Opulent Interplay

By Christian Jacobsen


Edo period Japan was a time of travel and trade. Land was no longer one of the greatest features of wealth and the increase in coinage also meant more opportunities for merchants and commoners to travel. Movement became key as wealth began to change hands. Money became more widely circulated and it prompted the rise of even more rural and urban districts with the addition of more town centers for commerce. The ability to travel was no longer limited solely to the wealthy, and along these pathways, even more interaction began to occur among social classes.

The rise of the chonin disrupted class lines and muddled the economic support of the samurai. Samurai in castle towns now had to pay for more goods, rather than their ability to requisition them solely through their fief ties, and this further provided the working class with more money to circulate throughout the economy. Many feudal lords obtained loans from rich merchants to support their lifestyle. In turn, the chonin became richer as many took land as a debt settlement from samurai who could not pay them back, essentially becoming landowners in the process. This process increased the size of the aristocracy and many very rich merchants became even richer.

The idea of the floating world often cited during the Edo period was much to thank for the rise of the economy, but this does not mean that class lines were still not present. The two main classifications were those of the wealthy and the commoners. The wealthy class consisted of the shogunate, Daimyō (governors), samurai, and landowners. The commoners consisted of farmers, artisans, and merchants. This is not to say that there were not wealthy merchants, but the existence of a rich merchant did not always include power and social respect, and only very lucky merchants eventually received land from loan default payment. The chonin did consist of mostly merchants and artisans, and this new “townsman” role did create an in-between class, but the associated perks varied from town to town.

The space associated between the wealthy and the commoners did begin to change with the rise of more cities and travel, but full interactions involving the wealthy often needed a sense of grandeur. It is as if the wealthy needed others around them to know their position in the presence of someone greater. In public and private life, the differences in these interactions can be more easily viewed. In a private home, the more common workers are often out of sight as much as possible to the richer inhabitants, while in a public space the interaction may vary. In a public space, there appear to be two different approaches to these class interactions.  While flaunting their presence, the wealthy often shield their gaze from those around them, but on some occasions, they appear to share experiences with the more common class. In this exhibition, observe these interactions as we move from the private home to the public theater, and discover your own idea of opulent interplay.

Title: Merrymaking Under the Cherry Blossoms

Artist: Kano Naganobu

Era: 17th

Location: Unspecified, Japan

Material: Color ink, gold,  on washi paper

Medium: One of a pair of six-fold screens

Dimensions: H 148.60 mm, W 355.80 mm


This depiction of an evening at a house owned by Hideyoshi, the second ‘great unifier’ of Japan, consists of his son Hideyoshi sitting with his mother and other aristocratic figures while they watch dancers and sons of feudal lords in front of them. Underneath the perspective of the wealthiest figures on the balcony, sit the palanquin drivers who appear to be resting from carrying the aristocrats earlier. Hidden behind the black curtain on the left side of the image are workers preparing food. This image frames Hideyoshi between two branches of the tree, and the view of the aristocrats is only towards the entertainers and poorer feudal lord sons. The palanquin drivers sit under the balcony, similar to during their job, and they are out of sight of those they serve. The workers preparing the food are also hidden from the balcony view as the black curtain separates them from being visible to any other party during this time within the private home of the current ruler.

Title: Horses and Grooms in the Stable

Artist: Unknown 

Era: Late 16th

Location: Honkoku-ji, Kyoto

Material: Color ink on paper

Medium: One of two six-panel screens

Dimensions: H 146.1 cm, W 346.6 cm


This piece consists of six stalls, each separated by the paneling of the screen. The background of the image has very clean horse stalls being managed by the workers while in the foreground there is samurai armor, dogs, a falconer boy, and lower-ranking samurai and priests playing Go. The social hierarchy of the individuals can be viewed in the foreground as left to right, excluding the animals. The biggest distance in this piece is between the richer samurai, represented by the armor they left on the stand, and the falconer boy who is assumed to be the son of a lower-ranking samurai. Even in a more wealthy shared space, social distinctions are present, and the path the boy has to become a rich samurai may be impossible. 

