Carol and I just recently finished our second novel, Tiger in the Shadows. Unlike our first novel, which was an historical fantasy set in the Heian era of Japan, the new novel was set in Edo period, in the year 1680, to be precise. It was very interesting to study the time period of the Tokugawa Shogunate. Japanese historians label the Edo period, which ran from 1600 to 1876, the “Early Modern” period of Japanese history. This designation is quite apropos. It is startling how modern this period of Japanese history feels, particularly when examining the urban culture of Edo, Kyoto, and Osaka, the three large cities that dominated this period. Edo, in particular, was a vibrant, thriving city that epitomized much of what we would consider an “urban lifestyle.” During much of the Edo period, it was the largest city in the world, having an estimated population of over one million by the end of the seventeenth century. According to Nishiyama Matsunosuke

This was a period of unprecedented cultural prosperity. Even the general public took part in leisure pursuits and played an active role in the creation of new cultural norms. The average commoner read books or visited the theater; some even wrote haiku verses and senryu (seventeen syllable comic verse) or performed musical genres such as gidayu, kato bushi, shinnai, or nagauta. Others went on pilgrimages sponsored by religious associations an toured distant places. The Edo period saw a rise in the quality of the culinary fare that commoners consumed; clothing and housing too showed marked improvement. Even the poor managed occasionally in the luxury of purchasing a “custom-made” comb or an ornamental hairpin. The demand for such cultural items fostered a highly refined handicraft industry.[1]

Edo had the world’s first mass-consumer culture. The cultural items that Matsunoke references above were often sold in catalogs that bear a striking resemblance to the catalogs of Sears Roebuck and Company that would debut two centuries later in the United States. Bookstores sold novels whose publication runs numbered in the hundreds of thousands. There were dozens of theaters performing the latest kabuki plays, which featured performers every bit as popular and well-known as a modern movie actor or rock star. The clothing these celebrities wore became the latest in fashion and were marketed throughout the country in catalogs similar to those used for the cultural items. Huge corporations had chain stores in the big cities and sometimes even in some of the larger castle towns.

However, the resemblance to modern culture was not just in the more pleasant and inconsequential aspects of life. The Tokugawa shogunate was the world’s first modern police state. In addition to the usual police forces to maintain order in the cities, there was also an extensive secret police apparatus whose primary purpose was internal security. They employed an enormous network of paid informers to keep tabs on the populace.[2]

For someone viewing the Edo period from a modern perspective, it all feels very familiar. It is easy to forget that it was a very different culture. Carol and I ran into this while writing Tiger in the Shadows. In the course of the novel, we need to stage an uprising by the inhabitants of Edo. We thought, “What kinds of things cause people to rise up and riot against their government?” We chose a time-tested and common grievance of citizens everywhere — high taxes.

There was only one problem with that. For all the political and mercantile sophistication of the age, the government was still run on age-old principles. And in the East, the oldest principal of all is that rice is the measure of wealth. Outside of revenues from gold and silver mines and other government owned facilities, the revenue for the government came from rice taxes levied on peasants who worked the fields outside the main urban centers. Despite the fact that Edo, Osaka, and Kyoto were three of the most commercially active and wealthy cities in the world, it apparently never even entered the minds of the rulers to tax commercial transactions or to levy some kind of property tax on residents of the cities. In the latter part of the Edo period, the Tokugawa shogunate faced terrible financial difficulties, so much so that they were almost insolvent by 1876, when they were overthrown. Despite this, the shogunate never made any attempt to find alternative sources of funding. Thus, our idea to have the city population revolt because of high taxes was a complete non-starter — they didn’t pay any taxes.

Once we discovered the absence of taxes on the urban population, it was easy to see how it had come about. The Tokugawa government was an evolutionary adaptation of the military governments that had existed in Japan since 1185. The “rice tax as revenue” model dated from over a thousand years before, when there was no appreciable large scale commercial activity. While the government was evolutionary, the times were revolutionary. The mores and sensibilities, lifestyles, and large commercial sector that were the hallmark of the Edo period were new and different from anything that had come before. The Tokugawa shogunate was a fundamentally reactionary government. Its main purpose was to maintain the status quo of the military class as ruling elite and the Tokugawa family as the leaders of the military class. The men who had power in the government were constitutionally incapable of understanding the changes going on around them and so, were unable to take advantage of the opportunities they afforded.

And that is the lesson here. No matter how much a different culture resembles your own, there are going to be surprising differences. Or perhaps the lesson is that no matter how hard you try, it is almost impossible to rid yourself of your innate biases. It never even crossed our minds that the Tokugawa government would work so differently than European governments of the same time period. We allowed superficial similarities to fool us.

There are a couple of interesting points here for aspiring writers. First, it is almost impossible to overcome your innate biases. Until I had my nose rubbed in the fact of the absence of any taxes on the city dwellers, it never would have even crossed my mind. Who would have believed that a government finance officer would be so unimaginative to not invent sales tax, income tax, and property tax? It is like it is a fantasy world. Carol and I allowed superficial similarities between the shogunate and European cultures to fool us into thinking they would operate similarly to European monarchies of the same period. Second, no matter how familiar something seems, it is probably different than you believe. Writers who are world building for a fantasy or science fiction novel should take this to heart: When you make a government or corporation, mix things up. Don’t always do things the way that we do it at home. Have your galactic empire collect taxes on only the energy output of your planets or something. Give them a surprising way of doing things and then figure out what the implications are. If you are clever, you might find ways to improve your novel while you are at it.

Going back to our original problem, you may be wondering what Carol and I did when we couldn’t raise taxes. We finally decided that rice prices are so high that the people riot in desperation to try and get some action to relieve the food shortage in the capital. Fortunately, rice riots were a staple of the Edo period, so we are on solid historical ground here.

[1] Matsunosuke, Nishiyama, and Gerald Groemer. Edo Culture: Daily Life and Diversions in Urban Japan, 1600-1868. University of Hawai’i Press, 1997.

[2] Edo Period Police (Infogalactic Article)