Our Edo period future?

The second season of Westworld has some scenes set in Edo period Japan. To spoil things for you there is apparently a scene-by-scene re-creation of a plot arc from the first season of the show set in the American West. Watching this scene, and comparing it to the earlier version, I can’t but help feel that the Edo period setting is more grand and refined. If the first season’s violent attack was brutalist, the scene above is more neoclassical.

Then again, Edo Japan and the American West are perhaps antipodes of second-millennium civilization. Where the 19th century American West was anarchic, chaotic, and creative, the Edo period in Japan was notable for its stability, order, and the perception that it was a culture in chrysalis. Old forms may have been reinvented, but those forms were treasured.

The context for the Edo period is that 16th century Japan was a dynamo. Not always in a good way. The islands were riven by internal warfare. The Japanese were known to be a piratical race by the Ming dynasty, and the 16th century ended with the warlord Hideyoshi’s disastrous invasion of Korea. Prefiguring Japanese ability to imitate the West in industriousness they developed a skill in the making of guns, while Roman Catholic Christianity had great success in the southern island of Kyushu.

Eventually, Tokugawa Ieyasu set the stage for Japan’s nearly three hundred year exile from the congress of nations, turning his back on Hideyoshi’s adventurousness. Of course, it is false to assume that the Japanese were totally insulated from the outside world. Not only did they connect with the West through the Dutch, but the Japanese maintained a more intense relationship with Korea. Even in the 17th and 18th century, a movement of “Western Learning” persisted through the interaction with the Dutch (though arguably late Confucian influences may have been more significant).

The violent suppression of Christianity in the 17th century and the emergence of a static caste system strikes modern sensibilities as brutal, barbaric and regressive. But the Edo period’s reduction in distribution and production of lethal firearms shows the upside of a conservative and controlling social land political elite. Violence continued, but it was relatively controlled and channeled.

We think of the future as endlessly protean and dynamic. But science fiction offers up an alternative possibility far more like Edo period Japan: technologically stagnant, culturally conservative. Frank Herbert’s Dune was set in the context of a universe where there had been a religious jihad against artificial intelligence. Meanwhile, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series was originally based on imperial Rome, but later incarnations admitted that the better model was imperial China. Just as in the Dune series, the Foundation universe had to grapple with humanity’s protean and chaotic violence, which threatened to take down our civilization periodically due to enthusiasms.

The Edo period stretches from the early 17th century down to the middle of the 19th. All in all this is not a bad run. Our own republic’s 250 year anniversary will be on us in 2026.

21 thoughts on “Our Edo period future?

  1. Prefiguring Japanese ability to imitate the West in industriousness they developed a skill in the making of guns,

    (Naive question) Did Japanese work ethic develop mostly post-Meiji restoration?

  2. probably not. europeans were quite impressed with the japanese when they encountered them in the 1500s. edo apan was quite densely populated and the ming already called the japanese ‘dwarf pirates’ because they were so protein deprived.

  3. You’re right about 250 years being not that bad, although it doesn’t feel like a long span of time. Imperial China probably had major disruptions/civil wars/steppe invasions at a higher frequency than that, and the western societies absolutely did.

    That could become more likely if we eventually enter a technologically static state with strong political norms controlling population growth, although I tend to think that’s far off. The real wild card would be immortality – if a society of immortals can figure out how to rotate people out and share power across generations, then they could be socially stable for very long periods of time indeed.

  4. Thanks! Look forward to learn about this aspect of theirs some time.

    I had got Jansen’s book after reading about it here but found it hard to keep up the energy to read it; densely packed with a lot of stuff :'(

  5. Brett, immortality will not be evenly distributed either. Some, like the Tessier-Ashpools of Neuromancer, will live forever or almost forever, others will die well before their time.

  6. I know, I wish I were tougher/better motivated at reading about distant cultures!

  7. I fail to see how there could only be “One” future for all of humanity. I do not see any scenario where the entire Earth melds into one political and cultural entity that controls everything. Instead, some societies will be dynamic and others will not. Its possible that the West could become stagnant and the Chinese dynamic. Or, more likely, the West will bifurcate between North America and Europe. North America becomes more dynamic in the future while Europe continues its decline into stagnancy. China could go either way.

