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Present fears lead Japanese to seek solace in the past: A people troubled by modern uncertainties is taking a profound interest in the 'Golden Age' of the Edo era, writes Terry McCarthy in Tokyo

IN 1701 a Japanese lord was forced to commit suicide by the treachery of one of his rivals. To avenge their lord, 47 samurai retainers got together to kill his enemy. The central government in Edo (today's Tokyo) was forced to punish the warriors for killing a lord, but there was considerable popular support for the loyalty and honour displayed by the 47 men. The Edo authorities came up with a clearcut compromise: the samurai were sentenced to death, but were allowed to commit seppuku with their own swords, thus making their deaths honourable.

In the good old days, when Japan was cut off from the outside world and run by a series of shoguns, there was no nonsense about political decision-making or who held ultimate power. The 44 men who defected from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party this week, for example, plunging the political world into chaos, would have been dealt with quickly and cleanly: no messy election campaigns. The shogun - essentially a military dictator - decided, and the lords and samurai under him obeyed. Contact with the outside world was forbidden for most citizens. This was the Edo era, Japan's Golden Age which lasted from 1600 to 1868, a time of peace and artistic ferment.

For most of the twentieth century, as Japan frantically modernised its industries to catch up with the West, the Edo era was largely ignored, or looked down upon as a 'backward' time. But now that Japan is no longer economically behind, the Edo era and its culture has suddenly become fashionable again.

There is, in fact, an Edo bumu (boom) going on, with books, films, television series and even a new museum in Tokyo catering to the nostalgia for the Golden Age. And the arts developed during Edo - the tea ceremony, traditional kabuki theatre, flower arranging - are all enjoying a resurgence of interest. They blot out today's problems. Trade disputes with the US and Europe, China's expanding military power, the weakening of traditional social values at home: all these make people look back fondly on another age when everything seemed cosy and less complicated.

'For a long time the Edo era was regarded as a dark, even evil age,' said Toru Haga, professor of comparative literature and culture at the International Research Centre for Japanese Studies. 'But now this is changing: people realise it helped to keep 250 years of peace, spread culture to the masses, promoted commercial activities and kept Japan unified.' The publishing industry cannot churn out books quickly enough to keep up with the public's appetite for information on the Edo era. Recently appeared are Nippon Kinsei, a new, scholarly 12-volume history of the age, Edo bath, Economics of the Shogun, Learn from Edo, a Treasury of Wisdom and, most dramatically, The Concept of Honest Poverty, a book extolling the cultured, modest, unflamboyant life-styles of the Edo era.

The book on 'honest poverty' has been reprinted 40 times and sold over 600,000 copies. Its author, Koji Nakano, has become a national celebrity with his critique of a money-centred society which has turned its back on Japan's history and culture. In the book he describes the lives of 15 monks, scholars, painters and tea-ceremony masters who had plain, uncomplicated lives that were none the less spiritually rewarding.

Meanwhile, the new Edo museum in Tokyo has been an instant success. Opened in March of this year it has already received nearly one million visitors. The seven-storey building cost the Tokyo metropolitan government pounds 357m to construct. It has some 2,500 exhibits from the Edo era: scale models of the old low-roofed wooden houses, pottery used in tea ceremonies, calligraphy, silk kimonos, painted screens. Particularly popular are the ukiyoe woodblock prints of the 'floating world' - geisha, courtesans and others engaged in the gentle pursuit of pleasure. 'Over the last century Tokyo has been too busy to look back on its own past,' said Professor Haga, who was on the organising committee of the museum. 'Now finally Tokyo has a past.'

The recent political turmoil in Japan has only added fuel to the Edo boom: 'I suppose people need strong leadership,' said Nobuo Konno, author of several books on the Edo era, including Learn from Edo. 'Today we have many parties, and no one knows what will happen.'

(Photograph omitted)