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Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

I recently happened upon two new books on Ryukyuan painting (well, one new, and one from 2003 that’s news to me), which are exciting discoveries. So far as I’m aware, there are very few books like these, even in Japanese – full-color books devoted exclusively, explicitly, to the subject of the rich, colorful, vibrant tradition of pre-modern / early modern Ryukyuan painting. I’ll admit, I haven’t had the time yet to actually read through these two books. So, I’m “reviewing” them (so to speak) based on first impressions. Pardon me for any misrepresentations.

First, is Ryûkyû kaiga: kôgaku chôsa hôkokusho 琉球絵画-光学調査報告書 (roughly, “Ryukyuan Painting: Announcement of [Results of] Optics Survey”), published by Tokyo Bunkazai Kenkyûsho 東京文化財研究所 in 2017. The first half of the book dedicates about 150 pages to images of eleven artworks. We are given not only overall images of the paintings, but for each painting multiple pages of full-page full-color high-quality details. The texture of the silk still cannot be reproduced in print, of course, and no book will ever be a full and total replacement for seeing a work in person, but this is very much the next best thing – better on this particular point than I think I’ve ever seen in any book before. Seeing such details – including the fine brushstrokes, and the texture of the media – is what many art historians want to see, and it’s so difficult to see even in person, when you’re separated by plexiglass keeping you two or three feet away from the work. If you’ve ever had the privilege of seeing an artwork in person, without any glass, the painting mere inches away from your face, you’ll know it’s a whole different experience. And this book’s design brings that experience to the reader, as much as any book could. To have this is wonderful – to have it for Ryukyuan paintings, all the more so.

Details of the kimono patterns from a painting of a Ryukyuan aristocratic couple. Maybe a little hard to see in this photo of the page, but in the actual book, you can see the texture of the pigments, the shininess of the gold accents, the brushstrokes.

The book ends with essays on Ryukyuan painting and painters, and on the specific pigments employed, ending with a few pages on signatures and seals, and a family tree, as it were, of major Ryukyuan painters, charting out the links of master-student relationships.

Unfortunately, I don’t see the book available for sale anywhere, at least not yet. I expect that when it does become available on Amazon.jp, or elsewhere, it will be stupidly expensive. As all too often happens with art books, even though ink and paper are dirt cheap, and I find it very hard to believe that it costs anywhere near $15 or $20 to print each copy, publishers still continue to get away with charging $50 or $60 or even $100 for these things… and all the more so when it’s a “research results” volume. Cast the exact same book as a museum exhibit catalog, and it might still be expensive, but quite likely not as much so.

A portrait of Tei Junsoku, one of the most famous and celebrated Ryukyuan officials and reformers. The fine, naturalistic details of the description of the face are just incredible. I have seen this painting several times now at the Okinawa Prefectural Museum, always behind glass, at a distance of several feet; I don’t know if I’ll ever get to see the original more truly up-close. this reproduction is the next best thing.

The other book I happened upon here in the bowels of the University of Tokyo Historiographical Institute library is entitled Haruka naru ogoe: yomigaeru Ryûkyû kaiga 遙かなる御後絵-甦る琉球絵画 (roughly, “Posthumous Portraits from Faraway: Looking Back at Ryukyuan Painting”). Written by Satô Fumihiko 佐藤文彦, a painter expert in traditional methods, and lecturer at the Okinawa University of the Arts, it was published in 2003. ”Ogoe” 御後絵 were official portraits of the Ryukyuan kings, produced by the Ryukyuan royal court after each king’s death. All are believed to have been lost, destroyed, in the 1945 Battle of Okinawa, along with a great many other irreplaceable documents, artifacts, treasures (not to mention thousands upon thousands of lives and livelihoods). Prewar black-&-white photographs of the ”ogoe” survive, however, and are a hell of a lot better than nothing. Satô has conducted extensive research into these works, best as possible with the limited surviving materials, and has produced his own full-color recreations of all ten royal portraits which are known to have been produced.

Satô’s recreation of how the portrait of King Shô Shin might have looked in full-color.

This book opens with full-color plates of all ten of those full-color recreations. The meat of the book is a series of essays (or chapters) by Satô about the ”ogoe” – his research into their history, their style and composition, and his thoughts, struggles, and efforts in recreating them. This is of great value and interest in itself, of course, a beautifully lengthy treatment of such a niche topic (in the broad scheme of things), but a topic of great importance within the field of Okinawan art, especially of Ryukyuan royal art.

What took the book to another level for me, though, is that this discussion of the ”ogoe” is followed by an additional chapter on Jiryô 自了 (aka Gusukuma Seihô 城間清豊), one of the few early modern Ryukyuan painters about whom we know anything much, and one of the few from whom we still have surviving paintings. A book only on ”ogoe” would be valuable enough in itself, but Satô builds upon that with this essay on Jiryô, a reprinting of a 1925 essay on ”ogoe” by Higa Chôken 比嘉朝健, an extensive timeline/chronology of events in the history of Ryukyuan painting, and finally a mini-encyclopedia of topics relevant to Ryukyuan painting. This last thing is a beautiful resource even all by itself; through visits to the Okinawa Prefectural Museum, and skimming through museum catalogs like that of that museum’s Ryûkyû kaiga ten 琉球絵画展 from 2009, I have come to gain some sense of the body of works that are out there. But, knowing that so many works were lost in the war, and that few survive, it is hard to know just how few; and are the works I have seen more or less the only ones that survive, or only the most famous, or most-displayed, for whatever various reasons? How much (or how little) is out there? This mini-encyclopedia is, of course, not definitive and complete, but it is certainly an additional help in understanding the extent, and content, of the body of works that are out there.

This book is available on Amazon.jp, but is unfortunately priced at over 5700 yen. I’m going to keep my eyes out for a cheaper used copy.

It’s wonderful to see these books coming out. I eagerly look forward to finding the time to actually read them, and expand my knowledge about Ryukyuan paintings. And I hope that I might someday enjoy the opportunity to bring this to the English-speaking audience – to bring these most-famous of Ryukyu’s paintings to a major US museum, and to publish a catalog about them. Ryukyuan textiles, lacquerwares, and ceramics are all wonderful, and any exhibit, any publication, that expands knowledge about Okinawa in any way is a wonderful thing. But Okinawa is not just a culture of “folk arts,” or “decorative arts.” They had just as lively and vibrant a painting culture as China, Korea, or Japan – they had court painters, literati painters, just like these other cultures, and people should learn that, see these beautiful paintings, and learn about this other side of Okinawa’s art history.

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Reading through a journal article by Prof. Asô Shin’ichi (Okinawa Geidai) on samurai gift-giving customs, and how that relates to Ryûkyû’s gifts to the Shimazu and to the shogunate, I found reference to this book edited by Asao Naohiro 朝尾直弘, which just somehow grabbed my attention. Entitled Fudai daimyô Ii ke no girei 譜代大名井伊家の儀礼, or roughly “Ceremonies of the Ii clan of Hikone domain,” it’s one of a series of books put out by the Hikone Castle Museum, using the Ii Family Documents 彦根藩井伊家文書 and other sources to explore a more extensive, detailed, complex understanding of the history of the Ii clan of Hikone domain, and by extension of aspects of early modern (i.e. Tokugawa period) Japanese history more broadly. Though it normally goes for 6000 yen (roughly US$60), I was fortunate to find a copy online for the far more reasonable 2000 yen. Thank you, Amazon.jp.