    It is reasonable to say that the future will be dynamic, outward-oriented for at least SOME people in this world. There is simply too much competition in this world that will continue to drive technological innovation and inherent dynamism.

  8. Re, Japanese work ethic, not a naive question at all I don’t think.

    Seems like a mixed picture. From what I recall, Western visitors to Japan remarked on attention to detail, discipline and ingenuity (and high culture refinement relative to material poverty). But also, at least by the 19th century, on a different attitude to punctuality, idleness, effort and “industriousness”, which was generally common to their observations of Asia (including no less invariably when they encountered the rice producing cultures that are today often imagined to have a cultural legacy inclining them towards particular degrees of hard work, effort and long labour hours).

    See – https://twitter.com/MarkKoyama/status/990647818753794048 for an example, in this case via a Japanese diplomat.

    Or Pseudoerasmus on divergences in labour productivity – https://pseudoerasmus.com/2017/10/02/ijd/, including “In 1910, one New England cotton textile operative performed as much work as 1.5 British, 2.3 German, and nearly 6 Greek, Japanese, Indian, or Chinese workers … Only a small fraction of the variation can be explained by conventional factors such as technology, capital-labour substitution, human capital, raw material differences, product quality, etc. Technology was largely the same across countries; and there was inherently limited scope for factor substitution. So there remains a large unexplained residual which Clark calls “individual worker efficiency” or the “level of effort” in different countries”.

    At the same time, there’s some talk about an “Industrious Revolution” in Japan that matched pace with developments in Western Europe (a theory that a cultural change in hours worked hand in hand with surpluses of goods and increased demand to set scene for the Industrial Revolution’s massive increases in output and productivity).

    On balance perhaps a bit like precedents of the Japanese work culture as we think of it were there, but it may have taken time and industrialization and the Meiji to become the people for which karoshi is a motif.

  9. I think in a ten year span, the country most likely to return to the Edo period is Japan itself.

  10. Re: Matt

    One of the things that struck me during my time living and working in Japan was the sheer *inefficiency* of so many things.

    Some of this was for good reason, for example retirees without children or laid off salarimen could easily find “work” as a crossing guard on an empty street or a municipal garbage inspector (basically issuing warnings to people putting out trash on the wrong days, which is something only us foreigners ever did). It allowed for people otherwise unemployable to receive a basic level of income and save face even if they did something unnecessary.

    Others seemed like sheer ornery stubbornness. Our for-profit school had essentially two computers for several hundred students. One of the computers was reserved solely for business use by the manager. All interactions with the main office were conducted by fax. You received a call notifying you that you would receive a fax from so-and-so, you’d get the fax, then type up your response in Word, then fax it back to the main office and then call the main office to report you sent a fax back. Mind you, this was in 2008. Maybe they’ve finally gotten around to e-mail?

    Other stuff seemed like exercises in busywork to the point of sado-masochism. Every month we’d receive a stack of tens of thousands of advertising mailers for the school. We’d fold them and stuff them into envelopes ourselves. Due to the fact that I’ve worked in a print shop before, I knew that it was possible to get fliers pre-folded off the press and that it was usually at no extra cost, the mechanism has been built into presses for decades. I asked about that, and it was like asking if I could show up to work in t-shirt and nap during the middle of day. It was unthinkable that we should have down time between classes at all. If you had nothing to do, then fold and stuff!

    We were also given lesson plans to spec, yet instead of giving us complete displays, they’d have us cut, color and mount them ourselves (another thing, no such thing as Powerpoint in Japan and even the old fashioned overhead projectors were rare). This always ended up looking amateurish.

    Karoshi is no real surprise with that sort of work culture. I can’t imagine something in a more high-pressure industry and not having the out of “Oh, the gaikokujin is whining again. Cute.”

  11. This outcome of stasis is my nightmare. I tend to go along with Peter Turchin in interpreting large-scale social change as the response to pressures from within and outside, particularly on the elites, to keep up or be swept away. I don’t think change is something most people normally want, and if a society doesn’t have to adapt in order to survive, it won’t.

