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Robert Hellyer, Defining Engagement, Harvard University Press, 2009.

It is all too easy, and all too tempting sometimes to think of the Edo period as a single block, a single period that can be characterized in a single way. Of course there was change over the period, but the World History survey version of this, or very often even the East Asian survey or even Japanese history survey version of this, in my personal experience, has often seen simply one of (a) putting a system into place and then maintaining it, and (b) proto-industrial growth and “progress.” Of course, however, we all know that history is never so simple, and no society is ever so static. In Defining Engagement, Robert Hellyer provides a more complex and detailed description of the changes and developments in Japanese foreign policy over the course of the Edo period, emphasizing the decentralized and at times highly contested nature of policy-making, implementation and enforcement, and the dramatic shifts in attitudes and policies across the period.
Based on Hellyer’s account, we can see a number of watershed moments in the progression of foreign policy, namely the 1630s, 1764, and 1853, marking the bounds of periods decidedly different from one another in character.

Hellyer does not dwell for long on the initial decades of Tokugawa rule, or on the debates or considerations surrounding the decision to impose maritime restrictions in the 1630s, but it would be hard to argue that this is not a significant dividing line, between a period of active engagement with many different trading partners – Portuguese, Spanish, and English, among others coming to Japanese ports, and Japanese operating in Southeast Asian ports, to say the least – and one of much more careful, restricted engagement with the outside world, in which only the Dutch and Chinese trade at Nagasaki, and interactions with Ryukyu and Korea (and via them, China) are handled exclusively by the domainal authorities of Satsuma and Tsushima. From the settling of this mode of engagement in the early decades of the 17th century, through to the 1750s, as Hellyer describes in his first several chapters, Satsuma and Tsushima enjoyed considerable autonomy and agency in their management of trade, as did merchants in Nagasaki and elsewhere in the realm. Both Satsuma and Tsushima were able to leverage their indispensability in these commercial and political relationships to gain considerable privileges or concessions from the shogunate, arguing not only for the importance of the goods they were bringing in, but also for the value of the intelligence – information about political goings-on in the region – obtained via these domainal relationships with Ryukyu and Korea. Here, and throughout the book, Hellyer emphasizes that “Japanese” foreign relations in this period were not directed wholly by a central authority, with a set plan that all domains followed through on; rather, the realm’s interactions with the outside world were constituted by the competing, and sometimes complementary, desires, intentions, attitudes, and actions of several different parties, the shogunate, the lords of Satsuma and Tsushima, and their advisors, chief among them.

Japan and its peripheries, as seen in one of the woodblock-printed maps from Hayashi Shihei’s 1785 Sangoku tsûran zusetsu. Sakamaki-Hawley Collection, University of Hawaii Library. Photo my own.

Hellyer also characterizes this first half of the Edo period as a period of desperate attempts on the part of the shogunate to stem the flow of precious metals (especially silver) out of the country, in negotiation or competition with Satsuma’s and Tsushima’s demands for their own continued access to precious metals to export as vital tribute goods for Tsushima to present to Korea, and Ryukyu to China, in exchange for the exotic goods (incl. chiefly Korean ginseng and Chinese silks). Repeated debasements of the coinage executed by the shogunate in attempts to reduce the amount of silver flowing out of the country present considerable difficulties for both Tsushima and Satsuma, but both domains are able, for the time being, to petition or argue successfully for exceptions, or concessions, allowing them to continue their “traditional” patterns of trade relations. This would change in the latter half of the Edo period (from perhaps the 1760s or so onward), as stronger shogunate control over certain aspects of the economy, and increased domestic production of various goods, diminished the shogunate’s reliance on the two domains, and thus their leverage and agency.

