the length of an hour varies according to the season and period of day. With the development of the mechanical clock, Europe abandoned this system for one in which an hour was always the same length whether it was day or night, making it easier to synchronize the entire society. It was this new era of mechanical timekeeping that produced the story of Cinderella, whose carriage turns into a pumpkin at the stroke of midnight, and the expression time is money, attributed to the eighteenth-century American statesman and inventor Benjamin Franklin.
With Christianity as the foundation for social and economic activity, commerce and trade flourished in the West, and a common, standard concept of time was doubtless considered necessary. In the East, however, the societies of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were not yet dominated by commerce and industry. Predominantly agricultural countries like China and Japan had little use for the Western system of equal hours. In the seventeenth century, both the Chinese emperors and the Japanese ruler Ieyasu, the first Tokugawa shôgun, had collections of Western clocks. The rulers in both countries treated those clocks as high-priced, exotic toys or knickknacks signifying their own privileged status, not as utilitarian objects. In Japan, however, with the development of mass culture, this advanced technology was not reserved for the privileged class but was adapted to create clocks for practical use by society as a whole. The easiest way to adapt Western clocks to the system of unequal hours was to substitute different clock faces with varying intervals between the hours as the year progressed, but a number of other solutions and mechanisms were tried as well. In this way Japan became the first and only country in the world to develop and make wide use of mechanical clocks that could tell time according to an unequal-hour system.
A related phenomenon is the development of technology related to popular art and entertainment in the Edo period, including ukiyoe woodblock prints and the revolving stage in kabukia phenomenon that seems to anticipate contemporary Japans success with such mainstays of popular culture as anime and video games. Another early manifestation of this skill was the mechanical doll (karakuri ningyô). One such doll extant today has 12 moving parts and a mechanism that makes use of a spring, six cams, and wires. When set in motion, the doll repeats the action of picking up an arrow, placing it in a bow, aiming at a target, and shooting. The mechanism itself is astonishing, particularly since the arrows fly a full 20 meters. But perhaps even more impressive is the fact that the doll is designed to miss the target on some tries and hit it on others. If this were an object to be shown to a daimyô or aristocrat, allowing the arrow to miss its target would be an insult to the viewer and an embarrassment to the artisan. But to entertain common folk and hold their interest, the misses were crucial. Further, because the face of the doll resembles that of a nô mask in its ability to convey emotion through subtle movements, the doll appears disappointed when the shot misses and delighted when it hits the target. The fact that several hundred years ago Japanese artisans were able to create a mechanical doll that misses its target and responds with human emotion seems to provide a key to understanding Japans current status as a robot superpower whose preoccupation with and success at developing lifelike humanoid robots and robot pets both amazes and puzzles the rest of the world.
THE SCIENTIFIC SPIRIT
In his 1727 book History of Japan, Engelbert Kaempfer, a German physician working in the Dutch traders settlement in Nagasaki, marveled at the material and spiritual affluence of Edo-period Japan, and he suggested that the national isolation imposed by the shogunate was an ideal state of affairs, writing of the Japanese, who confined within the limits of their Empire enjoy the blessings of peace and contentedness, and do not care for any commerce, or communication with foreign nations, because such is the happy state of their Country, that it can subsist without it.(2) The relative autonomy of the domains and rivalry among them in fostering learning, culture, and industry was largely responsible for the prosperity that Kaempfer observed, and a major factor powering this development was the patronage of daimyô, high-ranking retainers, and wealthy merchants, who could be found in every part of the country. A similar phenomenon occurred in Europe, where the patronage of monarchs and nobles provided the means for countries to vie with one another in various spheres, and helped nurture the development of science and technology. Such patrons often provided generous funding for favored scholars and artisans and overlooked occasional failures resulting from their experiments. In the short term, such patronage may sometimes have seemed like a waste of money, but the overall effect on culture and society was to stimulate development.
One such patron in Japan was Hosokawa Shigekata (172085), the eighth lord of the Higo domain (Kumamoto Prefecture). Noted for rebuilding the domains finances and implementing comprehensive reforms, he also established a school called the Jishûkan to develop local talent and backed the development of haze (goby) breeding, sericulture, and other local production. In addition, he supported the study of medicinal plants and animals and engaged in such studies himself, leaving numerous drawings and writings to posterity. One example is a book of insect illustrations dated 1778, preserved at Aso Shrine. The book contains hundreds of life drawings of bees, dragonflies, cicadas, butterflies, and other insects. It also includes pictures of animals other than insects, such as frogs, leeches, and sea hares. The work follows the Chinese method of classification rather than the more scientific taxonomy that European scholars had developed. Nonetheless, the pictures display a level of detail and accuracy of observation that elevates them to the realm of science. One set of illustrations presents the entire life cycle of the silkworm in meticulous detail, from larva and cocoon to adult, including a picture of the larvae eating leaves. Moreover, there is no doubt that the knowledge Shigekata gained through his studies was put to good use in the practice of sericulture. This practical emphasis is characteristic of scientific studies during the Edo period.
