Food Markets in Edo Japan


A review of Eating Edo, Sensing Japan: Food Branding and Market Culture in Late Tokugawa Japan, 1780-1868, by Akira Shimizu.

In his dissertation, Akira Shimizu examines the (de)regulation of markets for regional specialty foods in Edo during the last eight decades of the Tokugawa period and first decade of the Meiji era. He is concerned primarily with “market culture,” a term employed by business and economic historians to describe the evolution of relations between state and society and changes in the availability and price of goods.

In Chapter 1, Shimizu provides an overview of the emergence of independent merchants from the 1780s who undermined attempts by bakufu authorities to control prices of specialty foods.  As with other aspects of society and the economy, shogunal officials were unable to maintain the status quo. Their interest in trying to do so arose from their desire to preserve political control. The shogunate wanted both to have first dibs on the finest products, which bolstered the regime’s cultural capital and satisfied the appetites of top officials, and to keep a handle on food prices to prevent social unrest. Shimizu builds on Yoshida Nobuyuki’s work on jibun nimotsu, the notion increasingly embraced by merchants that “any commodity should be freely traded and no authority should restrict the handling of them” (p. 18). In Chapter 1, Shimizu focuses on the egg trade, the first of a series of case studies, one per chapter, which examine particular specialty foods. As the rural farming population continued to decrease and concern about agricultural shortages increased, independent merchants began disrupting official trade channels, including that of eggs.  In 1841, the bakufu abolished licensed wholesale associations, which had once been invested with a monopoly over certain goods. Yet wholesalers were still able to maintain privileged positions in the market thanks to personal relationships, if not regulatory mechanisms.

In Chapter 2, Shimizu turns his attention to the importation of kelp from Ezo to Edo and elsewhere. More specifically, he examines the case of an independent merchant, a certain Shōsuke, who embraced the idea of jibun nimotsu to justify his challenge of the monopoly of licensed wholesaler guilds. In 1858, Shōsuke repeatedly petitioned the Edo Magistrate to allow him to import kelp and sell it at prices lower than the guild. Although the magistrate blocked such efforts in this particular example, Shimizu uses this case to illustrate an individual guided by the principle of jibun nimotsu. In addition, Shimizu uses his examination of the Ezo kelp trade, which extended from Ezo to Ryukyu Kingdom as well as to Qing China, to engage with historiographical discussions about the boundaries, both economic and imagined, of early-modern Japan.

Chapter 3 applies jibun nimotsu to grapes. Shimizu describes how a few villages in the province of Kai maintained a monopoly on the labeling of the grapes they produced as “Kōshu” and on the supply of those Kōshu grapes to the shogun. As a result, Kōshu grapes were identified with the prestige of the realm’s highest political authority and instilled with authenticity and legitimacy. For a time, they were the only grapes provided to Edo Castle. In 1836, representatives of a nearby village submitted a petition to be allowed to sell what they called “Kōshu” grapes to the Edo market. The other villages protested and ultimately negotiated an agreement with bakufu-contracted fruit wholesalers to maintain their exclusive shipments to the shogunate, an agreement that was mutually beneficial to both parties because it allowed them to maintain control over “authentic” Kōshu grapes vis-à-vis upstart suppliers and rival wholesalers.

Shimizu turns his attention to the “‘end’ of early modern dietary practices” in Chapter 4 by focusing on the consumption of the meat of four-legged animals, specifically pigs (p. 133). This chapter is related to, but different from, his contribution to Japanese Foodways: Past and Present (Eric Rath and Stephanie Assmann, eds., Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2010, pp. 92-107).  As he does there, Shimizu confirms that meat eating was widely practiced as so-called medicinal eating during the Tokugawa period, but the Meiji period still marked a shift in the wider production and consumption of meat. To illustrate this transition, Shimizu focuses on an entrepreneur who solicited investors in a pig farming operation in the early 1870s by claiming the production and consumption of pork would bolster Japan against foreign imperialism.

In Chapter 5, Shimizu returns to question of legitimacy and freedom in the marketplace. He focuses on two fishing villages that had long provided Edo Castle with whitefish hatchling and the villages’ vain attempt to defend these privileges in the face of challenges by other fishermen who justified their actions with jibun nimotsu. In other words, Shimizu here focuses on those who sought to protect their monopoly rather than those who were trying to break down market barriers. Such producers and merchants deployed historical genealogies (yuisho) to ground their present and future claims in the past and to try to maintain the status quo. These claims sought to remind the government—both Tokugawa and Meiji—of the services, duties, and great sacrifices that they had borne on its behalf. Ultimately the voices arguing for freedom triumphed as Meiji officials opened the market to all merchants it licensed.

Aaron Skabelund
Assistant Professor
Department of History
Brigham Young University

Primary Sources

Edo machibure shūsei
Kanda shijōshi

Yoshida Nobuyuki’s scholarship
“Shichū torishimari zoku ruishū”

Dissertation Information

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. 2011. 217 pp. Primary Advisor: Ronald Toby.


Image: Bikunibashi setchū (Bikuni bridge in snow). Ukiyo-e print shows a porter walking in ankle-deep snow at the approach to the Bikuni bridge. No. 114 in the series Meisho Yedo Hiakkei (One Hundred Famous Views of Edo). Location is near Ginza 1-chōme station. Wikimedia Commons.