Even just on the face of it, this style of book, this approach, really appeals to me. I love the idea of using local histories in my own research. The scholars featured in this volume worked with the Hikone Castle Museum to produce something that doesn’t just take the Ii family as some kind of convenient case study, in order to examine something broader, more removed, more theoretical or abstract. Rather, it takes the Ii family, their records, their local domainal history, as something to be explored as a topic worthy of interest in and of itself. And so, while I admittedly am using them as a convenient example, a convenient resource, for my own project, nevertheless I find something really appealing about the idea of employing such research. I will also be reading, and citing, books like Yamamoto Hirofumi’s Sankin kôtai and numerous others which are more typical academic books, drawing upon whatever resources from here and there in order to build up an argument, or simply a description or narrative, of something much broader (in Yamamoto’s case, the “alternate attendance” or sankin kôtai system, as practiced not by any one domain, but by all of them, across the archipelago). But, reading this Hikone volume and drawing upon research that’s focused in on a particular set of documents from a genuine interest in the history of that particular family and their domain, makes me happy.

A section of Hikone castle, home to the lords of the Ii clan. Photo my own.

And, actually delving into the book, I find that at least some of the chapters – those by Okazaki Hironori 岡崎寛徳 – follow a really interesting format. Okazaki’s chapters, like all the others, like most chapters in most academic books, each address a particular aspect or sub-topic, and form an argument, or a narrative, about them, but they do so while quoting heavily from primary source documents – so heavily, in fact, that they serve as a pretty excellent resource for reading (and citing / quoting from) primary sources themselves.

To put it another way, Okazaki’s chapters read not quite like a normal essay, but more like something in between a normal essay, and a set of introductions or explanations for primary sources. Roughly half the text in each of his chapters is just direct transcriptions of excerpts from the Ii Family Documents, and while there certainly is some narrative argument being made, at the same time he’s also just showing the reader a number of different aspects of the topic, as represented in primary sources. Here’s a letter from the domain to the shogunate asking for confirmation on which kinds of gifts they’re expected to give on which occasions (and in what numbers/volumes), and here’s the shogunate’s response (including permission to reduce the amount of gifts, in these financially difficult times [the 1720s]). And here’s Okazaki’s introduction to what the document is that he’s quoting from, and what this excerpt is going to show us; and then, here’s Okazaki’s summary of the key points of what the excerpt said. All in all, I just find he strikes an excellent balance – providing enough of the primary sources, on enough different aspects around the same topic or theme, and enough information surrounding them, to allow you to use them for your own research, your own interests, beyond just the narrow focus of his argument (that is, in contrast to more typical essays, which only quote just enough to make their argument, and only very strictly those sections which are relevant to their argument, leaving everything else out); and, at the same time, he’s doing so within a narrative or argumentative framework, thus providing so much more framing context, and explanation, than a lot of works I’ve seen that are more explicitly dedicated to only sharing transcriptions of the sources (with minimal framing material), leaving it totally up to the reader to make of it what one will, depending on the reader’s interests.

A bridge near the entrance to the Hikone castle complex. Photo my own.

Let me see if I can give a more solid example. I think it’s easy to imagine a chapter or article from whatever book or journal that focuses solely on New Year’s audiences, for example, explaining out that one event, with maybe some minimal quoting here and there from primary sources, just enough to explain things out. And they of course would cite which sources they’re getting it from, and maybe they would explain a little bit what that document is, how it’s organized, why it contains the kinds of information that it does in the way that it does. I think it’s also easy to imagine a publication which just transcribes the entire primary source document, or significant sections of it, saying, essentially, “here it is. Use it as you will, for whatever aspects, whatever themes you may be researching,” without telling you much at all about the document itself – where it comes from; who wrote it, when, and why; which sections are about what; what new revelations might be learned from this document that aren’t found elsewhere; what to look for or to notice while reading; just the text itself, that’s it. Those are the two ends of the spectrum. Okazaki lies in between them. He spends a good paragraph or so introducing the Kôrei rinji gyôji tomechô 恒例臨時行事留帳, a 1736 document contained within the broader collection of Ii Family Documents – who wrote it, when, why, and what sort of stuff it contains. And then, while providing sizable excerpts from that text, sometimes a full paragraph, or even a full page or more at a time, he uses those excerpts to help show a full sampling of many of the different regular and irregular audiences & court rituals (at the shogun’s court, in Edo castle) in which the Ii participated. Here’s an excerpt explaining how for New Year’s, the Ii lord went up to the castle at X hour, sat in his designated waiting room (the Tamari-no-ma) in accordance with his rank, then moved to the Shiroshoin (one of several audience halls in the castle), and sat at such-and-such a spot, bowed X number of times, said such-and-such formal words, was told such-and-such by the rôjû (Elders) or by the Shogun himself, presented such-and-such gifts, bowed X number of times, then withdrew. And now here’s an excerpt showing how it was a bit different for the regular monthly audiences, for the “in-between” audiences (間之登城), for Girls’ Day and Boys’ Day and Chrysanthemum Festival. And here’s how it was for banquets following the shogun’s successful hunting expedition. And here’s how it was when the shogun decided to go horseback riding and to request (command, really) the various lords to come and attend just to watch him. Good-sized chunks of primary sources, presented not in-line just as quotes, just enough to make a single point within the course of an argument, but rather as good-sized chunks that are allowed to speak for themselves, surrounded by enough introduction, and summary, and explanation, to make them understandable and useful, and to present a broader narrative or argumentative description of a topic.

Other chapters in this book, outside of those by Okazaki, seem at first glance to follow a more standard format. But, after eleven chapters addressing various aspects of the topic of “the Ii family and rituals,” the book ends with over 200 pages of more straightforwardly, more fully transcribed primary sources, along with maps and diagrams of several relevant buildings / rooms, and at the very end, charts of the family tree of the Ii family, a lengthy chart of where each Ii lord was on given dates (as they moved between Hikone, Edo, and other cities, on official and personal business), and a timeline of incidents and events relevant to the history of the family & of the domain.

The sankin kôtai procession of the lord of Iyo-Matsuyama, as seen in one section of an 18th c. handscroll painting at the National Museum of Japanese History. Photo my own.

One thing I do find frustrating, and a little disappointing, though, about this book is that like much other scholarship, it skips over explaining out the basic, general, foundational situation, and focuses overmuch on changes, exceptions, and complexities. As wonderful as it is to learn, for example, about how the type and amount of gifts changed through negotiations in the 1720s at a time when both the shogunate and many domains were experiencing significant financial difficulties, I would love to first have a more general explanation of what types and amounts of gifts were typical, to begin with. And while it’s really interesting to learn about these various different hunting-related banquets and occasion of watching horseriding or Noh, I still don’t think I’ve ever yet come across a basic, step-by-step, description of just what normally, typically, happened when a lord arrived in Edo on sankin kôtai. This sort of thing is even more a problem in many of the other books and articles I have been reading, works which overwhelmingly employ extraordinary examples, rather than anything that might be representative of “standard” “typical” practices – for example, the journeys of either Tokugawa Iemitsu (in 1634) or of Tokugawa Iemochi (in 1863) to Kyoto, despite the fact that no shogun ever traveled to Kyoto for the 220+ intervening years; or the 1862 wedding of Imperial princess Kazu-no-miya into the shogunal family despite the fact that (a) this was probably one of only a very few Imperial-Tokugawa marriages, and (b) presumably by 1862 it’s late enough that practices would be quite different from whatever was typical in the 1600s or 1700s or even up into the 1830s or 1840s; or the shogunal succession ceremonies of Tokugawa Yoshimune, one of a handful of shoguns who were not direct relatives of their predecessors – why not use as your representative example records of the succession ceremony for a “normal” succession from father to son?

