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FAQ: What were sumptuary edicts?


Numerous sumptuary regulations were issued throughout the Edo period (1615-1868) to control the expression of ideas that were deemed a threat to public decorum, safety, or morality, or that were subversive to the ruling Tokugawa shogunate. Ostentatious and inappropriate behavior and display for all the classes was proscribed. The earliest sumptuary laws were based on similar practices from China, where consumption was correlated positively with status. In Japan these regulations were called ken'yakurei ("laws regulating expenditures": 儉約令) for all classes of society. They did not constitute a distinct body of laws, but rather were part of the occasional regulatory proclamations (ofuregaki: 御觸書) issued by the rôjû ("council of elders": 牢中) and disseminated through various intermediaries to the intended group or class. Although the chônin ("persons of the town": 町人) often complained about the repressive measures, the government generally relied more on threats and exhortations than on imposing punishments. There were only a limited number of recorded cases of arrest for violating sumptuary edicts cited in Tokugawa-period legal documents or the popular literature. Throughout the Edo period the sumptuary regulations frequently referred to previous edicts, suggesting that many were not considered permanent or practically enforceable, and that compliance among the targeted groups was often a problem. An expression of the time, mikka hatto ("three-day laws": 三日法度), suggested that violations of sumptuary laws often followed after only brief periods of compliance.

Sumptuary edicts had an impact on two of the principal areas of social and political life, "Content and the Expression of Ideas" and "Appearance and Expenditures."

Content and the Expression of Ideas

There were during the Edo period various periodic restrictions on "content," such as edicts that prohibited publishing about current events, unorthodox theories, rumors, scandals, erotica, government officials, or anything directly related to the Tokugawa rulers or the Imperial Family. One of the most repressive set of edicts was known as the Kansei Reforms, named after the era name Kansei (I/1789 - II/1801) in which they were enacted. With the death of the shogun Ieharu in 1786, his successor Ienari (1773-1841; ruled 1787-1837) remained a minor until 1793, and the real governing power was in the hands of Matsudaira Sadanobu (1758-1829), a grandson of the shogun Yoshimune and the daimyô (military lord, literally "great name") of the Shirakawa domain. Sadanobu held the post of chief councilor (rojû shuseki) from 1787 to 1793. He initiated reforms that he believed were needed after a series of riots in various cities in the summer of 1787 were precipitated by high rice prices following several years of poor harvests and famines. The early stages of the Kansei Reforms focused on the removal from power of corrupt officials and the institution of various specific measures to check inflation and stabilize prices. The reforms were later extended to the field of publishing in 1790. In the fifth month of that year, no new books were to be published except by special permission. Current events were not to be depicted in prints, and gorgeous and extravagant works were to be avoided. No unorthodox theories were to be published, while the publication of erotica was to be gradually halted.

The first and most sensational prosecution under the new Kansei publishing laws was the punishment of the popular artist and author Santô Kyôden (1761-1816) and his publisher Tsutaya Jûzaburô (the publisher of Sharaku and Utamaro) for three sharebon ("books of wit and fashion," popular light literature set in the Yoshiwara) published in 1791. Kyôden was the proprietor of a shop selling smoking accessories and had been active as a skilled ukiyo-e artist under the name of Kitao Masanobu before turning to fiction. The three offending books were Seirô hiru no sekai - Nishiki no ura ("The Daytime World of the Brothel: The Other Side of the Brocade"), Ôiso fûzoku - shikake bunko ("Manners of Ôiso: A Library of Contrivances"), and Tekuda tsumemono - shôgi kinuburui ("Padding of Coquetry: The Courtesan's Silken Sleeve"). The books had superficial historical settings and labels on their covers proclaiming them to be "didactic reading matter" (kyôkun yomihon), but these gestures were apparently considered insufficient by the new censors working under the Kansei Reforms. Following an investigation, Kyôden was sentenced to fifty days in handcuffs, Tsutaya Jûzaburô was fined half of his entire net worth, and the unfortunate gyôji (judges or censors) who had approved the books for publication were exiled from Edo. The severity of these punishments was remarkable given the mildness of the offense. Although they dealt with "courtesans and depravity," the books were neither political nor pornographic. It seems likely that the real motive of the shogunate was to intimidate all writers and publishers of light literature by making an example of Kyôden, who was far and away the most popular and skilled author of sharebon.

