A Military Checkpoint (Seki)

The road to Edo is busy, even this early in the morning. We are travelling along the main highway that leads from the imperial capital of Kyoto to Edo. This road, known as the Tokaido , is the busiest thoroughfare in all of Japan. It is used not only by merchants and local villagers, but also by many pilgrims making the long trip from their homes in Edo to the most important temples and shrines in western Japan. In addition, you can sometimes see large companies of samurai, marching on the long journey between their home provinces and the military capital, in Edo.

The Shogun -- the military leader who rules Japan -- does his best to ensure that free travel is maintained throughout the country. However, although even the poorest peasant is allowed to travel about the country freely, all of the main roads in and out of Edo are guarded by seki (barriers), where guards stop all travelers to search for troublemakers and check everyone for weapons. We are approaching one of the seki right now. If you look up ahead, you can see the guards standing in front of a large gate that marks the last seki on the road into Edo.

The seki are checkpoints set up at strategic locations along most of the All of these main roads are guarded by seki. In addition to helping regulate trade, these barriers are important control centers for the Shogun. It is important for the government to ensure free travel throughout the country, since this helps promote trade and economic growth. However, if people are allowed to travel freely, there is a chance that some will try to plot against the government, or take part in smuggling. The seki are one of the main systems of preventing such unlawful activity.

The barriers, particularly the ones located in key mountain passes such as Hakone and Hachioji, control travel through the mountains and into the Kanto region. The Kanto is a broad and fertile plain which surrounds Edo. Since this area is the center of the Shogun's power, his soldiers exercise strict control over the area. In distant provinces, the daimyo (local rulers) have quite a bit of independence. They have to obey the Shogun when it comes to important policies, but they have a lot of freedom and control in their local areas. However, once they enter the Kanto region, they are under the firm control of the Shogun.

Because the local daimyo have so much independence in their local areas (the area ruled by a daimyo is called a "han"), there is always a chance they might try to rebel against the government. In order to make sure that this does not happen, the wives and children of the daimyo have to live in Edo, and they aren't allowed to leave the Kanto area. The guards at the seki make sure that none of the family members try to escape and go back to their home region. In addition, they also watch out for known criminals, or likely troublemakers, arresting people who are wanted criminals, and checking shipments of goods to prevent smuggling.

All travelers who pass through a seki are stopped and questioned in detail by the commander of the guards. This way, the guards are able to collect a great deal of information which helps the government maintain its firm control over the country. There are laws and regulations governing just about every aspect of life, and while the enforcement of the laws is not particularly brutal, the citizens of Edo do not enjoy a great deal of personal freedom. On the other hand, this system of law and order has a number of benefits. Most importantly, it provides a remarkable degree of peace and prosperity for the country. There have been no wars or rebellions in Japan for almost 200 years. The Shogun's laws may be very strict. Nevertheless, most people (particularly the common people of Edo) enjoy safety, stability, and a high level of education and cultural expression.

The guards at the seki carefully check people for swords or other weapons. The only people who are allowed to enter Edo with weapons are samurai and a few others who have special permission to own a sword. The word "samurai" literally means "warrior", but since there hasnt been any war in Japan for hundreds of years, the meaning of the word has changed a lot. The samurai are members of the ruling class. In Japan, the society has a strong division into different classes. The ruling class are the samurai. Most people from the samurai class work as government officials, guards, policemen or local authorities, and they serve either the Shogun or one of the local daimyo. The second class are the farmers, who make up most of the population. The third class are artisans and craftsmen, who make various types of manufactured goods. The lowest class are the merchants and shopkeepers. Although merchants are viewed as the lowest of the four classes, many of them have managed to earn a great deal of money from their trade, and this gives them a certain amount of financial power which offsets their "low class" status.

People from the lower classes are prohibited from having any weapons. Any unauthorized person caught carrying a sword will be arrested and punished severely.

Edo is an enormous, sprawling city of roughly one million people, and like most big cities it has its share of outlaws and "gangs". However, since only the samurai are legally allowed to own swords, and virtually all of them work either directly of indirectly for the Shogun, the government is able to exercise a high degree of control over the city. Even the bands of petty crooks who roam the city are usually low-ranking samurai who are down on their luck, and have turned to crime. Despite the size of the city, there is not much of a crime problem. The authorities know who most of the troublemakers are, and keep a close eye on them, warning them to stay out of trouble. Although a few rich merchants are "honorarily" allowed to carry a short sword to protect themselves from being robbed, this is mainly for show, and few are very skilled at using the weapons.

Fortunately, we should be able to pass through the seki very quickly. We are just common folks, and we certainly don't look like troublemakers. There are a bunch of other farmers and laborers passing through the gates, and they all look pretty much the same. Most peasants wear simple clothes -- a kimono made of cotton, a fundoshi (loincloth) and straw sandals. A few of the more wealthy farmers may have an outer kimono, with a fancy design on it, or they may wear geta (wooden sandals) instead of sandals made from straw. None of the people passing through the gate with us has any bundles big enough to conceal a sword. Most of them are just carrying vegetables to sell in town, and some have nothing at all except a few coins to pay for the ferry boat that takes people across the river and into Edo. Japanese coins have a hole in the center, so they can be tied together on a string like beads on a necklace. This makes them easier to carry.

The guards let us pass through the gates one by one. Inside the main gates is a large building for the guards and officials who run this seki. People who are carrying large loads of merchandise have to go into the building and have their goods inspected. Merchants have to pay a tax on all of the goods that they sell, and before they ship them to other parts of the country, they have to get an official stamp to prove that they have paid the tax. The guards check these stamps and make sure that the merchants are not trying to smuggle merchandise without paying the tax. People who try to smuggle goods through without paying the tax have to pay a stiff fine -- usually, several times the amount of the original tax.

Since we dont have any heavy belongings, all we have to do is pass through a small corridor where the guards do a body search to check for weapons. There are both male and female guards, since somebody has to search the women who pass through the seki. After the guards have made sure we aren't carrying any weapons, they lead us out of the building and through another gate on the opposite side of the seki, where the road continues on towards Edo.

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