After the warring states period (or Sengoku Jidai), Nobunaga Oda had partially unified Japan while his successor Toyotomi Hideyoshi finishes the job and led some failed expansionary wars into Korea. However, the sieges on Korea weakened the Toyotomi clan that struggled to maintain control over the unified Japan. Tokugawa Ieyasu had served with Toyotomi Hideyoshi under Nobunaga Oda as one of his most trusted generals. After Hideyoshi's death and with his clan weakened, Ieyasu planted the seeds of unrest among his retainers, which culminated at the Battle of Sekigahara after which central authority fell to Tokugawa Ieyasu in 1600. This became known as the Edo period in Japan and lasted until the late 18th century when the Meiji restoration seized the day.
The Tokugawa era continued the strict class based system that had preceded it in other Shogunates. The nobles, or daimyo, were on top, followed by the warrior class of samurai, with the traders, artisans, and farmers below. Though since most daimyo were trained as samurais, most well known samurais wielded exceptional political power. Social Stratification also persisted among the samurai, the higher ranked samurai had access to the daimyo and served as trusted advisers. Mid-level samurais worked bureaucratic positions, whereas low level samurai served as guards. Though the samurai thrived in the warring states period, their skill was not much needed in the peaceful Edo period.
As shown in it's class structure, Edo Japan also went through a Neo-Confucianism reformation. Neo-Confucianism stressed the importance of morals, education and hierarchical order in the government and society. While the Chinese philosophy reigned over government the upper class and lower class held onto Shinto beliefs as it gave them a strong sense of national identity.
The privileges of women in the Edo period varied from their families social standing. The women of the samurai class were expected to submit to the male heads of the household, however when they aged they became ranking members of the house when their husbands died. Women of the lower class were less restricted and often played a vital part in the family business. The peasant women worked the fields along male relatives and held many freedoms that were reserved only for men in upper classes.
Marriage, like in many cultures, was not romantic and used as a tool to improve social standing. In the samurai class, the women was expected to be a virgin or she would be unsuited to marry in the samurai class. However, in lower classes, virginity was less important but still desired. Once married, women were forbidden to have other sexual partners. Men; however, could take concubines. In lower class families, divorce was not frowned upon and a women could leave her husband and return to her birth family.
From the 15th Century through the late 17th century, Japan celebrated a large expansion in farmland to feed it's growing population. However, this came with some downfalls. Due to the rapid expansion there was an odd lack in the labor force. Deforestation also left the farmlands vulnerable to floods. From this period onwards, Japanese agriculture emphasized intense cultivation with large inputs of labor and technology, instead of quantitative expansion. As with China, rice proved a good staple crop. A fun factoid was that the Japanese used the Chinese Carp, deemed the Koi fish, to swim around in the rice field when they were flooded to fertilize the crop. When it came time for the paddies to be drained for the rice harvest, they harvested the fish as well and dried them for the winter months. Thus the rice paddies provided two sources of food.
The legal system in Japan was upheld by Magistrates appointed by the Daimyo, which were usually Samurai. Serious crimes like arson or murder were greeted with the penalty of death. Though the ways of death varied with class and who you killed. If you killed a parent or husband, you were crucified. If you were a samurai, you were forced to commit seppuku, the cutting of the stomach, in lieu of other ways of death. Criminals whose crime did not merit death were often exiled onto the remote islands of Japan and tattooed so that if they escaped the populace would know they were a criminal. For minor crimes, labor camps and flogging were popular forms of punishment. Though for thieves, cutting off an ear, nose, or hand was not uncommon.
The Edo period served as the first major interaction with Europeans. At first Portugal opened trade with the Ieyasu shogunate. Soon the Dutch, English, and Spanish followed suit. In 1603, the Ieyasu Shogunate started to actively participate in foreign trade. The Japanese were very interested in Portuguese guns, as well as goods such as refined sugar and spices that were unavailable to them. As the Emperor of China had banned trade with Japan, they were also very interested in the goods the Portuguese had procured from China.
With the increase in trade also came the spread of Christianity. Although Nobunaga had allowed Christianity to spread, the Tokugawa shogunate saw it as a growing threat to the stability of the Shogunate. This led to the Tokugawa Shogunate to ban the practice of Christianity and restrict foreign trade. Eventually, the shogunate enacted the Sakoku, or Seclusion laws, which prohibited foreigners from entering the country on penalty of death in the 1630's.
Even though the Tokugawa government remained quite stable over several centuries, its position was steadily declining for several reasons. A steady worsening of the financial situation of the government led to higher taxes and riots among the farm population. In addition, Japan regularly experienced natural disasters and years of famine that caused riots and further financial problems for the central government and the daimyo. The social hierarchy began to break down as the merchant class grew increasingly powerful while some samurai became financially dependent of them. In the second half of the era, corruption, incompetence and a decline of morals within the government caused further problems.
Due to incompetence during the late Tokugawa Shogunate, they began to lose face with the people. There were also those that called for the restoration of the true imperial emperor. Due to this heavy political pressure the Tokugawa Shogunate fell in 1868 and gave way to the Meiji Era in which was named for the restoration of the Meiji Emperor.
In conclusion, The Edo period was a time of surprising peace after Japan's chaotic history. It fostered great advances to it's culture with minimal influence from outside countries. The merchants grew in power and because of this people other than the daimyo had money to spend on the luxuries in life. The Edo period was one of great prosperity, but with prosperity comes a large population and it became hard to sustain them all with the limited resources provided by the small islands. This is happening in Japan today, however they are able to supplement lack of farmland with manufacturing and an open trade policy with foreign nations. This period of isolationism came to effect the way Japan was governed even now in the modern age. Japanese took an isolationist policy shortly previous to World War Two and even now they not particularly welcoming to foreigners, but do not restrict them from entering.