A Case Study of Tokugawa Japan through Art: Views of a Society in Transformation - Lesson
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woodblock print from tokugawa era of mountainEssay
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Transparency Master

by Sara Thompson, History Teacher, Summit Middle School, Boulder, CO
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            Teachers are encouraged to read “Tokugawa Japan: An Introductory Essay,” by historian Marcia Yonemoto prior to conducting this lesson. The introductory essay may also be assigned to students with advanced reading abilities (grades 11-12). The essay provides context for this lesson by sketching the outline of Tokugawa history, touching on politics, economics, society, and culture and introducing some historical debates regarding the Tokugawa period. It also gives references for further reading on important topics related to Tokugawa Japan.

            During the Great Peace of the Tokugawa era, many economic and societal changes occurred in Japan. While the shogunate sought to maintain political control and its view of an ideal society, a market economy, urbanization, travel, and publishing all played a role in changing society. While merchants were officially among the lower social classes, they were able to wield economic power over the highest social class, the samurai. The government's development and maintenance of roads provided a link between city and countryside, allowing information and ideas to spread and helping to shape a sense of Japan as a unified culture.

            As noted in Dr. Yonemoto’s essay, woodblock prints developed as a popular Japanese art form and source of information during the Tokugawa period, both reflecting and shaping the commoner culture that emerged during the era. Thus, they provide a useful case study for examining the changes that occurred in the period. Two series of prints by Ando Hiroshige provide focus for the lesson—The Fifty-Three Stations of the Tōkaidō and One Hundred Famous Views of Edo. Writing of the One Hundred Famous Views of Edo, historian Henry Smith noted, “The cumulative portrait of Edo that Hiroshige paints in the 118 views in this series is rich and diverse, offering not only scenic beauty but countless references to history, custom and legend. It is at the same time, of course, a highly selective portrait, celebrating the beauty of the city, the prosperity of its merchants, the power of its ruler and the pleasures of its people.”

            In this lesson, students examine woodblock prints as texts, looking for evidence of economic and societal changes, particularly changes in travel and urban life. Students then work in small groups to read about an aspect of the period and jigsaw with members of other groups to create a larger view of the dynamics of the Tokugawa period. Finally, students return to the woodblock prints, using them as evidence to illustrate a narrative statement about the period.

Objectives: At the conclusion of this lesson, students will be better able to:

  • Recognize woodblock prints as a reflection of the social and economic changes of the Tokugawa period.
  • Make inferences based on evidence in art.
  • Synthesize information about the Tokugawa period and form conclusions based on reading, discussion, and art analysis.
  • Use art to illustrate key concepts about the Tokugawa period.
  • Explain how Tokugawa policies, the arts, and travel shaped Tokugawa society.


  • daimyō: landholding military lords
  • sankin kōtai: policy whereby the shogunate required daimyō to spend alternate years living in the capital city, Edo 
  • shogun: military rulers of Japan; in the Tokugawa period, this term refers to successive Tokugawa family members who served as hereditary rulers
  • shogunate: the government of the shogun

Materials and Advance Preparation: 

Download woodblock prints by Ando Hiroshige from two pages of a British website. Use the links in the Tokugawa Japan Online Image List to access the prints. Images 1-5 are from the series The Fifty-Three Stations of the Tōkaidō (Tōkaidō Gojusan no Uchi), 1831-1834. Publisher: Takenouchi Magohachi (Hoeido). Format: Oban yokoye. Total 55 Prints. Images 6-9 are from the series One Hundred Famous Views of Edo (Meisho Yedo Hiakkei), 1856 - 1858. Publisher: Uoya Eikichi. Format: Oban tateye. Number of Prints: 120 (inc. Title Page and a replacement print by Hiroshige II). All of these prints are located here.

            After selecting these nine images, make them available to students in one of the following ways:

  1. if using an LCD projector, save the images to your computer and project them for analysis by students;
  2. if multiple classroom computers are available, download the images and load them on the classroom computers for student use in pairs or small groups; 
  3. if you have ample computers with Internet access in the classroom, have students use the Tokugawa Japan Online Image List to go directly to the images referenced above; or 
  4. print several sets of hard copies of the images. 

