Shōya of the Edo Period

After the turmoil and chaos of the Sengoku Period, Japan saw relative harmony and peace as a nation between 1603 and 1867. This was all made possible by the efforts of the three unifiers, Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu, who were able to restore order to the country.  Japan also experienced economic growth during these years where it was under a single government and feudal system that would last for two centuries, known as the Tokugawa or Edo Period.

United Japan had a much more urban environment with the city of Edo, now modern Tokyo, having about a million residents. During Edo period, Japan was peaceful, prompting the decline of martial arts skills and reducing the need for samurai warriors.

Shōya Yokoi residence, Japan. | Screen grabbed from Atlas Obscura.

Eventually samurai became artists or teachers and even began relocating to cities such as Osaka and Edo, leaving behind their villages. The responsibility of governing over village life fell on the hands of the shōya, or village headman. The shōya were hand picked by feudal lords of the shogunate government to act as village administrators.

The responsibilities of the shōya were to document the life in their town. They kept logs and diaries to document details such as the kinds of crops grown, seasonal yields, and the amount of fertilizer that was used. All these was recorded to help in maintaining the continuity of farming in the village.  In essence, shōya’s main job description was managing tax and census reports, overseeing tax collections, acting as a representative for the village and intermediary in communicating with higher authorities.

Wooden planks from Yokoi residence. | Screen grabbed from Atlas Obscura.

The census reports were hardly accurate, re-counting for the total population of the village, rather the reports were more like reporting specifically on the local births, deaths, marriages, changes in residence, adoptions and such.  All these records were stored and kept at the home of the shōya, which acted like a type of archive and was an important part of village life at the time. One such home of a shōya was donated by Yohko and Akira Yokoi to the Huntington Library in California.

The Yokoi’s lineage can be traced their samurai ancestors who battled through the Sengoku Period and fought under Hideyoshi.

 Japanese garden, Huntington Library, California. | marianne muegenburg cothern

Family records mention the 3,000 square foot house was built a seventh-generation head of the Yokoi family, who died at the site in 1713. The structure has remained in the family’s possession ever since it was built. The home was built having several interlocking beams, sliding wood panels and posts. The structure has remained practically the same for the last three centuries except for its ceramic roofing which may have once been thatched with straw. More than 13,000 records connected to the time it has been a shōya residence.

Every post, beam and wooden structure was carefully disassembled and labeled by a team responsible for the deconstruction then inspected the pieces for structural soundness, marking any damages for repair. Large-scale drawings were drafted to make sure the structure could be put back together properly. The 13,000 records remain the Kagawa Prefectural Archives.