Case Study

Play in Tokugawa Japan

Why I Taught the Source

At the beginning of a lecture on the daily life of townsmen in Edo (Tokyo), I first presented an image of Tokugawa-period (1600–1868) Japanese children. This detail from an ink painting by Hanabusa Itchô (1562–1724) shows a childhood experience common to both sexes: watching a puppet show. From this unusual starting point, I aimed to address the issue of social class.

In my history of Japan course, which partially fulfills foreign culture or world history requirements for non-history majors, I later discuss how attitudes towards children and their education changed with Japan's modernization. I believe this source would also work well in a world history class on East Asian social history in the 18th century. In such a class, I would discuss women, children, and the family in Qing China and Tokugawa Japan, making occasional comparisons with a Western country, such as France.

I decided to use an image rather than a text because Edo-period paintings and woodblock prints portray both boys and girls from the commoner classes. Texts on children were mainly Confucian treatises on education, health, and wet-nursing. Fiction and autobiographical writing of that era typically did not dwell on childhood. Therefore woodblock prints provide more opportunities for discussion.

How I Introduce the Source

Of course, images from Japan are difficult to introduce without some kind of background knowledge. Before presenting this image, I emphasize that Tokugawa society was divided into four official classes: warriors (samurai), peasants, craftsmen, and merchants. Tokugawa Ieyasu (1542–1616), founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate, made all family heads register as one of the four classes in the official census. Landowners who chose to register as warriors (samurai) gained status, but they had to give up their hereditary lands in exchange for a stipend and move to a castle-town. Intermarriage between classes was officially forbidden, although by the end of the 18th century, marriage and adoption between classes was not uncommon. In fact, rich merchants were able to buy samurai status.

Young people grew up with a strong class consciousness, but children of all classes enjoyed play and games, songs and folktales, traveling entertainers and shrine festivals (selling sweets and paper toys), and celebrations for children, such as Boys' Day (Iris Festival or Tango no sekku, May 5) and Girls' Day (Doll Festival or Hina matsuri, March 3). Finally, all children did house chores or learned the family trade in the manner of an apprentice.

Reading the Source

I asked my students to start by describing the scene. They immediately noticed the puppeteers on the right before turning their gaze to the children running towards them. From the postures of the children, we recognize eager anticipation. Are they boys or girls? It is hard to tell, although an obi (belt) with a long sash usually indicates a girl. My students decided that the child closest to the puppeteers is definitely a girl. For one thing, she has more hair. Students also asked why the other children were bald with small tufts of hair. I explained that it was a Chinese fashion (believed to minimize lice and skin ailments) made popular in Japan through art depicting Chinese children at play.

Several students wondered about the half-hidden figures watching from a casement window in a gated building and offered different ideas. One suggested that the figures represented upper-class girls who were perhaps more sheltered than the children in the street. The fine gate suggests a well-to-do merchant house.


Following our discussion of the image, I provided some further context. I explained that this kind of "old-fashioned" scene led Harvard Zoologist Edward Sylvester Morse (1838–1904) to describe the Japan he visited in the 1870s as the "paradise for children." Pointing to the boy carrying a baby on his back, I remarked that Morse thought it healthy for babies to be taken on rides by older brothers and sisters, instead of being left to cry alone in cribs. Yet Morse was unaware that the children carrying babies could be servants from poor families, entrusted with baby care and house chores in exchange for room and board (so that the master's wife could assist in the shop or the fields). These baby-sitters (komori) had their own mournful songs complaining of abuse and neglect. I also pointed out that itinerant puppeteers were generally social outcasts.

At this point, one may ask whether everyone enjoyed childhood. In this picture, the artist conveys a pleasure of childhood that transcends class, gender, and time period. Some students can relate to the scene. However, when students learn about komori, they begin to see the image in a different light, becoming aware of class inequities that may lurk beneath the surface of an innocent childhood scene.

How to Cite This Source

L. Halliday Piel, "Play in Tokugawa Japan," in Children and Youth in History, Item #116, (accessed August 10, 2021).