Still, returning to what I was saying about Okazaki’s balanced approach to sharing primary sources & scholarly commentary, and about the character of the book as a whole, it makes me wonder what other books might be out there of a similar type, put out by local museums, foundations, History Associations, local Boards of Education, or by more mainstream or academic publishers, but that might contain a similar approach, a similar balance of scholarly explanation and extensive provision of primary sources. Books which might not quite come up on the radar, normally, because they are less mainstream and might get filed away under “local history,” but which might prove surprisingly interesting, informative, and/or useful, either in general, or for one’s specific research project…

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Gradually getting there. After a year of doing this, I’m finally almost done posting these book reviews from my comprehensive exams. Feels like a whole other world – exams feel so far behind me; a month from now, I’ll be in Japan, for the next big step in this PhD process. Well, well. Looks like this was the last of the reviews. I didn’t realize that. Okay. Well, here we are, my last review from the exam process. Look forward to a return to some other sorts of posts, coming up soon.

In the meantime, Marius Jansen’s China in the Tokugawa World (Harvard University Press, 1992)

Jansen’s China in the Tokugawa World provides an outline of a wide range of major aspects and themes in the role of Chinese people in Tokugawa Japan, perceptions of China, Chinese cultural influences, and the like, nestled into overarching narratives of changes and developments in Japanese relationships with China during this period, both as a concept and as a real political and economic entity. He devotes particular attention to the Chinese community at Nagasaki, providing a considerable degree of detail as to the logistics and economics of trade activity, as well as intellectual and cultural interactions in Nagasaki, and the role of the fūsetsugaki, imported books, and visiting Chinese scholars and monks as sources of information and intelligence on goings-on in the outside world, complemented by intelligence obtained from the Dutch, Korea, and Ryukyu. Jansen also touches upon numerous other topics, including the introduction of Ōbaku Zen, interactions with Ming loyalists & their cause, and perceptions of China following the fall of the Ming among scholars, political elites, and the general populace. In the last thirty pages or so of this short 120-page volume, Jansen describes the turn in perceptions of & attitudes towards China, as over the course of the 19th century, the Qing Dynasty experiences considerable difficulties, and in the eyes of many Japanese, severe decline.

The volume serves as a fine introduction to these many themes or aspects, and to the overall arc of interactions with, and perceptions of, China. In a sense, it reads more like a textbook than a scholarly argument piece, summarizing the topic of “China in Tokugawa Japan” overall, and providing descriptions, rarely more than a page or two long, of a variety of individual topics, such as the biographies of Li Hongzhang and the monk Yinyuan Longqi, as a textbook would, less as examples of evidence to further an argument than as descriptions of items within a topical umbrella.

That said, there are significant chronological and thematic arcs presented. Jansen describes a number of related but differing understandings or imaginations among Tokugawa period scholars of a conceptual China, ranging from those who viewed China not as a real place existing coevally in time, but as a land of Sages, tranquility, and the ultimate manifestations of high culture and civilization, to the subtly but importantly different position of those for whom China served as a sort of straw man, an Other against which Japan could be described in contrast. While many Confucian scholars idealized China, many kokugaku scholars, some of them still looking to Confucianism or other aspects of Chinese civilization as an ideal, presented varying notions of why or how Japan superseded China as the civilizational center. Meanwhile, much of the popular discourse conflated China with the foreign more generally, making little distinction between various Others (e.g. Koreans, Ryukyuans, or Dutch). This topic is of particular relevance to my own project, as I attempt to gain some understanding of how Ryukyu was perceived, understood, or imagined at this time; while Keiko Suzuki has argued similarly in her article “The Making of Tôjin” of an undifferentiating perception of the foreign, the true story seems considerably more complex, given that there were numerous widely available popular publications describing or depicting Ryukyuan subjects as specifically Ryukyuan. In any case, I am eager to delve into this subject further, and while Jansen’s discussion of it is most welcome, and valuable in its way, it is also far too brief and cursory for my purposes. The same is true of his discussion of perceptions of Japan (or Korea or Ryukyu) as representing the place where the great high culture and civilization of (Ming) China survives, since it has been corrupted or destroyed in China’s fall to barbarian (Manchu) invaders. This, in particular, is a topic which I think to be of great interest, and potentially of great relevance to my project, and yet Jansen’s brief discussion of it remains, perhaps, the most extensive such discussion I have come across; he does not, in his citations, point the way to any more extensive treatments of the subject.

China in the Tokugawa World represents a great start, a great survey of the subject. The overall thematic and chronological arcs, of differing ways in which China was perceived, and how this changed over time, help provide a fundamental sense of the thing, informing and deepening one’s understanding of the character of the Tokugawa period as a whole. Jansen’s detailed description of the workings of trade and other activity at Nagasaki is also sufficiently lengthy and detailed to constitute a source one can turn to for citeable details. On other topics, however, Jansen’s volume serves as only a starting point, requiring one to look elsewhere for a more thorough or extensive description of kangaku or kokugaku, popular depictions of China, the influence of Ōbaku Zen, or any one of a number of other topics.

The Chinatown (tôjin yashiki) of early modern Nagasaki, as seen in a handscroll painting (detail) on display at the British Museum. Photo my own.

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Following up on my post about Mark Ravina’s Land and Lordship, I think it only makes sense to pair that up with a discussion of Luke Roberts’ book Mercantilism in a Japanese Domain. The two books came out right around the same time, and are quite complementary, both significant, influential, books in promoting the argument for seeing the daimyo domains of Tokugawa Japan as semi- or quasi-independent “states” – a critique of earlier scholarly views of Tokugawa Japan as highly centralized and strictly, even oppressively, ruled. The view promoted by Ravina and Roberts has now become the standard view among historians.

Mercantilism in a Japanese Domain focuses on the emergence of the idea of kokueki (国益, “prosperity of the country”) in Tosa domain in the early 18th century. This is a notion which bears some strong similarities to mercantilist thought, envisioning the prosperity of the country as separate from the prosperity of the lord or of his household, and advocating a variety of economic thought in place of a Confucian focus on morality, virtue, and diligent labor.

Advocates for kokueki thought supported a variety of different strains of economic thought, with some supporting the bullionist notion of amassed wealth as the measure of economic prosperity, and therefore advocating strong restrictions on the outflow of precious metals or certain other forms of wealth from the domain, while others argued quite the opposite, suggesting that it’s the volume of trade which brings prosperity, and that the domain should not be afraid to export valuable goods, as it will only allow for the greater import of other valuable goods, enhancing the overall volume of trade. Meanwhile, many samurai officials, at least initially, employed the term kokueki to refer in a more conservative manner to the prosperity of the lord’s household, perhaps with the notion that the lord’s household equals the domain; drawing upon neo-Confucian notions of duty to one’s lord and of proper observance of one’s station, they asserted plans for increased prosperity which did not concern themselves with supply & demand or import & export, so much as the idea that everyone should behave more morally, more virtuously, meaning to be more diligent and more hard-working in their respective professions. Perhaps most interesting about these conflicting economic philosophies is that while the more mercantilistic approaches resemble European mercantilistic thought & policy, none of these approaches match up with what modern economic theory today would consider to be the most correct or valid. To be sure, some are startlingly innovative and progressive for their times, for their historical context, in contrast to the Neo-Confucian approaches. And, as Roberts details, these ideas of everyone working together for the prosperity of the country – the country as a distinct abstract entity disaggregated from the lord or his household, or from the shogun or the shogunate – play a prominent role in the reconceptualization of economic nationalism in the Meiji period. But the various economic philosophies that competed and negotiated in 18th century Tosa cannot be simply placed on a linear line of progress.

An Arita ware dish showing the provinces of Japan. Asian Art Museum of San Francisco. Photo my own.

Two other threads underlying Roberts’ narratives and arguments about kokueki are also extremely valuable. One is Roberts’ argument that despite documents by samurai officials which represent most (if not all) policy initiatives and ideas as coming from the lord, or from amongst samurai officials and prominent scholar advisors, suggestions submitted by commoners to the domain’s petition box reveal that not only did commoners articulate these kokueki ideas before the samurai picked them up, but further, commoner/merchant ideas had direct impact on domain policy. The vast majority of the book discusses examples from only one domain, and only one aspect of policy approaches, but it strongly suggests the need for a reconsideration of our assumption that commoners, throughout the archipelago, played little or no role in suggesting or determining policy.