            Have a copy of Nihonbashi from the Tōkaidō Road series displayed in a way that all the students will be able to see it, preferably projected on a screen.

            You will also need to make copies of Handouts T1 through T4. You will need a copy of Handout T1 for each student and enough copies of Handouts T2 through T4 for one-third of the class to have each. You will also need to make a transparency from Transparency Master T1. If you are having the students work with the images directly on line, they can use the Online Image List.

Time Required:  2-3 class periods


  1. Draw students’ attention to the displayed copy of the woodblock print Nihonbashi, which literally means “bridge of Japan.” Explain that it is an example of a woodblock print. Woodblock prints were first used in Japan as early as the eighth century, but they became a highly sophisticated and popular art form during the Tokugawa period (1603-1868).  This print, one of a series of travel images from the Tōkaidō Road, was created by the artist Ando Hiroshige. (Note that Japanese names appear with family name first, given name second. Artists were most often known by their given names, so this artist is known as Hiroshige. He was also known as Utagawa Hiroshige, adopting the name Utagawa from the renowned Utagawa studio at which he studied.)

    Located in the center of the city of Edo, Nihonbashi was the point from which all distances were measured in Japan. It was also the starting point of the Tōkaidō Road, a main highway linking the Tokugawa capital city Edo with the ancient capital, Kyoto. Along the highway were way-stations, where travelers could rest and buy meals and provisions.  Ask students to describe what they see in the picture. (A large group of travelers is coming across the bridge; there are many buildings in the background and on the sides of the print; tall ladders on rooftops could be fire lookouts for the city; inscriptions on the print could include the artist's name, the title of the print, or other information; in the left foreground is a group of people carrying baskets—probably fish-sellers; there are some animals in the right foreground. A large gate is open in the foreground, inviting the travelers to come through as well as inviting viewers to look within.) Show Quote 1 on Transparency Master T1 and discuss what students can infer about the Tokugawa Period from this quotation. (Travel was common and the government adopted policies not only facilitating travel by the building of roads but mandating it for daimyō; daimyō processions involved large processions of people, but others also traveled during the period; people profited by serving the needs of travelers; different classes and groups of people interacted through travel.)  Help students interpret what they observed in light of the quote; that is, what does this woodblock print show about Tokugawa Japan? You may want to do a “think-aloud” demonstrating to students how to bring meaning to their observations:

    The people who are coming over the bridge look like they may be part of a large procession and two of the men are holding up what looks like some kind of a standard, suggesting this may be the procession of someone important. Given what the quote tells us, I would say this is a daimyō procession, traveling between the daimyō’s local domain and Edo as required by the shogunate. The people in the foreground are probably selling goods to travelers. At least one person looks to be selling fish, but they may have other products as well. Thus, the print illustrates travel of the daimyō, and indirectly, the power of the shogun to require such travel; it also shows one way in which people profited from frequent travel in the Tokugawa Period.

  2. Explain that Hiroshige also created a series of prints showing scenes in Edo. This series was called One Hundred Famous Views of Edo and actually included 118 prints. Show Quote 2 on Transparency Master T1 and conduct a discussion of the points made in the quotation on the transparency. Some questions to guide discussion are provided below:
    • According to the quote, who held economic power? (The wealthy townspeople.) Is this similar to or different from what we know about Japan in earlier periods? (Different; in previous eras, merchants and tradesmen were not wealthy nor were they powerful.)
    • How was the new urban culture reflected in the activities of the people? (They went to festivals, the theater, and pleasure quarters; they purchased art.)
    • Why were woodblock prints so popular? (They were beautiful but also quite inexpensive; they also reflected popular aspects of the lively urban society.)
    • Why are the prints of Hiroshige a good source for examining the Tokugawa period? (They document what Edo looked like and what went on there at the end of the period; they also show travel, which was important in the period.)
  3. Explain that students will be viewing nine woodblock prints by Ando Hiroshige as visual evidence of the period. Students will be looking at prints from both the Tōkaidō Road (Set A) and Edo (Set B) series to gather information that supports the two quotes from the transparency master. Distribute Handout T1 and instruct students to make notes of what they see in the images as you project them to the class. Be sure students understand that they should fill in only the center column in the chart during the viewing. Using the downloaded images from the sites listed above, show students the nine images. (Suggested answers can be found in the Answer Keys.) After students have completed their charts, show each image again, asking students to report what they have documented. You may use the notes in the Teacher Background Information to enhance or clarify students’ observations.

