Man-Pai / The Tempo Reforms


Sumptuary Edicts

During the Edo period (1615-1868) the Tokugawa shogunate published several laws that tried to control the expression of ideas, forbidding the ones considered subversive or against the moral, and to ensure the social order, by inducing the proper behavior to each class and, therefore, by forbidding behavior considered ostentatious or inappropriate. 

These laws, whose regular publishing is a clue for lax enforcement, is often based in a pre modern conception of the economic life, one that considered luxury expenses as a drain the the whole economy. For additional information on this type of legislation click here.

The Tenpo Reforms

The Tenpo Reforms (Tenpo Kaikaku) were enacted since 1842 by Mizuno Tadakuni, the leader of the Council of Elders (roju), and appeared in great measure as am answer to the great Tenpo famine of 1832-36.

Their main goal was to consolidate the government of Japan, creating the conditions needed to face the internal needs (as highlighted by the Tenpo famines) and the external dangers, well represented by the news of the easy British victories of the First Opium War (1840-42).

In order to achieve this objective, the Reforms tried to develop the economy in a sound basis (as understood by their creators), through a return to the frugality, simplicity and discipline that were characteristic from the first times of the Tokugawa shogunate. The reforms constituted a restoration movement, in the sense although in an opposite direction of the Meiji Restoration of twenty six years later, and the sumptuary edicts were am essential  part of this movement.

The Sumptuary Edicts of the Tenpo Reforms

The prohibitions enacted in Tenpo Reforms touched upon several aspects of the daily life of the urban commoners, but were specially directed against the activities related to the Kabuki theatre, and among them to printmaking. 

        Kabuki Theatre

In Edo theatres were forced to relocate from the center of town to an outlying area , where a new theatre district was created, and in Osaka the number of theatres allowed to operate was reduced only to five theatres, putting hundreds of people out of work.  Kabuki actors, narrators and puppeteers were forced to live in the theatre district and all of them were forced to wear amigasa, large hats that concealed their faces, whenever they went out. A ceiling was put on the salaries of actors , who, besides, were forbidden to mix with the general public.

Tours of provincial towns by actors of the three main cities (Edo, Kyoto and Osaka) were banned. Showy costumes of narrators and puppeteers were also forbidden, as were gorgeous stage decorations. Following this prohibition, and in a decision that struck directly at the heart of the star system of the Kabuki theater, the Kabuki actor Ichikawa Danjr VII was banished from Edo (to Osaka), because of his extravagant lifestyle and ostentatious stage productions. 


A general prohibition of nishiki-e (polichrome prints) and color books was issued. Besides, and in overlapping prohibitions, prints of kabuki actors, courtesans and geisha . There was also a ban on color drawings of actors in fans in candies.


As said, several prohibitions that affected the daily life were issued. Some of the more revealing included large decorations for festivals, extravagant fireworks, decorative gifts for shop openings, luxurious home interior decorations, gaudy sign boards, unseasonable flowers and plants, rare birds and plants, expensive children toys, expensive cakes, extravagant cooking, decorations on smoking pipes, gatherings in shrines and temples, boating parties, female hairdressers for women other than professional entertainers such as geisha and courtesans, tattoos and gambling. 


The above list of prohibitions shows the reach intended, and one easily deduct the effects they had on the world of kabuki and printmaking. However, their depth and ruthlessness makes one wonder how well they could be, in reality, be enforced. On another hand the wide scope of measures legislated makes a telling picture of the influence that the Kabuki theater and its star system had on Japanese urban society in the mid nineteenth century.

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2003/5, Manuel Paias