Further, Roberts’ account also contains powerful arguments for the validity and importance of regional and local histories. It is my understanding that at the time this was written, the field was only just beginning to more fully open up to the ideas of domainal autonomy, and to seeing Tokugawa Japan as less centralized, less authoritarian, and more like a decentralized confederation of relatively autonomous states, albeit under shogunal authority. Roberts’ Introduction includes a valuable discussion of the varying meanings and usages of the term kuni (“country,” “state,” “province”), and invites us to seriously rethink our imaginations of the political landscape of early modern Japan, which was structured according to a very different set of notions of political geography from our modern sense of the nation-state. Whereas much of the most prominent or most influential scholarship on Edo period politics up until that point had focused on the shogunate, and the shifts and changes in its policies, with the assumption of a relatively direct and strong impact upon the domains, here we see Tosa not simply being controlled by bakufu policy, but rather negotiating positions within that political environment, in order to seek what is best for the lord & his household, and later on, for “the country” of Tosa as a “whole.” Some examples of this are seen not only in decisions about economic policy, in terms of bans or monopolies on exports, and the like, but also in the daimyô’s exercising of agency, and displaying of interests differing from those of pure feudal loyalty, in claims to be ill, asking for delays in performing his various duties owed to the shogunate.

That Tosa presents a rather different case from, for example, Satsuma, makes it a valuable counter-example, alongside various other studies, including the work of Robert Hellyer. Tosa is large, but relatively poor, with relatively little good agricultural land. Unlike the Shimazu, who ruled Satsuma since the beginnings of the Kamakura period, the Yamauchi were not traditional leaders of Tosa and had to come in and assert their rule following Sekigahara. And yet, unlike many domains, Tosa recovered from severe debt, becoming economically strong enough by the Bakumatsu period to play the prominent role that it did. That the petition box system was apparently quite widespread, and yet little discussed in the more mainstream discussions of Edo period Japanese political systems and class structures, also makes this a particularly valuable contribution.

As with Land and Lordship, I would love to see a more thorough narrative description of Tosa history – not to mention the history of any/every other province of Japan – but, in the meantime, we’re learning very valuable things about how to think about the “state” in early modern Japan; political centralization or decentralization; and so forth.

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It has been way too long since I have posted, I know. I’ve been teaching my own course for the first time – a course on “Japan under the Tokugawa Shoguns,” organized largely as I wished, with the topics being covered (and not covered), and in what way, and with which readings, being largely, almost entirely, up to me. Writing lectures and all of that has been terribly time-consuming. So, that’s where I’ve been. Maybe at some point I’ll do a write-up of thoughts on how the course went, why I organized it the way I did, etc.

In the meantime, we still have just a few more book reviews to get through before I start a whole new adventure in the Fall. So, here we are. I wrote briefly about Mark Ravina’s Land and Lordship many years ago. But, having re-read it formally for my comprehensive exams, and simply being a somewhat different person than I was eight years ago, here’s a new take:

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Mark Ravina’s Land and Lordship introduces a number of important reconsiderations of the character of the daimyō domain, and of its rule. In conjunction with Luke Roberts’ Mercantilism in a Japanese Domain published the previous year, it invites us to think of the domains as relatively autonomous “states,” rather than as subdivisions within a more unitary and centrally ruled Tokugawa state, as had been the dominant interpretation, at least in English-language scholarship, up until that time. While both books are heavily concerned with the economics of the domain, however, Ravina’s focuses less on the imagination of the domain as an economic geographical or political unit, and more on the logics of rule and authority.

One important concept throughout the book is the idea that daimyō (and, indeed, many other levels of authority, from the shogun down to a daimyō’s own retainers) claimed authority and legitimacy in a variety of different ways, through differing and overlapping discourses. In Ravina’s overviews of the histories of the political economies of Hirosaki, Tokushima, and Yonezawa domains, the interactions between patrimonial, suzerain, and feudal forms of legitimacy or authority, sometimes complementary and sometimes conflicting, are evident. As he explains, drawing upon the work of Kasaya Kazuhiko, patrimonial authority refers to the relative inviolability of a household’s investiture (stipends, lands, and the like) and other aspects of that which a head of household inherits and passes on to his heirs; the retainer’s ie, or household, spanning generations, was seen to be separate from, and perhaps expansive beyond in some respects, the feudal or suzerain authority of the lord. This would seem to bear strong connections to the notions of “personal” or “private” household political spaces as discussed by Roberts in Performing the Great Peace. Feudal authority is that constituted by the rights and obligations a lord and vassal have toward one another as a result of their personal bond.

Finally, suzerain authority, Ravina explains, relates to the legitimating philosophies of the Sengoku daimyō, who claimed legitimacy in their authority over the land as a result of their pacifying the land (ando) and ruling virtuously, with mercy and compassion, through reference to Chinese classics which speak to the heavenly mandate and related concepts. One way in which these differing modes of authority interacted is seen in retainers sometime being able to resist daimyō policies by claiming that a given policy would damage or infringe upon their patrimony, and arguing furthermore that in doing so, the policy was not in line with the lord’s feudal obligations to treat his vassals “benevolently.” However, retainer resistance to daimyō policies aimed at the betterment of the entire domain could also be seen as a violation on the part of the retainer of his feudal obligations towards the lord, and towards the domain, or the “state” (kokka).

Model of a daimyō mansion in Edo, at the Edo-Tokyo Museum.

The conceptions or definitions of the “state” in early modern Japan, and of the term kokka as used at that time, are a second overarching concept which runs through the book. The quote with which Ravina opens the book, from an epistle by Uesugi Harunori, reveals a discourse, in Yonezawa at least (though it is easy to imagine that similar discourses circulated elsewhere, too), that distinguishes the “state” as an entity unto itself, which extends beyond the lord and his household. Separate from the wealth or well-being of the lord’s household, the state is according to Harunori something under the care of the lord, not to be “administered selfishly,” but rather something that has its own well-being to concern oneself with, and something which, being inherited from one’s forefathers and passed on to one’s heirs, should be cared for properly. As he writes, the state and the people do not exist for the sake of the lord, but rather the other way around. Ravina is careful to point out that any kind of seeds of nationalism in the sense of the modern nation-state that we might find here would be found here because we imagined them into the situation ourselves; but, nevertheless, in contrast to the traditional image of a unified Japan ruled autocratically by the shogun, with the daimyō powerfully subject to the shogunate’s dictates, we get a strong sense of some kind of conception of the “state” as a unit relatively autonomous from the shogunate’s control, and one which different daimyō might administer differently according to their personal philosophies or predilections. To say so merely scratches the surface of Ravina’s argument, however, which goes into greater depth as to conceiving of the “state” as linked to the daimyō’s household without being synonymous with it.

This is particularly interesting as it seems to counter, or at least complicate, the notion – fascinating for its radicalness – that emerges from Roberts’ Performing the Great Peace, that we might set aside entirely any notion of the “state” as an entity unto itself, and try to think of the daimyō domain as being totally synonymous with the household. As something that, yes, is patrimonial and so belongs to his ie, his lineage, his legacy, more than it does the daimyō personally, as an individual – something he must maintain and conserve, in order to honor both his ancestors and his descendants, and not simply something for him to do with as he will. But, as something which still is the private domain (私領) of that daimyō, protected from the prying eyes and invasive arms of the “public” (公) government, i.e. the shogunate, just as the private matters of any family/household affairs would be. One wonders whether Uesugi Harunori was alone in expressing such a notion, or whether such ideas were widespread. How did other daimyō feel about the domain as a “state,” not quite synonymous with the household, to which the daimyō owed devotion as well, overlappingly but not synonymously with his devotion to his patrimony (lineage, ie, household ‘name’ or reputation, etc.)?