  4. Ask students to consider the evidence they have seen in Hiroshige’s prints in light of the two quotes on the transparency master. That is, what did they observe in the prints that provided support for the quotes? How did the prints expand their understanding of the quotes? They should write their interpretation of the evidence from the prints in the righthand column on Handout T1. When students have finished writing, ask a few students to report their interpretations. (Sample answers are provided in the Answer Keys.) As a large group, ask the class if a consensus about the period emerges from their statements. 

  5. Inform students that they will be working in small groups to learn more about aspects of the Tokugawa period. Divide the class into groups of three. Distribute Handouts T2, T3, and T4 so that one-third of the groups have Handout T2, one-third have Handout T3, and one-third have Handout T4. Direct students to read the handout they have received. When they have finished reading, ask students to discuss the reading in their small group, with attention to the “Questions for Discussion” at the end of each reading. (Suggested answers can be found in the Answer Keys.) What does the reading reveal about one aspect of the Tokugawa period? Ask students to jot down the main ideas from the reading, and be ready to share them with another group of students, all of whom will have read about a different aspect of the period. 

  6. Jigsaw the class into new groups of three, made up of “experts” about Tokugawa art, travel, and society. Ask students to teach the members of their new group about the reading they have done, allowing time for each student to share their knowledge. 

  7. After all students have shared, review their earlier observations about the period based on the quotes and prints and ask students to consider how the reading they have done affected their views about the period. Direct each group to work together to create a new two- to three-sentence statement about the Tokugawa period that includes new information from the jigsaw exercise. Ask students to report their new statements. (Students may report that during the Great Peace of the Tokugawa era, many economic and societal changes occurred in Japan. While the Tokugawa government sought to enforce laws and regulations to maintain political control and an ideal society, a market economy, urbanization, travel, and publishing all played a role in changing Tokugawa society. While merchants were considered lowly, they ended up wielding economic power over the highest social class, the samurai. The government's development and maintenance of roads provided a link between city and countryside, allowing information and ideas to spread and helping to shape a sense of Japan as a unified culture.

  8. When all groups have completed their new statements about the Tokugawa period, ask students to look again at the prints by Hiroshige they viewed at the beginning of the lesson. To assess student understanding of the lesson content, ask students to work within their groups to illustrate their statements about the period with one or more of the images by Hiroshige, selecting art that supports their viewpoint. Ask students to consider: How does the art help to illustrate key ideas about the period?  How does the art reflect a society in transformation? (Students may suggest that the woodblock prints help to visualize the forces of social change during the period. The image of fireworks over Ryōgoku bridge, for example, reveals that some urban dwellers had the money and time to pursue pleasurable activities; the scene at Surugachō and others show evidence of a market economy, and so on.)

Optional Assessment Activity:

            To further assess student understanding, ask students to create a classroom art exhibit of the Tokugawa period, assigning groups to select art focusing on one aspect each of societal change during the period.  One group may display art reflecting travel, for example; another may choose to display art that focuses on commercial activity during the period, and so on.  Students may use images found in this lesson, or choose images by other artists of the period, such as Hokusai. Appropriate art can be found online.  Assign each group to write an exhibit catalogue explaining the main social, political, and cultural developments of the period depicted in the art in their display. You may invite visitors from other classrooms to attend an exhibit opening and assign your students to serve as docents, explaining the significance of the art on display and how it reflects societal transformation during the Tokugawa period.


            To extend the lesson, students may research the main roads and waterways of the Tokugawa period. Maps of the Tōkaidō Road and other main highways can be found online; students may want to compare Tokugawa-period maps with maps of present-day Japan to find similarities and differences between the past and present, and to compare how much Japan was linked by roads then and now.

