Processions through Japan

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 traveled were swept clean – or, in the summer, watered to keep the dust down – and decorative sand was piled up along the sides. Aware of the attention they attracted, the daimyo and their retainers did their best to put on a good show. The lance-bearers were particularly admired and the tallest and most handsome men were usually picked for this job. In fact, much of what we today think of as paraphernalia 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; sometimes they would hire temporary laborers to swell the ranks just as the procession entered a large city.

During the sakoku period, when Japan was closed off from the outside world, there were still a trickle of foreign merchants who had official permission to visit the country. Showing up in Nagasaki in the south, they made the long journey on foot to Edo. Much as the processions which took the daimyos back and forth to the capital, the processions of these foreigners attracted much attention. There were delegations of merchants from Korea and the Ryukyu islands but also from the Dutch East India Company.

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