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MFA for Educators

Engage your students with the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, to illustrate themes and concepts in any discipline.

Edo Japan: Art, Culture, and Daily Life

In Japanese history, the Edo period (1615-1868) was a time of important change. Tokugawa Ieyasu exacted power and moved his administration to the city of Edo (present day Tokyo). He instated the 'alternate attendance' policy, which required the feudal lords who governed the provinces to spend every other year in Edo attending the shogun at his court. This policy resulted in large numbers of single men residing in Edo, which initiated the rise of Kabuki theater as a means of entertainment. These forms of performance art worked in conversation with many other art forms, such as music, costume, woodblock prints of actor portraits, and printed theatre programs. Examples of each of these art forms can be seen in the first section of the slideshow.

During the Edo period, the Tokugawa shogunate instituted a policy of semi-isolation for Japan. However strict, the peaceful Tokugawa regime was a welcome relief from the suffering brought on by decades of civil war. The changing political environment led to urbanization, the development of a money economy, and the rise of the merchant middle class. Commercial development increased the financial power of the merchants, making them important patrons of art. The middle class emulated the elegance of the imperial court, adopting qualities of the “floating world” (ukiyo-e) for their visual imagery and style of dress. The second section of the slide show illustrates these concepts in visual form.

Independent artists, unaffiliated with the regarded Japanese painting schools, were prolific in their creations of ready-to-buy works. The technique of woodblock printing, a defining characteristic of the Edo period, aided in the creation of affordable prints. Woodblock printing also made printed books and literature more easily attainable, resulting in a rise of literacy among the merchant class. The earliest secular works, such as a courtly romance called The Tale of Genji and a collection of war stories called The Tale of the Soga Brothers were previously only available in illustrated manuscript form. During the Edo period, such classics were reprinted, often using moveable type, a technology that originated in Korea. Examples of a book of poetry and some pages from The Tale of Genji and The Tale of the Soga Brothers are available in slide set three.

In addition to literature and certain styles of dress, the ritual of the tea ceremony (chanoyu), formerly exclusive to the feudal elite, also began to spread to the merchant middle class during the Edo period. The ceremony is a choreographic ritual of preparing and serving green tea. The process, however, is less about the tea, and more about aesthetics and regard for the guest. The tea ceremony encompasses a number of art forms, such as scroll painting, architecture, ceramics, and flower arranging (ikebana). Examples of such forms, as well as images depicting the ritual of the tea ceremony, are available in slide set four.

This gallery provides a broad selection of art of the Edo period from the MFA’s permanent collection.


Grade Level: Can be adapted for various subjects in grades K-12


Learning Goals


Exploring this gallery, you will discover:


• The varied artistic mediums being used during the Edo period
• The impact that the political environment had on the art world
• The thematic and stylistic approaches used by artists.

This discovery will require students to:

• Look closely at objects and observe details
• Use prior knowledge in conjunction with observation
• Generate hypotheses based on observation and prior knowledge


Using this Resource:


• Social Studies teachers and students will be interested in what this gallery reveals about Japanese history and culture.

• Art teachers and students will be interested in the techniques and design of varying mediums of art during the Edo period.

• World Language teachers and students will be interested in studying the culture and terms applied to objects and ideas of the time.


Please click “Related Resources” to download PDFs of related classroom activities and slide notes with discussion questions.

Related Resources