            To learn more about the process of woodblock printing during the period, students may want to explore the excellent Brooklyn Museum website, which includes information about how woodblock print artists, carvers, and printers worked to create the multi-colored print images; students may also want to examine the section titled “How to Read a Japanese Woodblock Print,” which offers a guide to the inscriptions, censor seals, and other text found on prints.

Teacher Background Information on Woodblock Prints by Ando Hiroshige:

Set A: The Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō Road

  • Nihonbashi: Nihonbashi translates as “the bridge of Japan.” Located in the center of Edo, it was the location from which all distances were measured in Japan. It was also the starting point of the Tōkaidō Road, a main highway linking Edo with the ancient capital, Kyoto. In this scene, a daimyō procession is coming into view. In the foreground, a group of fish vendors is getting out of the way.
  • Shinagawa: Shinagawa was the first stop outside of Edo on the Tōkaidō Road. The road in this print is lined with teahouses, restaurants, and entertainment quarters. The viewer can see the end of a daimyō procession passing through the street.
  • GoyuThis station on the Tōkaidō highway was lined with inns and restaurants. In this scene, serving women from the teahouse at right are attempting to drag travelers inside. The large circle on the wall bears the name of the print series publisher.
  • OkazakiIn this scene, a daimyō procession is crossing the bridge over the Yahagi River towards the village and castle on the opposite bank. The founder of the Tokugawa shogunate, Tokugawa Ieyasu, was born in the castle shown in the distance.
  • SekiThis inn along the highway served upper class travelers such as shogunate officials and daimyōA daimyō’s attendants can be seen preparing to continue their journey.

Set B: One Hundred Famous Views of Edo

  • Clearing Weather after Snow at NihonbashiThis Edo view looks down on Nihonbashi, the bridge of Japan, to Edo castle in the upper right and Mt. Fuji on the left. At the bottom right is the Edo fish market; the street is filling with buyers and sellers. Fishing boats in the river are bringing in the day’s catch. The opposite bank of the river is lined with tile-roofed warehouses, which would resist fire in the mostly wood-framed city.
  • SurugachōThis scene depicts shoppers and delivery men in the street outside Edo’s leading dry goods store. In the distance towers Mt. Fuji, heightened by cloud forms often seen in traditional Japanese painting.
  • The River Bank by Ryōgoku BridgeHiroshige described this bridge as “the liveliest place” in Edo, with “side-shows, theaters, story-tellers, and summer fireworks; day and night, the amusements never cease.” Cargo and passenger boats can be seen on the Sumida River; tea stalls line the bank.
  • Fireworks at RyōgokuElegant restaurants along the Sumida River sponsored firework displays in the hot summer and fall evenings. Wealthy merchants hired the larger pleasure boats seen in this image for firework-viewing parties on the river. Because of the danger of fire in Edo, fireworks were restricted to the Sumida River.

Teacher Resources:

Guth, Christine, Art of Edo Japan:  The Artist and the City 1615-1868 (New York:  Henry Abrams, 1996).

Kobayashi, Tadashi, Prints by Utagawa Hiroshige in the James A. Michener Collection, Volume I (Honolulu: Honolulu Academy of Arts, 1991).

Parisi, Lynn, Sara Thompson, and Patterson Williams, Tokugawa Japan: The Great Peace and the Development of Urban Society; A Humanities Approach to Japanese History (Boulder, CO: Social Science Education Consortium, 1995).

Smith, Henry D., et. al., Hiroshige: One Hundred Famous Views of Edo (New York: George Braziller, Inc, 1986).

Takeuchi, Melinda, “City, Country, Travel and Vision in Edo Cultural Landscapes,” in Robert T. Singer, ed., Edo:  Art in Japan 1615-1868 (Washington, DC:  National Gallery of Art, 1998).

Yonemoto, Marcia, Mapping Early Modern Japan: Space, Place, and Culture in the Tokugawa Period (1603-1868) (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2003).


Created © 2008 Program for Teaching East Asia, University of Colorado.