China and East Asia

Processions through Japan

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One of the institutions that kept Japan unified during the Tokugawa period was the system of “alternate attendance,” sankin kotai. According to the rules of the system, the 250 plus daimyos had to move once a year either from their own capital to Edo or from Edo to their own capital. These movements took the shape of long processions which in the case of the larger han could include up to 2,500 people, and which for distant regions might take up to fifty days to complete. The roads along which they were traveling were swept clean — or, in the summer, watered to keep the dust down — and decorative sand was piled up along the sides. In villages and towns along the way the processions were greeted by large crowds and ushers commanded people to get down on their knees as a sign of respect.

Aware of the attention they attracted the daimyo and their retainers did their best to put on a good show. The soldiers would crouch together and walk in synchronized goose steps, and at particular points along the way they would look sideways at the people in an impressively intimidating fashion. The lance-bearers were particularly admired and the tallest and most handsome men were usually picked for this task. In fact, much of what we today identify as gear belonging to the samurai class – including helmets, swords and equipment for horses – was originally produced not for use in battles but for these ceremonial occasions. Worried about a build-up of military forces in Edo, and concerned about the costs involved, the shoguns periodically sought to restrict the number of soldiers a daimyo could assemble, but the restrictions had little effect. For the han it was a matter of prestige to send as many men as possible and often they would hire temporary laborers to swell the ranks just as the procession entered Edo or the home capital.

In addition there were foreign visitors to the shogun’s court.  When Japan in the wake of the Mongol invasion stopped participating in the rituals of the Sino-centric international system they tried instead to set up a tribute system of their own.  In the sakoku period, when the country was closed off from the outside world, gathering foreign tribute bearers was of course difficult, but there were still a trickle of foreign merchants who had official permission to visit the country.  Showing up in Nagasaki in the south of Japan they made the long journey on foot up to Edo, and much as the processions which took the daimyos back and forth to the capital, their processions attracted much excitement.  There were delegations of merchants from Korea and the Ryukyu islands but also from the Dutch East India Company.

But the journey was very exhausting, Engelbert Kaempfer, a German naturalist who accompanied a Dutch mission to Edo in 1691, recalled, since they had to put on a performance at the court of every daimyo they passed along the way.  Although the Europeans were accused of being horrendously smelly, the ladies of the courts, Kaempfer insisted, took a particular interest in them.  When they finally arrived in Edo they had to do it all again.  The shogun, said Kaempfer, would order them “to walk, to stand still, to compliment each other, to dance, to jump, to play the drunkard, to speak broken Japanese, to read Dutch, to paint, to sing, to put our cloaks on and off.”   In this way, he said, “we must suffer ourselves to contribute to the Emperor’s and the Court’s diversion” for two whole hours.