I will be beginning a PhD program in the Fall, studying under Prof. Luke Roberts, whose newest book, Performing the Great Peace, just came out a few months ago, and is now sitting on my shelf. I hope to be reading it before the summer is out. I had only a very vague sense of what it was about earlier – something about Edo period politics, and the relationship between shogunate and daimyo – and while I knew that basically anything I were to read would likely be useful information, expanding my understanding of the period, I was crossing my fingers that it would be interesting and exciting, and relevant to my own research.
There is always a danger when writing this kind of “first impressions” post, that the book may still yet turn out to be quite different from what I expect, but, having now read the first few pages, and a Japan Times review of the book, I think it’s safe to say that I do have a better sense of what it’s about. And, I am happy to say that I am actually quite excited to read this, and think it will have great relevance to my research, and to my understanding of Edo period politics in general.
In summary, Performing the Great Peace analyzes the ways in which the Edo period political system allowed, and indeed expected, daimyo to “perform,” on the surface, all due obedience to the shogun(ate) and his/its laws, while at the same time, beneath the surface, doing things very differently. It is about “open secrets” – doing one thing, and pretending to be doing another. As the Japan Times review cogently explains,
Two key terms that must be mastered for a proper grasp of Tokugawa rule are omote and uchi — roughly “outside” and “inside,” “surface” and “beneath the surface.” Omote was the ritual subservience a subordinate samurai owed a superior. Uchi was the willingness of a superior to allow subordinates to do pretty much as they pleased within their own jurisdictions — on one condition: that no semblance of disrespect or disorder breach the surface.
This seems like it could be extremely enlightening, a new seminal book for everyone’s understanding of how politics functioned in the Edo period. And, it could provide some interesting insights into the logic of Japanese administration and governance today. As events developed at Fukushima on & after 3/11, and as details have emerged in the fifteen months since, we have seen how the government, TEPCO, and other institutions tried to make sure that “no disorder breach the surface,” “performing” the proper obedience to order, to protocols and policies, while in fact, under the surface, in certain respects, chaos reigned. In applying the topic to contemporary behavior, we come dangerously close to getting involved with the discourse on Nihonjinron, something that I would prefer to not touch with a ten-foot pole. I would not be surprised if Dr. Roberts feels much the same way, and if he were to hesitate to say anything much about the relevance to today’s situations. Yet, perhaps there is something of value here for students and scholars of contemporary Japanese politics and sociology.
The topic of “open secrets” is an extremely relevant one for understanding the Ryukyu Kingdom’s relationships with Satsuma, with the shogunate, and with China, in the Edo period. It is something I have long known is important, but never really understood, or investigated, sufficiently, and something on which I therefore stumbled in my recently completed MA thesis on depictions of Ryukyu and its people in Japanese visual culture of the Edo period.
The Ryukyu Kingdom, then semi-independent, ruled over the territory that today constitutes the Japanese prefecture of Okinawa. The kingdom enjoyed a great degree of independence in its domestic affairs, but had been invaded in 1609 by forces from the Japanese domain (han) of Satsuma, and was throughout the remainder of the Edo period subject to Satsuma’s control in certain respects. I am still working out what are precisely the right terms to use when discussing this. Should we say “subject to” and “Satsuma’s control”? Should we say it was “subordinate” or a “vassal state”? In any case, Satsuma dictated Ryukyu’s foreign relations, and exacted tribute, or taxes, from Ryukyu. Ryukyu also sent occasional “tribute” missions to the shogunate, processing through the streets of Edo in colorful parades.
Getting to the point, I think that in these parades, and in many other facets of Ryukyu’s interactions & activities in this period, there was a great degree of precisely the kind of “performing” that Roberts talks about. Ryukyu’s relationship with Satsuma was one of these “open secrets”, and a big one. At this time, China refused to engage in any formal diplomatic or trade relations with Japan, because the shogunate refused to pay tribute or formally acknowledge the Chinese Emperor as suzerain over Japan. Thus, in theory, China should have cut off relations with Ryukyu, if Ryukyu were controlled by (or part of) Japan. Instead, it was somehow in Beijing’s interests to look the other way and pretend that it didn’t know about Satsuma’s control of Ryukyu. And so, it played out like this: Ryukyu played the part of being a wholly independent & loyal tributary to China, performing all the proper ritual obeisances, and making efforts to hide Japanese influence in the islands, while continuing “under the surface” to pay taxes/tribute to Satsuma, to send missions to Edo, and to otherwise serve as a vassal, or subordinate, or whatever we wish to call it, under Satsuma (and by extension, the shogunate). At the same time, despite the Japanese influence in Ryukyu (the extent of which is still debated by scholars), Ryukyuans traveling to & in Edo on these missions were encouraged to play up their foreignness, and to hide their knowledge or understanding of things Japanese. What the commoners thought about Ryukyu remains largely unclear, but I think it not unreasonable to think that many shogunate officials would have been well aware of the Japanese cultural influence upon Ryukyu, yet all played the game of pretending that Ryukyu was more fully foreign and exotic in its ways – in short, the fact that the Ryukyuan ambassadors (to some extent) spoke Japanese, observed (to whatever extent) Japanese customs, and were aware (to some extent) of Japanese culture, was another one of these “open secrets.” Everyone knew, but everyone pretended not to know, for the benefit of “performing” the proper relationships. Finally, there is the matter of the actual economic & political relationships between Ryukyu and Satsuma & the shogunate. I know very little, actually, as to the fine details of this relationship, but it has been made clearer to me that in Ryukyu’s relationships to each Satsuma, and the shogunate, the “performing” of proper rituals of obeisance was paramount. The tribute missions to Edo were not diplomatic missions in which any serious policy discussions took place – it was all about ritual performance of subordination.
It is my hope, and my expectation, that Luke Roberts’ new book, Performing the Great Peace, will help illuminate these interactions, as they took place between the daimyo and the shogunate, and that it will help me to better understand, and articulate, how “open secrets” and omote/uchi functioned in Ryukyu’s relationships in the early modern period. Once I have finished the book (hopefully by the end of the summer), I shall post a more proper book review.