Appearance and Expenditures

Other sumptuary edicts attempted to proscribe "appearance" and the expenditure of wealth as appropriate to each class. As some of the merchants began to amass large fortunes and live in a manner previously reserved only for the samurai class, the bakafu ("tent government," the shôgun's ruling officials) issued sumptuary laws to reinforce the distinctions between the classes, to encourage frugality, and to maintain a Neo-Confucian system of moral conduct. The government was particularly concerned that the morale and discipline of the samurai class should not be undermined by ostentatious displays of wealth among the 'chônin'. Many regulations proscribed the consumption of goods and services and placed limits on luxurious entertainment, identifying what was appropriate for members of each social level and closely correlating consumption with social status.

The bakufu recognized that fashion could be used to cross over the class boundaries, which were often differentiated by styles of clothing and accessories. The potentially seditious nature of dress and fashion during the Edo period was reflected in a startling number of repressive edicts involving clothing, although the edicts actually touched upon many aspects of behavior and life style. Edo-period sumptuary edicts were, in a practical sense, directed at controlling the more visible displays of social status, and they were issued with increasing frequency beginning in the 17th century. Edicts as early as 1617 prohibited gold and silver leaf appliqué on courtesans' clothing. Other edicts banned gold thread. In 1649 the first comprehensive list of restrictions for chônin was issued for Edo, which included a ban on gold lacquer decoration, houses with gold or silver leaf trimming, and gold lacquer riding saddles. Gold or silver clasps were occasionally forbidden on tobacco pouches for being too ostentatious.

One notorious case of flagrant violation occurred in 1681 and involved a wealthy Edo merchant named Ishikawa Rokubei. The Rokubei household, including his wife and her servants, had proudly adorned themselves in magnificent dress in order to view the fifth shogun Tokugawa Tsunayoshi (1646-1709) when he visited Ueno. Thinking she was the wife of a daimyô, the shôgun inquired after her, but when he was told she was only the wife of a merchant, the shogun was infuriated, believing they had shown disrespect to their superiors by dressing beyond their station. Tsunayoshi had the couple summoned to the office of the town magistrate, whereupon all of Rokubei's property was confiscated and the family banished from Edo. Soon afterwards, in 1683, Tsunayoshi and his officials issued sumptuary regulations in unprecedented numbers regarding the clothing of chônin (ironic given Tsunayoshi's own profligate spending and ostentatious life style), and it is tempting to speculate that the Rokubei incident provoked Tsunayoshi to enact more clothing laws.

When the sumptuary regulations were issued as frugality measures, expenditures were to be appropriate to one's social status: One had not only to avoid excessive spending but also had to live according to one's social position; in other words, a failure to spend in a manner appropriate to one's social position could also mean falling short of fulfilling one's obligations. It might be argued that the frugality edicts were not entirely negative, especially for the samurai class. Samurai were likely to understand that frugality was both virtuous and practical. The chônin, however, probably viewed these regulations in a negative light, as repressive measures aimed at limiting their success, and, in effect, protecting the samurai estate at their expense. Most of the chônin appear to have controlled their public displays, and a few of the practical guides of the period (such as Chônin bukoro, "The Townsmen's Bag," by Nishikawa Joken, 1648-1724) admonished the chônin not to exceed their superiors, while teachers of the Shingaku social and ethical philosophy (such as Ishida Baigan, 1685-1744, and Nakazawa Dôni, 1725-1803) urged the chônin to observe their social position for fear of bringing disorder into the hierarchy and offending the natural order.