    As an illustration, consider how old Western political ideas are getting–both mainstream and non-mainstream. Liberalism is about 250 years old, socialism is 150, applied Marxism is 100, and even Nazism is in its 90s now. What we call SJW is simply an extreme manifestation of the civil rights movement, which is 50 years old. Subsequent rights movements have mostly been rehashes of that. Trumpism is the most surprising thing on the political scene, but it’s just a resurfacing of an ancient idea, populism.

    Where are the new ideas going to come from? I’m okay with *mostly* keeping the society we have, since the modern West gets a lot more right and does better by more people than almost all previous societies in history. But something has got to be done to mortally wound Blank Slatism before I’m satisfied with the outcome!

  12. @Matt: Thanks for those nice remarks and excellent links. Interestingly, in a seemingly divergent spirit from the Pseudoerasmus excerpt, Swami Vivekananda, perhaps the most famous Hindu monk ever, who travelled to the US through China and Japan in the early 1890’s, was impressed by the superior-to-Indian work ethic of both Chinese and Japanese, and wanted Indians to visit Japan and China in large numbers and learn from them: [link], a very engagingly written letter addressed to one of his followers.

    @Razib: Thanks for the motivating comment. (BTW, I find Reich’s book far lighter reading, no doubt because it targets a wider audience).

  13. An Edo equilibrium might be a favorable solution for Western Civilization. I, however, do not think that our elites are up to it. It would require far too much self, discipline, aesthetic sensibility, and vision. They are pusillanimous, narcissistic, and unable to maintain a single coherent thought for more that a week.

  14. The future is always tough to predict especially technology and culture. I find that smart people emphasize the peculiar special case (individual, firm level) over the mundane large case (industry level) ideas/changes when looking into crystal balls.

    I suppose time horizons are important here too but one under appreciated recent innovation is the shale revolution. A home grown energy source has huge implications for US strategy and trade. So does turning inward mean American decline? Maybe, maybe not. It could just mean securing energy no longer requires as much working together with other countries.

    You may enjoy this talk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MIdUSqsz0Io
    IMO it suffers from libertarian/conservative bias but that’s OK it’s still interesting.

    Assuming the major trends are true I would expect the US to become a little cocoon culturally and technologically assuming East Asian factories relocate to North/South America. Expect the burrito to overtake the hamburger as the American food sooner rather than later (perhaps CA is already there). This could be interesting since niches can allow for odd technology paths due to differing selection pressures for example in maths in the post-Soviet world the formerly communist mathematicians were attacking some different problems than the Western mathematicians. As a result competition in mathematics was increased and some problems that were stumping Western mathematicians were tackled with the help of their ex-Soviet counterparts.

  15. Of course there is going to be some contiguity in the general characteristics of East Asians (work habits and such) through history, but there is also evidence that such characteristics are contingent on circumstances.

    For example, South Korea has the most industrious people under one metric (the longest work hour per week in the industrialized world at one point). The joke regarding Korean workers told via their supposed view about the Japanese was “What do the Koreans think about the Japanese? Good workers, but lazy.”

    But, now, witness Jack London’s observations about Koreans at the turn of the 20th century: http://london.sonoma.edu/Writings/Revolution/yellow.html

    They are described as cowardly, unentrepreneurial, inefficient, and “worthless.” My, how things (or people) have changed.

  16. By the way, about the “WestWorld” season 2 clip, is Sanada Hiroyuki the go-to Japanese actor whenever someone needs a fierce Asian face? (Used to be his “Last Samurai” co-star Watanabe Ken, but he’s been scarce since the stomach cancer diagnosis.)

    Sanada’s “The Twilight Samurai” (Tasogare Seibei) directed by Yamada Yoji is one of my all-time favorite films. It resonated with me deeply. I’ve seen it dozens of times. If you haven’t seen it, give it a whirl (be warned, though, it is not an action or a traditional samurai fighting film).


  17. “Silence” was supposed to be Martin Scorsese’s passion project and a great masterpiece, but, alas, it disappointed. The acting was flat. The narrative was a confused jumble (and deviates from the book of the same name by Endo Shusaku, a Japanese Catholic).

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