Everyday Life in Traditional Japan

Everyday Life in Traditional Japan, by Charles Dunn, is an interesting read if you’re a foreigner in Kyoto and don’t know much about how people lived in the pre-modern period.


The book is an introduction to the topic of “everyday life in Japan during the Edo period,” and it’s quite old, having been published back in the mid-20th-century.  As a result, you can get a pretty good idea of the book from its Amazon reviews.  The book describes the day-to-day life of the 4 classes of Japanese in the Edo period–samurai, farmers, craftsmen, and merchants, with extra chapters about educators, etc, and a chapter reviewing how the class system came about.  It really has a lot of detail and can flesh out historical surveys and novels you may be reading, not to mention narrower topical books like Kyoto: A Cultural History, which gives a lot of historical detail but not actually much of the flavor of life.   Some of the Amazon reviewers were put off by the writer’s slightly old-fashioned writing style, but I find it wonderful.  It’s more literate and descriptive than much modern writing, and frequently better and more subtly organized on a paragraph-to-paragraph basis.  (I think this is a result of writing at a time before people composed on computers and read on the Internet.)

The main reason I include it on this site is that it frequently references Kyoto, making use of anecdotes from history and literature to illustrate the points it makes about lifestyle.  As a result, it is a good companion book for anyone traveling to Japan and visiting Kyoto.

The key to using it as a travel supplement is when to read it.  I first read it a long time ago, perhaps in junior high school, before coming to Japan, and I’ve read it again just recently.  There are many things that simply couldn’t have much meaning to me the first time round but that really stand out after having lived in Kyoto for a few years.  For example, the book discusses the fruits typically eaten in Edo period Japan.  Kind of boring unless these are the very same fruits you are seeing in the markets every day today–wow, cool!  That really makes the Edo period come alive and underscores the connection between the modern city and its historical roots!  So, I recommend reading the book after you’ve been in a Kyoto for at least a day or two but before you leave.  It is a rather short book, like a long Wikipedia article, and you can finish in an afternoon, or an a few train rides, or by staying up a little late a few nights in a row.

Anyhow, used as I recommend, I am pretty sure this little book would really enhance the experience of either visiting or living in Kyoto.