Shimazu Hisamitsu, regent for the last lord of Satsuma domain, looking out over Tanshōen (former Shimazu clan garden in Kagoshima).

Through translation and synthesis of the ideas of Mizubayashi Takeshi and Kasaya Kazuhiko, among others, and considered comparison to scholarship on, for example, the states-within-a-state of the Holy Roman Empire, Ravina also argues that we should not regard this Japanese case as being exceptionally unusual, or entirely distinctively non-Western. While noting important differences in the nuances between Japanese terminology & conceptions and those used to discuss the Prussian states, or the English counties, he suggests similarities, and argues that the shift in Japan from the Tokugawa era system of multiple overlapping forms of authority, and of states within states, to a unified, centralized, modern, nation-state, was brought on not so much by the introduction of Western culture so much as the onset of modernity, something which swept Europe and brought dramatic changes there as well.

Further, perhaps one of the most important of Ravina’s contributions in this book is an argument that the complexity and ambiguity resulting from these multiple overlapping forms of legitimacy or authority was an essential part of the political order of Tokugawa period Japan, not something to be clarified or simplified in our attempts to categorize or define the political structures and philosophies of the period. Neither the role of the daimyō, the character of the state, nor the logic of the relationship between lords and retainers, were simply one thing or another thing, with some other interpretation as a façade; they were all of these things at once. The daimyō domain was both a state unto itself, an inviolate part of the lord’s patrimony, and at the same time a fief granted to him by the shogun, in the name of the emperor. The domain was at the same time both synonymous with the lord’s household in certain respects, and quite distinct in other respects.

Ravina’s choice to focus on Hirosaki, Tokushima, and Yonezawa domains to help illustrate these points is an interesting one. These are all large domains, two of them officially of kunimochi status, all three located far from the Kinai or Kantō regions, and all of them (at least by the end of the Edo period) over 100,000 koku in status. Where previous work by the likes of Marius Jansen, Albert Craig, John W. Hall, James McClain and Robert Sakai focused on Tosa, Chōshū, Okayama, Kaga, and Satsuma domains respectively, some of the largest of the domains, and including those with particular influence in events of the Bakumatsu and Meiji periods, Land and Lordship is one of the first to discuss other domains, contributing to a somewhat fuller and more nuanced understanding of the diversity of the nature or character of domains within the Tokugawa era archipelago. And yet, while Hirosaki certainly stands out from the kunimochi domains in certain important ways, we still are not presented with an examination of the cases of smaller domains, and/or domains closer in to the Kinai or Kantō regions. Ravina’s arguments regarding daimyō autonomy and the conception of the “state” in kunimochi domains (and Hirosaki) are extremely valuable contributions to the field, building upon the work of those who have written about other kunimochi domains in the past, but we are still left with understandings that pertain only to a particular portion of the domains (albeit, the largest, most populous, and most wealthy/powerful ones).

All photos (except book cover) my own.

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I thought I would just sort of read through Morgan Pitelka’s new book, Spectacular Accumulation (U Hawaii Press, 2016) on the side. There was spring break, and then flights to and from BYU, and to and from Seattle, plus hotel stays in each of those places. Sure I can finish this thin book – in English – in just a few weeks of here-and-there, on planes and so forth. Nope. Who did I think I was kidding?

But, in any case, I have now finally finished it – in between lots of other stuff, which is a large part of why it took so long. For anyone reading this as a review, in order to see whether or not to pick it up, please don’t think it’s a slow or tiresome read. It’s certainly not. I just got busy, is all. I’m really glad I took time out and read it.

Discussing the political power and importance of gift-giving, collecting, and social rituals (such as tea ceremony), Pitelka makes a most valuable contribution to a growing discourse on the political significance of architecture, and of art. Drawing connections between Sengoku daimyô practices of hostage-taking, gift-giving, tea ceremony, falconry, and the “spectacular accumulation” of famous or otherwise precious objects (incl. tea implements and swords), Pitelka argues for the political significance of all of these things, writing

“I do not see practices such as tea, art display, gift giving, and falconry as symbolic arts that point in the direction of real politics – rather, I understand these forms of sociability as the political process by which the warrior society was made. Rulers placed limits on the cultural and social practices that other warriors could engage in, and thus empowered selected retainers through gifts and the extension of special cultural privileges. These acts created a kind of consensus regarding the distribution of power among those with different positions within the developing political structure. … We should take seriously the role played by cultural practices and social rituals in the establishment and maintenance of early modernity in Japan. … Cultural practice and social rituals such as … gift giving as tools for the reification of hierarchy and the replication of social distinction.” (14)

While Pitelka is certainly not the first to raise such issues, I still could not help to cheer (Yes! This!) as I read these lines. While Spectacular Accumulation did not, in the end, answer some of the more particular questions I was hoping it would, for my particular research needs – such as, describing in any detail the rituals of how precisely someone swore their fealty, or renewed their oaths of fealty, to a lord; or what special meanings a gift of a sword, or a horse, specifically, might convey as compared to any other kind of gift – still, the book provides some inspirational notions, and concrete historical description, for the intersection of art, social ritual, and politics.

And! Pitelka has also maintained a beautiful website/blog in conjunction with the book – go check out http://spectacularaccumulation.com/ for even more on Tokugawa Ieyasu, blog posts on the occasion of the 400th anniversary of his death, and, god, just tons of information and beautiful images.

A display of Chinese ceramics at the British Museum. Not quite what the shoguns would have had on display, I imagine, but perhaps in a related realm. Photo my own.

In the Introduction, right from the get-go, Pitelka introduces a number of intriguing and inspirational concepts, pointing too to other scholarship on gift-giving, collecting, and social ritual as political. He explains quite early on the titular concept of “spectacular accumulation.” Pointing to a Simon Schama essay on Dutch still-life paintings, he explains that spectacular accumulation is “the practice of hoarding symbolically significant things and aggressively displaying them for cultural and political gain,” (6) and then goes on to discuss the collection and display of Chinese paintings & ceramics by the Ashikaga shoguns, and the amassing of many of these same objects, along with swords and other treasures, by Sengoku daimyô. The fact that in 1615-1616 Tokugawa Ieyasu ordered a significant number of men to invest a considerable amount of time and effort to search through the ruins of Osaka castle for ceramics, swords, and other things which could be recovered from Hideyoshi’s collection, and added to his own, shows just how powerful and important this was at the time. Pitelka does later provide one of the most thorough descriptions of the Siege of Osaka I have ever read (because I am not a military historian or samurai fanboy and don’t generally seek out such content), but also talks about how Ieyasu’s ability to recover Hideyoshi’s collection – including many objects which previously belonged to Nobunaga, and to the Ashikaga – as an important part of building up his own image of power and legitimacy.

In Chapter One, Pitelka discusses the Ashikaga practices of collection and display, and its interconnection with tea ceremony – the objects used in the tea ceremony are treasures of the host’s collection, and their “display” through their use is a central part of the social event – as well as conceptual links between these and other samurai practices of cultivating an image of power/legitimacy. For a samurai lord to possess certain objects (or people, in the case of the Sengoku practice of hostage-taking), and to give them out as gifts to allies or retainers, were key elements in marking his power, and in establishing or maintaining hierarchies. Pitelka links these two by writing that

The most powerful members of warrior society, warlords (daimyo), exchanged entities over which they had some hegemony – a famous tea bowl in one instance, a vassal’s son or daughter in another instance – as part of a political calculation. Such acts of exchange created value for both the exchanged objects and people and transferred some of this value to the actors conducting the exchange. Even when the value was not commoditized or monetized, as in the case of gift exchanges of tea utensils or hostage exchanges of family members, a system of social and cultural hierarchy was inscribed through the act of exchange and accumulation (18),

and that these exchanges, of gifts and of hostages, “helped to define the grammar of politics” (18).