Where Miyagi Eishō, among others, have argued for the importance of Arai Hakuseki in engineering, around 1709-1711, a dramatic shift in how the shogunate viewed the purpose or importance of the Korean and Ryukyuan embassies to Edo, casting it as a major turning point, Hellyer merely touches upon these issues, dwelling little on the missions and their role in contributing to Tokugawa legitimacy and authority (but that’s okay. We’ve got Toby for that. Hellyer does mention logistical changes put into place by Hakuseki (62-63), but draws his dividing line at 1764 (73). Though I remain unconvinced that anything occurred in precisely that year which should define it as a watershed moment, it is clear from Hellyer’s descriptions that the 1760s-1770s saw a very dramatic shift in shogunate approaches to foreign trade. Beginning at that time, the shogunate moved to implement a more systematic and more directly shogunate-controlled system of funneling revenues and import/export goods, dramatically reducing the agency of Satsuma and Tsushima, and the independence of Nagasaki and Osaka merchants in coordinating exchanges of certain prominent goods and in profiting from those exchanges. This period sees the expansion of the activity of the Nagasaki clearinghouse and the establishment of other clearinghouses and shogunate-authorized guilds (za), directing silver, copper, and marine products through shogunate-controlled, or –authorized, channels, essentially monopolizing the import, export, and domestic trade in those commodities for the benefit of shogunate revenues, rather than private merchant profits. It was around this time as well that the shogunate finally managed to shift the flows of goods away from trade patterns based on the export of silver, to ones where the export of marine goods, including kelp, sea cucumber, and abalone, was at the center; demand for marine products throughout the region – and especially in China – was high enough to allow the Japanese, through their various channels, to not only dramatically decrease the amount of silver they were exporting, but to actually begin importing silver, in exchange for marine goods.

Commodore Perry’s fleet, as depicted in a scroll recently acquired by the British Museum. Image from the Museum’s online collections.

Finally, we come to the 1850s, when Western merchants enter onto the scene in a more major way, though Hellyer does describe earlier encounters. At first, Western merchants seek to insert themselves into the regional trade networks already in place, and for a brief time samurai officials consider using Western ships as intermediaries in the China trade, exchanging marine products for silver, among other goods. However, the focus quickly shifts to more direct engagement with the Western powers, within increasingly Western modes of exchange, and over the course of the 1850s-60s, the traditional systems, especially at Nagasaki, fall apart surprisingly quickly.

Hellyer’s account skims over the diplomatic or political aspects of relations between the various shogunal/domainal samurai authorities on the one hand, and the royal courts of Korea and Ryukyu on the other hand, and treats the Korean and Ryukyuan missions to Edo, the Satsuma presence in Ryukyu, and the Tsushima missions or interactions in Korea, very minimally. However, his narrative illuminates important factors contributing to shifts and changes throughout this period, including changeovers in shogunal advisors or leadership (focusing especially on the differing attitudes and approaches of Arai Hakuseki, Tanuma Okitsugu, and Matsudaira Sadanobu, along with a few others), and shifts in the supply and demand of certain goods. As Japanese silver mines run dry, domestic production of ginseng grows, diminishing somewhat the indispensability of silver exports to Korea; as Japanese copper exports are reduced, the Chinese expand their mining efforts in Yunnan and Vietnam. Matsudaira Sadanobu tries in the 1780-1790s to dramatically reduce foreign interactions, but concedes that the domestic demand for medicinal herbs, roots, and the like was too high to shut things down more fully. And then, just as marine products begin to dominate the export market, the people of the archipelago come, circa 1800, to have a taste for those products, for their own personal local consumption, like never before. This narrative reveals, or highlights, the powerful importance of goods like medicinal herbs and roots, and marine products such as kelp, sea cucumber, and abalone which generally go largely overlooked in favor of “sexier” or “flashier” goods such as gold, silver, silks, and porcelains, a product of our biases as scholars, given our own proclivities and/or cultural background. One thing missing from this narrative, however, even as Hellyer focuses on the attitudes and approaches of different shogunal advisors, is any detailed coverage of changes in attitudes or approaches among the daimyō of Satsuma and Tsushima. Those names already prominent in our historical awareness already due to their involvement in Bakumatsu affairs, such as Shimazu Nariakira and Shimazu Hisamitsu, are chiefly those discussed in any detail, leaving us in the dark as to who the daimyō of the late 17th, 18th, and early 19th centuries were, let alone their personalities or policies.

