After going to a Medieval Studies get-together yesterday, I got to thinking, a bit, about whether we can or should call Tokugawa Japan “feudal,” or “early modern.” Of course, I am sure there is a ton of scholarship that I have not read on how precisely scholars of medieval and early modern Europe define and apply these terms, and on debates about it. But, one of the wonderful things about writing a blog is that, unlike in formal academic writing, I can jot down thoughts here and share it with you without having to do due diligence of reading and carefully considering all of that discourse. If I did have to do so, I can guarantee that this essay would have just sat on my hard drive, unseen by anyone, for years and years while I worked on it, polished it, worked on it some more, tried to find a journal that would publish it…
So, anyway, just drawing upon the ideas and associations I’ve come across in the seminars I’ve taken and the scholarship that I have read, I get the impression that the general consensus these days on the concept of “feudalism” is that the term, as it applies to describing a very particular set of structures and frameworks in England and/or France in a very particular frame of time, really shouldn’t be applied even to Germany, Italy, or Spain, let alone to anywhere further afield. It’s a convenient translation for the traditional Chinese term used to describe certain circumstances in ancient China, a term which Japan later adopted to refer to certain conditions within its own history, but… I think one of the key arguments against Japan being “feudal” in the Tokugawa era is that Japan wasn’t at war with anyone, and thus the crucial element of the “feud” in “feudalism,” the military service demanded of lords by their king, e.g. their provision of knights to help go fight the French, or the Crusades, that element wasn’t there under Pax Tokugawa. But, I counter, Japan still had castles, and lords, and fiefs. It still had a political system that relied more than anything else upon oaths of fealty/loyalty from regional lords, who paid some share of taxes, as well as corvee labor and such, in return for a considerable degree of power and autonomy within the lands in which they were enfeoffed. And while I hesitate to compare samurai too directly to the English or French knight, or bushidô to any European system of chivalry, it is relevant that the land was ruled by a warrior class whose power derived from having rallied other lords (military allies) around oneself, and then militarily seizing that power, regardless of whatever kinds of ideas of Divine Right (in the West) or Imperial recognition (in Japan) were claimed afterwards.
Returning to the idea of military service, of course, it is true that the shogun did not really call upon the lords’ armies to go launch military expeditions abroad, as the “feudal” lords of England and France did in being forced to contribute knights (and other warriors and equipment? I’m not sure) to wars in France, wars in the Holy Land, etc. But, there were domains which were relied upon for their military service in defending the ports / coasts from incursions – Fukuoka and Saga domains, for example, were among those charged with ensuring the defenses of Nagasaki harbor (harbor and city of Nagasaki themselves were under more direct shogunal control, and were not part of any lord’s domain), while Matsumae domain in the north was charged with the defense of the north against Ainu, and especially Russian, incursions. All of these domains were permitted reduced sankin kôtai obligations in exchange for their service, and Morioka domain, for example, was at one point granted a great increase in power/rank (a doubling of its kokudaka) in recognition of its contributions to the defense of the realm. Furthermore the sankin kôtai, or “alternate attendance”, system by which lords had to maintain residences in the shogunal capital of Edo, and had to travel great distances with a large entourage to come and personally appear before the shogun once every few years, has been identified by Constantine Vaporis as being very much a form of military service. Now, I’m not sure if Vaporis would use the word “feudal,” and I don’t want to put words in his mouth, but he does argue, in Tour of Duty, that this was a form of military service, and that just about everything about it, from the processions to the mode of dress, to the lord’s presentation of himself to the shogun, were military acts. And so far as I’m concerned, the combination of this military character of the system, combined with the “flavor” elements of that we have things that we can call castles, lords, and fiefs, is more than good enough for me to make Tokugawa Japan merit the term “feudal.”