This connects in closely with what I am trying to do in my own project – to discuss costume, music, movement in space, and other culturally performative elements of Ryukyuan embassies to Edo as having had real political meaning, and real political impacts. Further, beyond that, to argue that these are not peripheral to some other, more fully real, set of political acts, but that these “cultural” or “performance” elements were, themselves, the core of the political interaction & event, that they were fundamental to the meaning-making.

However, perhaps because of the era he is focusing on – before the end of Sengoku, when Unification is still in-process – or perhaps because of his focus on the social/political conceptual argument he is making, much of Pitelka’s discussion of gift-giving speaks only in vague generalities about the role of gift-giving in forging personal/social relationships, where I might have been hoping for something more concrete, e.g. explanation of precisely which gifts symbolized entering into the gift-receiver’s service, as a vassal. Was it the case that when someone presented a daimyô with a sword, it was a symbol of their fealty, and that they would only do so in that particular circumstance, and that whenever they did not present the daimyô with a sword, they were not at that time swearing or renewing oaths of fealty?

The 13th century blade Fukuoka Ichimonji Sukezane, given by Katô Kiyomasa as a gift to Tokugawa Ieyasu, and today held at Nikkô Tôshôgû. National Treasure.

In Chapter Two, Pitelka continues along similar lines, describing the collecting practices of Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu, writing that they saw the “spectacular accumulation” of tea implements, swords, and the like “not as a static investment to be hoarded or protected from the ravages of time, but as an instrument in the politics and social maneuverings of unification” (44, emphasis my own), and discussing the ways they continued, and emulated, the collecting practices of the Ashikaga.

He also defends his focus on the cultural/collecting/tea practices of these warlords, writing that earlier scholarship often

“create[s] excessive delineation between an idealized ‘spiritual world’ of tea and the politics of a society at war, presuming that the tea practice of commoners like Imai Sōkyū and Sen no Rikyū, who were less directly involved in the wars of unification, somehow trumped the tea practice of Nobunaga, Hideyoshi, and others” (45).

This clearly ties into a much larger argument, a jab at academic attitudes more generally, which seek to divorce not only art from politics, but also the study of each apart from one another. Jumping ahead for a moment to the Epilogue, Pitelka builds upon this argument further, noting that “on the whole exhibitions of Japanese art inside and outside of Japan continue to fetishize the quality and originality of works as art over their social, political, and cultural contexts, or their meaning as historical sources” (174). Regular readers of my blog will know that this remains one of my chief sticking points, one of my pet peeves. I eagerly look forward to the day that we can see the Metropolitan, or other major art museums in this country, organize a Japanese art exhibit that thoroughly explores a historical development, event, or period, whether it be Kabuki theater, the bombing of Hiroshima, the urban development of Kyoto over the centuries, or Japan’s pre-modern maritime trade interactions, through beautiful art objects. These things are beautiful, yes. They are intricately and expertly-made, yes. They are inspiring, yes. But they are also historically significant and informative. I want to see tea caddies exhibited with a gallery label that explains how they were used politically by samurai warlords. I want to see paintings of Dejima, of Ryukyuan street processions, of gold mines, or agricultural techniques, or paintings of kofun burial mounds, coupled with labels that tell us not only about the painter, and the style, and the making of the thing, but that tell us about what is being depicted, and what this means for Japanese history.

Sankin kôtai procession of the Nagoya daimyô, as seen in a handscroll painting by Odagiri Shunkô (detail). My photo of a replica at the Edo-Tokyo Museum, of an original housed at the Tokugawa Art Museum.

Chapter Three expands yet again on this idea of gift-giving and ritual performance as political maneuvers with real political significance and impact. Pitelka moves us forward in time, past Nobunaga and Hideyoshi, focusing now on the reign of Tokugawa Ieyasu as shogun (and the years immediately preceding and following), but the themes remain closely similar. While this chapter, like all the rest, is wonderfully informative on details we might never discover elsewhere, one thing I particularly took away from this chapter was the notion of the Sengoku & Tokugawa feudal orders as being particularly concerned with the movement of objects, and of bodies. Here, Pitelka reiterates an argument that hostages are not entirely unlike collections, or gifts, and that keeping one, or giving it away, is a gesture of power, of authority, and in the case of giving it away, of the forging or strengthening of personal bonds. When one gives one’s son as a hostage to one’s lord, one is showing one’s loyalty. And, when the lord eventually returns the hostage, he is showing his graciousness and generosity, a gesture of his faith in the retainer’s loyalty. Political marriages functioned quite similarly, in what I imagine are fairly obvious ways, tying one family to another. Sankin kōtai, or alternate attendance, should also be seen as being of a type, Pitelka reminds us – it is not only about each daimyō being forced to keep his family “hostage” to the shogun in Edo, but also about the daimyō himself being, essentially, hostage to his obligations to travel back and forth, and to expend a great deal of time and money doing so. It is a show of shogunal power that the shogun is able to command (control) the daimyō’s movement and physical location in this way, and a show of the daimyō’s loyalty that he obliges.

One more thing that comes up in this chapter, as elsewhere in the book, that I find particularly valuable is Pitelka’s reminders that nothing in history is guaranteed or predetermined. With these so-called “Three Unifiers” in particular, we have a tendency to think they were somehow destined to fail, fail, and succeed, respectively – and that the success and stability of the Tokugawa order, once established in 1603, was here to stay. This seems sort of a given as we look at it retrospectively. But, this was by no means guaranteed at the time. As of 1600, Ieyasu had merely claimed authority through martial victory – he was not shogun yet. And as of 1603, though he was shogun, there were still notable opponents to his rule – namely, especially, Toyotomi Hideyori and his numerous followers. But for a roll of the dice, history could have gone quite differently – Ieyasu might have lasted no longer than Nobunaga or Hideyoshi. What exactly might have happened instead I won’t venture to guess – there are likely some over at the Samurai-Archives Forums who would know far better than me just how feasible it was that Hideyori might have ever become hegemon, or whether the whole archipelago might have broken down into all-out war all over again, or whether this or that other outcome was at all likely. We should remember, too, that all the way up until the 1630s, there were still considerable foreign (read: Christian) influences within the realm, with a mission to Rome being dispatched even as late as the 1620s. Who knows what might have happened differently had the Christian daimyō acted differently, forming a faction against the Tokugawa, or simply breaking away as a separate “state.” Even though in the actual course of events they did not do so, it is still for this reason (among others) that I think it keen to put quotes around “Japan” as a “nation” or “country” during this era, and to speak of the Tokugawa state(s), even if there are those who cry “feh” at academia’s constant pluralizing of things like feminisms, globalizations, and so forth.

For some reason I can’t get the gif to work, so here’s a still from a brilliant animated gif by Segawa Atsuki 瀬川三十七.

Pitelka discusses falconry in Chapter Four, and as interesting as this is, I decided to skip it, in the interest of time. This was the one chapter that – on the surface, at least – seemed particularly less relevant to my own research interests, and so I moved on to Chapter Five, where Pitelka discusses the rituals of war. First, he disavows the reader of the notion that war is “a dramatic encounter between heroic individuals” (118). The lionization, mythological warrior narratives out of the way, he then turns to the subject of battlefield ritual, arguing that it’s not all about just pure violence (and strategy and tactics and so on), but that “struggles over political authority were as likely to occur in the realm of ritual practices as in martial conflicts” and that rituals such as formalities in letter-writing, and the seating order at meetings among lords & retainers (as in the image above), were intimately interconnected into “the hierarchy that defined warrior status distinctions and that allowed warrior bands to function both as units that waged war and as organizations that engaged in governance” (118). Further, not only that, but the idea that it was these rituals which “activated” that hierarchy, allowing people to feel/sense/know their place, and to perform or enact that hierarchical position or role appropriately, bringing the hierarchy as a whole into existence, and into force. This chapter, incidentally, also touches upon the practice of counting heads, as a means of marking battlefield accomplishment.