Sumptuary proclamations occasionally had a chilling effect on personal or artistic expression, even if actual arrests or punishments were limited. Some edicts were surely enforced longer than the so-called "three day laws" of conventional wisdom. From 1790 on, single-sheet prints published commercially were required to include a seal indicating the approval of the censor, who would be held personally responsible for any violations. This system of censorship, or a variation thereof, would remain in place for more than 80 years, even beyond the demise of the shogunate in 1868 (see Censor Seals).

Ukiyo-e researchers have long cited examples of edicts that affected printmaking, such as the banning of prints with bust portraits of women in the first month of Kansei 12 (1800). The edict was a curious one, as it admitted that there was nothing really wrong with such prints, but that they were to be proscribed as medatsu ("conspicuous"). Another example was the ban in 1793 on prints with the names of women other than courtesans. The intention appeared to involve a desire to maintain social distinctions by protecting the reputations of women who, although connected with the floating world, were not actually prostitutes, such as geisha and teahouse waitresses. One interesting response to this was Kitagawa Utamaro's series Kômei bijin rokkasen ("Famous Beauties Selected from Six Houses"), the last word also being a pun on Rokkasen and thereby offering another meaning, "Famous Beauties as the Six Poetic Immortals." The title of each individual print, giving the name of the women, was not written out but rather was obliquely indicated by a rebus drawn inside a rectangular inset beside the series title cartouche (that is, it contained pictures of objects whose names, when spoken, were homonyms for the name of the woman portrayed in the print). Such designs were called hanji-e ("puzzle pictures"). The bakufu responded (whether coincidentally or in direct response to Utamaro's series we do not know) by subsequently banning hanji-e in 8/1796, and thus when Utamaro's second edition of these designs was issued, the series title was changed to Fûryû rokkasen ("The Fashionable Six Poetic Immortals") and the small rectangles redrawn and carved to contain imaginary portraits of the six poets instead of the rebus elements. The women were therefore unidentified, with the exception of the only courtesan, Hanaôgi of the Ôgiya, whose name was written on the second edition version (still allowable under the law due to her low status as a prostitute). Other examples of repressive measures included limitations on the number of colors that could be used on ukiyo-e prints and the proscription against mica dust on backgrounds.

Among the worst of the later set of edicts were the repressive Tenpô kaikaku ("Tenpô Reforms") of 1842-1847. They were particularly onerous for printmakers. In Edo (1/1842) and in Osaka (7/1842) the edicts included a ban on prints with theatrical subjects, thus effectively halting almost all print production in Osaka until around 5/1847. Edo fared better than Osaka, however, because its publishing industry did not rely as heavily on actor prints (nearly every print published in Osaka depicted a theatrical subject). As for officially recorded punishments for infringing Tenpô, edicts, there was one case involving excessive display by the enormously popular actor Ichikawa Danjûrô VII (1791-1859). In 1842 Danjûrô was banished from Edo because of his extravagant lifestyle and ostentatious stage productions. The specific infraction was Danjûrô's use of genuine samurai weapons and armor on the stage instead of using the usual imitation military stage props, a clear infraction of the separation of the samurai and commoner classes (actors were ranked below peasants and merchants in the social hierarchy). The weapons and armor were apparently loaned or given to Danjûrô by wealthy samurai admirers. Danjûrô's exile lasted 10 years, although he did not actually suffer much, living well in Osaka and performing to great acclaim. © 2000-2001 by John Fiorillo


  • Jenkins, D.: The Floating World Revisited. Portland: Portland Art Museum, 1993, p. 186.
  • Screech, T.: The Shogun's Painted Culture: Fear and Creativity in the Japanese States, 1760-1829. London: Reaktion Books, 2000.
  • Shively, D.: "Sumptuary regulation and status in early Tokugawa Japan," in: Harvard Journal of Asiatic studies, Vol. 25, 1965, pp. 123-134.
  • Thompson S. & Harootunian: Undercurrents in the Floating World: Censorship and Japanese Prints. New York: Asia Society, 1991.

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