japanese townsman

Not much is known about this statue of a retired townsman, which was created in Japan sometime during the late 17th or early 18th century. It’s about 17 inches high and made of lacquered wood. The man it depicts is obviously prosperous, and this form of art was pretty common in Tokugawa Japan. Wealthy men who desired to be community leaders sometimes became quasi-monastic after they retired from commercial or professional life. While not actually joining Buddhist monasteries, they thought that portraits made of them would bring good fortune to their families. Possibly these statutes were status symbols as well.

Japan’s history at the time this statue was made is fascinating. Emerging from centuries of brutal feudalism marked by frequent clan wars, in 1600 Tokugawa Ieyasu finally unified Japan into a cohesive state and society, after his military victory at the Battle of Sekigahara. The Tokugawa Shoguns gradually closed Japan to foreign trade and influence and concentrated on developing economic, cultural and religious life within the country itself. This resulted, by the 18th century, in a society unique on planet Earth. Highly refined and governed by strict traditions, Tokugawa Japan was relatively peaceful and also environmentally friendly. Nothing lasts forever, though; Japan’s isolation, already crumbling by the 1850s, was ended by the appearance in Tokyo Bay of American warships who desired trade with the island nation. Japan’s history was set on a different course.

This statue is on display in the British Museum. I wish we knew the name and history of the man it depicts. It’s probably pretty interesting.

The photo of the Japanese townsman statue is copyright (c) by the Trustees of the British Museum. I use it here in accordance with their terms of use.