The Yômeimon at Nikkô Tôshôgû. Photo my own.

Chapter Six then focuses on Tokugawa Ieyasu’s deification, as Tôshô Daigongen, the Avatar that Illumines the East. This was a very interesting and informative chapter as to the details of this process, complicating what in a more general survey might be simply brushed over. We learn that Ieyasu was not immediately interred and deified at Nikkô, which remains the chief (or at least the most famous) Tôshô Shrine, but rather that he was at first interred and enshrined at Sunpu – which had been his chief base of operations for a time both before and after Sekigahara – and that it was only as a result of some in-fighting between the Buddhist monks Tenkai and Bonshun that the original Tôshôgû at Kunôzan (in Sunpu) declined in prominence and was replaced by Nikkô.

Sign outside the Tokyo National Museum for the “Great Tokugawa Exhibition” (Dai Tokugawa ten), Nov 2007. Photo my own.

Finally, in his Epilogue, Pitelka addresses the way Tokugawa Ieyasu, the Tokugawa clan & shogunate, and many of the famous objects (chiefly tea implements and swords) discussed in the book, tend to be exhibited in museums. As a museum studies guy, I found this particularly intriguing. Museum politics is something that can be really touchy – because you don’t want to endanger future relationships, with institutions where you might want to do research, or from whom you might want to borrow objects, as well as for any number of other reasons related to professional networks, trying to avoid factionalism or backbiting, etc etc. But, not only is politics terribly intriguing in a backdoor “inside story” gossip sort of way, but it is also terribly important, actually, for pushing the field to do better.

Two points in particular emerge from Pitelka’s critique: one, that as I mention above, all too often we see objects displayed only as art objects, for their aesthetic qualities, with insufficient attention paid to their value or importance as tools for understanding broader historical contexts. And, two, that because of the particular politics of which institutions control which objects, and the because of the role of the Agency for Cultural Affairs (Bunkachô) in loans and exhibits of certain types of objects (esp. Important Cultural Properties and National Treasures), certain “mythohistory” narratives get emphasized or perpetuated, while critical, revisionist, or simply different (other) narratives get sidelined, or suppressed. The Nation has strong political motives to have its history represented in particular ways, reinforcing the greatness of Japan’s past, the great beauty of its culture, and so forth, for any number of purposes relating to tourism, foreign investment, diplomacy, general international prestige – and government – not only in Japan, but perhaps nearly everywhere in the world – is more interested in those things than in nuanced, complex, historical truth simply for the sake of truth.

Tokugawa clan crest at Zôjôji, Tokyo. Photo my own.

To conclude (this review), I *loved* Spectacular Accumulation, I really did. I learned a ton, I got lots of good inspiration on how to think about ritual, and I also really enjoyed Pitelka’s modeling of how to write a work that incorporates material culture so closely, so deeply.

But, if you’ll permit me to go on a tangential rant for just a moment – and this is by no means a criticism of Pitelka, but rather a thought about the field more broadly – it continues to really frustrate me that we can have so many books in Japanese that just lay out thorough, detailed, explanations of a topic, and yet this just doesn’t seem like it can be done (or, at least, it isn’t done) in English-language scholarship. I have at least four books on my shelf right now, all of them in Japanese, that explain in categorized detail the various kinds of rituals of Tokugawa period samurai interactions. One section on New Year’s rituals, and one on other annual ceremonies. One on births and one on marriages and one on deaths. One chapter on shogunal journeys, and one on sankin kôtai. And somewhere, in one of these books, I found that gifts of mackerel, in particular, more so than any other fish, were a traditional gift for New Year’s, because… well, I forget what the reason was, but it’s in there. And that while vassals would regularly present their lord with a horse on certain occasions, on certain others they presented an amount of silver as badai 馬代 – literally, “in place of a horse.” Yet, where does one see such information in English-language books? It might show up, if you’re lucky, in the course of describing some more thematic or conceptual argument, but almost never in a systematic discussion of, for example, in this case, a listing out of the various gifts typically given, and the occasion or the meaning. We constantly give specialists in other fields (e.g. scholars of European History, or World History) trouble, we criticize them, for not knowing Japan better, and for their uninformed statements about how things worked in pre-modern or early modern Japan. And there is, to be sure, a whole lot of nuanced complexity, and a great deal of validity, to that. But, I wonder, maybe if we started actually writing more informative works (and not only analytical, interpretive, ones), if that might be a big help towards having better-informed colleagues.

Anyway, returning from that digression, I loved both Pitelka’s approach in bringing material culture and cultural practice into the conversation on daimyô relations, and his good informative detail on the histories of individual tea implements, individual swords, and individual people and events, such as one might not find elsewhere. The next time I should be so fortunate to see the tea caddy Hatsuhana or the sword Ebina Kokaiji on display – maybe if they do another Shogun Age Exhibition or Dai-Tokugawa-ten – or the next time I read something about Sekigahara or the Grand Kitano Tea Ceremony – I’ll have so much more context. I’ll be able to draw the connections in my mind, and get so much more out of the experience.

And, when I return to my own research & writing efforts, I’ll have so much more to draw upon in terms of thinking about, and articulating, just how material culture and cultural practices connected into political outcomes. I do hope that I can rightfully include in my Introduction something quite similar to Pitelka’s statement that

“This book avoids the artificial distinction between cultural history and political history, between narratives of beautiful things and … a history of politics. The famed cultural efflorescence of these years was not subsidiary to the landscape of political conflict … but constitutive of it.” (p6)

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Mitani Hiroshi, David Noble (trans.), Escape from Impasse, Tokyo: International House of Japan, 2006.

Time for another book review from my exams. I thought we were at an end, which would have been sad, but there are still a few more to go.

In Escape from Impasse (David Noble, trans.), Mitani Hiroshi details attitudes and events relating to Japanese relations with Western powers, from the time of Matsudaira Sadanobu in the 1790s and the Russian incursions of the 1800s, through the signing of treaties with five Western powers in 1858.

Among his arguments is that the concept of sakoku, of a “traditional” “ancestral” policy of keeping the country closed against formal diplomatic or trade relations with other nations (with only strictly limited exceptions), originates in the 1790s-1800s, and marks a significant change or shift from earlier attitudes about foreign relations. In support of this, in addition to descriptions of Shizuki Tadao’s Sakokuron and other writings, he notes a number of shifts in wording or terminology in official documents. First, he points to the fact that the original so-called sakokurei (鎖国令, “Closed Country Edicts”) of the 1630s only specified the expulsion of specific peoples (the Spanish and the Portuguese), rather than expressing a more all-encompassing policy of seclusion or isolation from intercourse with all foreign powers; it was only in the 19th century, in Mitani’s estimation, that the shogunate explicitly pursued such a policy stance. He also points to the identification of China, Holland, Ryukyu, and Korea as the only countries with which Japan engaged in intercourse (tsūshin tsūshō 通信通商) – to the exclusion of all others – as being first articulated only in the 19th century. At that time, for the first time, China and Holland were formally named (in a letter to Russia) as the only countries with which the shogunate had only trade relations (tsūhō) and Korea and Ryukyu as being the only countries with which Japan had diplomatic relations (tsūshin).

An 1832 woodblock print depicting the street procession of a Ryukyuan mission to Japan. These diplomatic/tribute missions received in audience by the shogun in Edo were a key element of tsūshin relations. University of Hawaiʻi Sakamaki-Hawley Collection. Photo my own.