Title: Hodogaya on the Tōkaidō

Artist: Katsushika Hokusai

Era: Early 17th

Location: Hodogaya, Japan

Material: Ink and color on paper

Medium: Woodblock print

Dimensions: H 25.2 cm, W 37.5 cm


This depiction of six travelers on the public Tōkaidō is set with the grand Mt. Fuji in the background. The two palanquin drivers appear to be taking a rest and the horse lead and rider are set to pass them. The man heading in the opposite direction of these travelers is the monk on the right most of the screen, depicted with Buddhist garb and looking towards the rock outcropping. Surprisingly, the only individual looking at Mt. Fuji is the horse lead, who appears to be pointing at it with a walking stick. Both of the wealthy individuals requiring additional workers to lead them are covering their heads, leading their perspective away from interactions with their help.

Title:  Kusatsu: Famous Post House

Artist: Utagawa Hiroshige

Era: Edo (1833-1834)

Location: Tōkaidō

Material: Color ink on paper

Medium: Woodblock print

Dimensions: H 24.1 cm, W 35.6 cm


Coming into the more common space of a town, this piece depicts a restaurant scene from an outside perspective as palanquin drivers walk with their employers in the foreground. Inside the shop, there are workers making food in the stove area, and waitresses in full blue and white faces are carrying food and attending to customers. The customers appear to be coming from work, as those with similar clothing can be seen on the right carrying wares near the shop and the two individuals that just walked into the restaurant are also carrying material on them. Interestingly, this is the first piece that shows interaction with the wealthy who sit in the palanquins and the drivers. On the left of the restaurant’s opening, a palanquin driver can be seen standing, presumably about to get food for his employer. 

Title: Nihonbashi: Daimyō Procession Setting Out

Artist: Utagawa Hiroshige

Era: Edo (1833-1834)

Location: Tōkaidō

Material: Color ink on paper

Medium: Woodblock print

Dimensions: H 9-1/8 in, W 4-1/4 in 


Early morning at the Nihon Bridge shows a bustling crowd as they make their way to start the day. In front of the bridge, there is a group of commoners, and most have merchant wares and goods they are carrying. Among them are a fishmonger, a monk, and two women wrapped in kimonos. There are also small children next to the playing puppies in the front of the crowd. On the left in white appears to be a dance group, carrying fans and an umbrella, potentially doing a performance. The top of the bridge shows the start of a Daimyō procession, with the lead consisting of two standard bearers. The Daimyō (governors) are not visible but in this piece, the full immersion of the wealthy and the crowd in a formal way will be inevitable as the actions continue. 

Title: Okuni Kabuki

Artist: Unknown

Era: 17th Century

Location: Kyoto

Material: Color ink on paper

Medium:  six-panel screens

Dimensions: H 88.0 cm, W 268.0 cm


The Kitano stage supporting an okuni kabuki troupe performance depicts the greatest extent of immersion between the wealthy and commoners available at the time. Now in a public space, Hideyoshi, owner of the house included as the first piece, can be viewed in the private box holding a golden fan with his consort. There he looks upon the performance of a clown, a swordsman, and a tea house woman, sharing the experience with both more common people and other wealthy individuals. The social hierarchy is present in this piece through seating, but the shared immersion of the extremely powerful/wealthy and the more middle-class individual is the strongest in this environment than with any other activity or event. Here, they are sharing roles as the audience and this open perspective is the culmination of their interaction in a public space.



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“Beyond the Divide: Merchant, Artist, Samurai in Edo Japan: The Utah Museum of Fine Arts.” Beyond the Divide: Merchant, Artist, Samurai in Edo Japan | The Utah Museum of Fine Arts, 6 Feb. 2020, https://umfa.utah.edu/beyond-the-divide. 

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“Utagawa Hiroshige: Processional Standard- Bearers at Nihonbashi Bridge (Station #1) – Honolulu Museum of Art.” Ukiyo, https://ukiyo-e.org/image/honolulu/3761. 

Author: Christian Jacobsen

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