Of course, as I hope most historians would point out, the real issue is not the question of whether or not Tokugawa Japan was “feudal,” but rather the question of whether this is a useful term, or in what ways it is useful, for helping us understand, and describe, the political structures of Tokugawa Japan. And the same goes for the term “early modern.” It is important that we remember this, that we keep this in mind as we consider or debate these things. Still, I do find such terms useful enough that I do think this exercise (i.e. the writing of this blog post) is worthwhile – there is most definitely a point at which I will argue that we need to stop worrying about whether or not Japan was quote-unquote “fascist” in the 1930s-40s and need to instead focus on the details of precisely how the government functioned at that time, regardless of what we call it. There is a place for such terminology debates, and there is a limit to their usefulness.
But, like “feudal,” I do think that “early modern” has a place. Granted, we no longer believe that all societies go through the same processes, as if there is only one path to modernization, one path to civilization, and that all societies are simply at a different place on the path, a path that Europe (of course) has forged ahead the furthest on. We no longer follow this Whig History concept of progress. But, nevertheless, I think that there is some validity to applying categories that have some universal meaning, rather than just sticking to East Asian or Japanese concepts of periodization that would leave any efforts at comparative or “world” history at a total loss.
One of the key reasons behind calling Tokugawa Japan “early modern” is to draw attention to certain dramatic developments that took place over the course of the period, especially in terms of urbanization, the rise of the urban merchant/commoner class, intensely integrated nationwide (archipelago-wide) economic/trade and travel networks, and the power of popular publishing. By the end of the 18th century, Japan had one of the first futures markets in the world, and a complex system of merchant trade networks, reliable courier services, and functioning post towns following well-established and relatively safe highways and maritime routes. Agricultural land reclamation, mining, and logging were pushed essentially to their maximums, to the point at which Japan actually suffered from dearths of precious metals and of timber for lengths of time. Cottage industries emerged, and were closely tied in to urban merchant networks, such that goods were produced in the countryside in a “mass manufacture” kind of way (though not in a fully mechanized or industrialized way, to be sure), and then transported all across the archipelago, earning money for merchant houses (some of which went on to become modern “businesses” or “corporations” in the late 19th century) based in the cities. A system of IOUs, scrip, or paper money, whatever we want to call it, and a system of what we might call proto-banks, likewise emerged.
Edo and Osaka were among the largest cities of the world, and some scholars have indeed identified some of the above developments in Japan as truly rivalling where England (the world leader in being the first in industrialization, etc.) was only a century or so before. So, if there’s anyone out there who still believes that Japan was totally backwards, static and stuck in an unchanging pre-modern state of affairs until Commodore Perry blew the doors open, that’s all hogwash.
Japan also had the benefits of European “Enlightenment” thought and scientific discoveries in the Edo period, as Western medical books, globes, telescopes and microscopes, and various other tools and knowledges did enter Japan via the Dutch. Plus, of course, Japan’s own intellectual development was plenty active at this time as well.
So, can we safely call Tokugawa Japan “early modern,” in that the period is marked by dramatic developments, improvements, progress away from the “medieval,” and in setting the stage for the sort of industrial “true” or “full” modernization that was to come? I would argue a resounding Yes.
However, there is just one thing. Those who are serious scholars of medieval or early modern Europe might claim a much more nuanced dividing line here, but on the surface of it, I’d wager that global exploration, mercantilism, and the beginnings of colonialism are crucial elements of the early modern experience in Europe. England, France, Holland only were what they were in the early modern period because of what those countries were doing in, and what they were getting from, the New World, Africa, South Asia, East Asia, and the Pacific. The tea, silks, spices, and porcelains England was getting from China in this period, alone, even putting all sorts of other factors aside, played a huge role in making English culture and economics what it was at this time. So, given that Japanese were not exploring, journeying, or colonizing, are they still “early modern”? How crucial is this element to the definition? I dunno. Given all the domestic developments, urbanization, cottage industry, publishing, and all of that, I would very much hesitate to call Japan “medieval” or “pre-modern” or “not-yet such-and-such” just because of this one element is not present. But… it’s something to think about.