I find this argument less than entirely convincing, however, relying as it does on shifts in wording, rather than on fundamental shifts in policy stances. Attitudes and interpretations of policies can change over time, and Mitani certainly provides compelling and extremely detailed evidence that this took place, but if there were major policy changes enacted in the 1790s, 1810s, or 1820s, to fundamentally alter the core of the so-called “sakoku” policies put into place in the 1630s, these are not evident in Mitani’s narrative. Further, despite his emphasis on changing ideas of “sakoku” in the 1790s-1850s, Mitani makes no mention of the concept of kaikin 海禁, or maritime restrictions, and the associated arguments by Arano Yasunori, Nagazumi Yoko, and others, who assert that the concept of sakoku, essentially coined by Shizuki Tadao in 1801 as a translation of a foreign (mis)understanding of Japanese foreign policy positions, and seen in only a handful of uses prior to that time, is an inappropriate framework for understanding a policy position that was neither one of isolation nor seclusion, but rather one of seeking to exercise strong control over the archipelago’s engagement with the world beyond. While there are certainly other points on which Mitani offers decidedly intriguing and compelling alternatives to standard scholarly interpretations, for him to neglect discussion of this matter seems a glaring omission.

The major strength of Mitani’s volume is its incredible degree of detail as to every single step in the process of encounters and negotiations between the Japanese and the Westerners, particularly in the densely complex and contentious period of the 1850s. There is so much more to this – so much more – than any simple narrative of Commodore Perry coming and “opening” up the country and boom bam that’s it. No. There were French and English and Dutch and Russians, and the Japanese negotiating with each of them under slightly different conditions, as the situation shifted and changed with each new development.

A Korean mission makes its way through the streets of Edo, in a painting by Hanegawa Tôei. Image from blog ペンギンの足跡II.

Yet, despite Mitani’s astonishingly detailed attention to these episodes of encounters and negotiations, and of policy debates both within the shogunate and among “private” intellectuals of the time, he neglects to address how Japanese officials and intellectuals of the time conceived of diplomatic relations, in contrast to Western understandings. At times, Mitani seems to take the ideological, political, or practical/logical reasons for Japanese positions as given, as understood, without explaining more deeply or extensively the reasoning behind them. For example, why was it that the Japanese wished to avoid formal diplomatic relations with Western powers at the outset (in the 1800s-1850s, when Western ships started coming with greater and greater frequency), and what, more precisely, did “formal diplomatic relations” mean, or entail, in their minds? Hellyer, Roberts, Ravina, and Toby each in different ways provide for their reader some understanding of how people of that time conceived of their nation, and how they conceived of the nature of commercial intercourse and its potential benefits and drawbacks. James Hevia, in Cherishing Men from Afar, places particular emphasis on the great disparities between how a British envoy and the Qing Chinese court in the 1790s conceived of diplomatic relations, including what constitutes diplomatic intercourse, how it is undertaken, and for what purposes. He explains, to cite just one example, why the British concept of the establishment of a permanent consulate in Beijing was so foreign to the Qing, and in doing so suggests that the reader should reconsider the notion that either the British or Qing ways of thinking, and of performing diplomatic interactions, are rational or natural; both are arbitrary, and reflective of different conceptions of the nature of the “nation,” and of international relations.

In Escape from Impasse, we see scraps of treatment of these matters here and there throughout the book, in discussions of the attitudes of a number of different officials and commentators, but there seems to be no coordinated discussion of Japanese conceptions, attitudes, and intentions such as would help the reader form a broader and more solid conception of what the Japanese thought diplomatic relations entailed, how it should be performed, and why. When Mitani mentions how shogunal officials resisted having the shogun sign the treaty with Commodore Perry, because that would mean this treaty constituted formal diplomatic relations, something the shogunate wished very much to avoid, I found myself skimming backwards, scrambling to find any broader or deeper discussion of just what did and did not constitute diplomatic relations in the Japanese view, and just why it was that they were seeking to avoid formal relations, beyond merely the idea of adhering to precedent, and to supposedly “traditional” “ancestral” laws.

Still, Mitani’s work is profoundly informative, and there are a number of ways in which Escape from Impasse contributes significantly to the scholarly discourse on Japan’s engagement with the West in the first half of the 19th century. His point that the Russian incursions of the early years of the 1800s marked a significant moment, awakening fears of Western expansion and military force, is something echoed too by Hellyer and others. As Mitani explains, there was considerable disagreement as to how to respond to these events, with some seeing them as passing crises, not something to be concerned with after the fact, and others deeply concerned, their sense of crisis spurring many government officials to action, or at least to discussion and debate; if this does not mark the very beginnings of pushes for the expansion of coastal defenses, discussions of the expansionist (or not) intentions of the Western powers, the need for more solid claims to the northern territories, etc., it certainly marks the beginning of these topics being discussed, and acted upon, in a more extensive, serious, and prominent way.

Detail of monument to Commodore Matthew C. Perry, Newport RI. Photo my own.

Mitani’s exceptionally detailed narrative also provides a more nuanced view of this process of Japan’s “opening” to the world, revealing elements which, in their absence, cause rougher summarizing overviews to misrepresent the process. As he explains, Commodore Perry did not, in fact, press for the opening of trade relations in 1853-1854, but rather the focus of his mission was on opening ports for the repair, coaling, and supplying otherwise of American ships; along similar lines, we are told that Perry asked for the stationing of an American consul in Shimoda not as part of a push for the opening of true diplomatic relations, but rather primarily in order to oversee the behavior and treatment of American sailors operating in these newly opened ports. This is an important contrast with the understanding of Perry we learned in high school, or which the average person on the street might relate. Mitani also discusses a number of differences between American, Russian, Dutch, British, and French desires, intentions, and interactions with the Japanese, and between interactions and events over time; to name just one example, we see how the Anglo-Japanese Convention of 1854 came about almost by accident, as a result of misunderstandings, and not as part of a coordinated effort by the British to “open” Japan for full diplomatic and commercial relations. Further, Mitani notes stark differences among the Western nations in their economic desires, with the British seeing Japan as a market for their industrially manufactured goods, while the Americans were more interested in access to Japanese export goods. Just as the Industrial Revolution did not happen in the same way throughout the West, and we should take Britain’s experience of it to be an exception, rather than the rule, so too we are led to a clearer understanding of the diversity and differences in the attitudes & desires of the various Western powers vis-à-vis Japan, and in the precise contents of the treaties and relationships which resulted.

Another of Mitani’s arguments, going against what he identifies as the standard interpretation, concerns identification of the key moment when the balance shifted from aims of maintaining or returning to sakoku policies being dominant among the top shogunate officials, restricting as much as possible formal intercourse with foreign powers, to the pursuit of finding ways for Japan to embrace fuller open engagement with the world while preserving its own “national polity” and protecting its interests, economic and otherwise, becoming dominant. Mitani identifies the Dutch treaty with the Japanese in 1856 as marking this shift (262). In fact, of course, there can be no one single moment, as these are ideas which had been discussed in one form or another for quite some time, and which had gained currency due to a combination of factors. Still, it is interesting to see him explicitly point out his argument against interactions with Townsend Harris as being the key stimulus (264).

Perhaps one of the most valuable contributions of this book, overall, is that it reminds us to not think of either Perry’s time in Japan in 1853-1854, or the Treaty signed with Harris in 1858, as hard and fast dividing lines in historical periodization, as if political thought, or the political atmosphere of the time, was something sharply divided and entirely separate from that of the rest of the Edo period. Mitani’s narrative shows us how Perry arrived in a Japan very much dominated by ideas and political structures of a continuity with the past, and that even after he left, it was only in fits and starts, piece by piece, as the result of a series of events and other influences, that different ideas and political paths began to gain dominance and prominence. The Bakumatsu period cannot be seen as a wholly separate thing from the rest of the Edo period, and neither the Western powers nor the Japanese response should be seen as monolithic.

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