To better understand the nature of scientific studies in the Edo period, let us look more closely at sericulture. Although developed in China, the technology of manufacturing silk thread from the cocoons of silkworms and weaving it into high-quality textiles had been known in Japan for centuries. In the Edo period, when a national economy emerged and various regions of the country began to specialize in distinctive products to market nationally, Japanese sericulture technology made dramatic strides; in fact, more than 100 volumes on the subject were published during the Edo period. One of these was the three-volume Yôsan hiroku (Secrets of Sericulture), published in 1802. The first volume explained such basics as the origins of sericulture, names, varieties of silkworm, the cultivation of mulberry bushes (on which the silkworms feed), and the implements of sericulture. The second volume explained the specifics of sericulture: the eggs, the transfer of the newly hatched larvae, feeding, the spinning of the cocoons, the process of reeling the thread, and so forth. And finally, the third volume discussed the manufacture of related goods, such as silk floss and cotton. The author, Kamigaki Morikuni (17531808), who raised silkworms in Tajima (a rural district in what is now Hyôgo Prefecture), traveled around the country at his own expense to learn the most advanced sericulture techniques with the aim of upgrading and promoting the sericulture in his own local region. The Yôsan hiroku, a compendium of the knowledge he acquired in this way, was his effort to ensure that as many as possible benefited from his know-how. The German-born physician and naturalist Philipp Franz von Siebold, who lived in Japan in the 1820s and eagerly studied the country, took the book back with him to Europe, where the silk industry was languishing as a result of a silkworm blight. Siebold included the book among the items he presented to the king of the Netherlands, and in 1848 it was published in France and Italy, making an important contribution to the European silk industry. As this suggests, Japans impact on the West was not limited to the arts and crafts but extended to practical science and technology as well.
Although the premodern Japanese never built systems of knowledge like those of Western science, the accomplishments and writings left to us by daimyô, artisans, and others give evidence of the scientific spirit at work. This can be seen, for example, in Kunitomo Ikkansais record of his efforts to make an air rifle. In order for the rifle to propel a bullet, it was necessary to compress air into an airbag in the gunstock. Ikkansai took numerous measurements to ascertain how the weight of the gun changed depending on how much air was pumped in. Although there was no Japanese word for air pressure in those days, Ikkansai was able to ascertain, through experimentation, that air had weight a perfect example of the scientific spirit in action.
Ikkansais ability to examine an unfamiliar object like an air rifle and understand its underlying principles was owing to his excellent powers of deduction and extensive experience. Even today, the most experienced and able artisans and engineers are able to grasp the basis of a technology intuitively even if they lack the scientific vocabulary to explain it. Ikkansai was such an artisan. Another one was Kume Michikata (17801841) of the Takamatsu domain (Kagawa Prefecture), who invented an ox-powered device for pumping irrigation water and traveled to Kyoto, Osaka, Edo, and other parts of the country demonstrating and promoting his invention. The flier that he distributed not only described the merits of his own device but explained, with the help of illustrations, why a hypothetical pumping device known as the jinensuia kind of perpetual motion water pump powered by watercould not possibly work. In fact, we still have the model that Michikata used to discredit the jinensui. Also remaining to us is an unfinished manuscript in which Michikata, elaborating on information gathered from such works as the 1674 Chinese book Xinzhi lingtai yixiang zhi (Account of the New Sets of Observatory Instruments) by the Jesuit missionary Ferdinand Verbiest (Nan Huairen), illustrates and provides calculations for a human-powered water pump. The manuscript also includes diagrams and partial calculations for building two of his own perpetual-motion machines combining waterwheels and pumps, including one using an Archimedes screw. Of course, we know now from the first and second laws of thermodynamics that a perpetual-motion machine is impossible and that no mechanical device can transmit energy with complete efficiency. But Japanese like Michikata tackled questions of this sort in Edo-period Japan without the benefit of modern Western science.
CURIOSITY AND CRAFTSMANSHIP
Curiosity seems to have been a characteristic of people of all classes during the Edo period, as attested by the great popularity of exotic shows, spectacles, and exhibits. Elephants, camels, and peacocks were imported to Nagasaki, and from there they were transported as far as Edo to display to the curious public. Near the end of the Edo period, a man by the name of Kirisawa Karoku toured about with a contraption that apparently consisted of 10 looms powered by a water wheel. He was no doubt inspired by news of two English power looms that had been imported to Satsuma (Kagoshima Prefecture) in the 1850s and made to run with water power. Though Kirisawas device, which used traditional hand looms, is unlikely to have worked in practice, one can only marvel at the curiosity and can do attitude supporting such creations.
There were also those who went beyond the exhibition of curiosities. Tanaka Hisashige (17991881), a famous maker of mechanical dolls and founder of what is now the Toshiba group, built a steam locomotive prototype and two steamboat prototypes based solely on a steam locomotive he had seen aboard a Russian ship at Nagasaki. X-ray photographs of the steam locomotive show that with its rudimentary boiler, using a direct-heat mechanism and having little steam capacity, it would have taken a long time to generate enough steam to move and would have stopped soon after it started. However, he learned from that experience, and the boiler he made for his steamboat was vastly improved, using multiple steam pipes to generate more steam. With the help of these prototypes, Tanaka eventually succeeded in building a working steamship, the Ryôfu-maru. The very first Japanese steamship was the Unkô-maru, built in the Satsuma domain in 1855. A Dutch officer who visited Satsuma in 1858 and saw the Unkô-maru remarked that, while it could use improvement in some of the details, he could only admire the ability of anyone who could build such a ship from just a simple plan, without ever having seen the real thing. What he was really admiring was the curiosity, resourcefulness, and craftsmanship that fueled the remarkable technological advances of the Edo period.
Translated from an original article in Japanese written for Japan Echo.
This article concludes the Edo Perspectives series that we have presented in Japan Echo since last year, which marked the four hundredth anniversary of the establishment of the Tokugawa shogunate in Edo, todays Tokyo, in 1603.
(1) Ivan Morris, trans., The Pillow Book of Sei Shônagon (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), p. 21.
(2) Kaempfer wrote his book in German, but it was first published in English. The quote is from the original English translation by J. G. Scheuchzer, p. 54.Ed.
© 2004 Japan Echo Inc.