We do, however, learn about a number of significant figures and incidents within Satsuma and Tsushima history, however, which I imagine are scarcely (if at all) covered elsewhere in English. Thus, in addition to the great value and interest of this book for its coverage of economic and foreign relations matters, I also very much enjoyed seeing these domains’ histories “rescued from history” to a certain extent. We learn, for example, about the great efforts at domainal financial reform of Satsuma retainer Zusho Shôzaemon, and the foreign relations efforts of Satsuma retainer Godai Hidetaka, as well as about Tsushima’s foreign relations nightmares dealing with the Russians, and the incredible factionalism and numerous coups within Tsushima leadership in the 1860s. It frustrates me that these events are not more widely discussed, and incorporated into the narrative, and that figures such as Zusho and Godai, along with Sasu Iori and Ôshima Tomonojô, not to mention daimyô such as Sô Yoshiyori and Sô Yoshiakira, continue to languish in such obscurity outside of Hellyer’s account. I hope that my own work can bring to light the stories of more significant figures, not as pawns within broader developments, but as real historical individuals – though, to be honest, I’m not sure my current project actually will. I shall have to hold onto that for the future.

All in all, Hellyer provides a valuable contribution to discussions of Tokugawa foreign policy, both fighting back against survey level misconceptions about static systems of “isolationist” foreign policy dictated from the center, and doing much to inform the more specialist reader as to the complex shifts in domestic production and demand of certain goods, monetary policy, and shifting attitudes or approaches of shogunal elites versus the desires or needs of domainal lords, among other factors which all combined to produce a dynamic, multi-centered, and oft-times contentious economic and political scene in Tokugawa era management of foreign affairs.

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Recently (okay, not so recently, a few months ago), Nate Ledbetter and Chris West, my fellow podcasters on the Samurai-Archives Podcast (where I am frequently the third person talking) did a two-part discussion (for which I was not present) about the tensions and difficulties surrounding the pursuit of Military History today within the fields of Japanese Studies, and History.

Frankly, I have little to add, but I did think it was a rather interesting, and important, conversation, so I wanted to re-share the two podcasts here.

EP118 Military History and Japanese Studies Part 1click through for the podcast blog, or listen directly, below:

EP119 Military History and Japanese Studies Part 2click through for the podcast blog, or listen directly, below:

Blogger T. Greer then responded, expanding upon Nate & Chris’ conversation on his blog (The Scholar’s Stage), in a post entitled East Asian Military History: A Few Historiographical Notes.

It is certainly an interesting phenomenon, that military history should be so discouraged, so marginalized, within our field. To be sure, social and cultural histories, including post-modernist and post-colonialist perspectives, histories of race & ethnicity, and gender studies, have grown more central and more dominant in recent decades, as the political and economic histories which were so standard in past generations have become decidedly less so. And, to a large extent, I think this is a good thing. We are engaging with myriad new and different perspectives that were never addressed before, challenging standard understandings, and exploring new aspects and new avenues which the old approaches – which excessively privileged political and economic narratives, particularly of institutions and great men – discouraged, marginalized, or ignored entirely. We’re seeing women’s perspectives, indigenous and non-Western perspectives, culturally-informed and interdisciplinary analyses, and so on and so forth. I am certainly glad that I get to do what I do, looking at Japanese and Okinawan perspectives (with a minimum of attention paid to European actors or European Theory), and doing capital-H History while looking at music, dance, costume, and art, as well as ritual/ceremony and identity performance, without being told I have to focus more on the politics or economics of the situation. I do think it a shame, though, as I have ranted about in previous posts, that detailed or narrative history, in general, is so discouraged, and theoretical or conceptual analysis so privileged. There is so much out there to know, to uncover and extract from the archive, and to simply put together and put out there – here’s something we didn’t know before, and now we do. Why should I always have to be forced to answer “so what?” and to have it connect into some broader conceptual argument?

The Sekigahara Kassen Byōbu held by the Gifu City History Museum. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

But, I’m getting off-track. What’s interesting here is that among the innumerable aspects of history one could study, the myriad topics, military history seems the only one that’s as marginalized as it is. Maybe I’m just overlooking something, but I truly cannot think of a (sub-)field that’s discouraged and marginalized like Military History is. Sure, some things are crazy popular right now – Memory, Identity, and Empire, for example – and some things perhaps less popular. But I know people doing histories of science and medicine, deeply Marxist histories (yes, still), religious history, women’s history, urban histories of space and place, studies of travel and tourism, studies of radio and music in statecraft, studies of fashion and of sewing machines, studies of local wine festivals, and of horse racing. Some people absolutely are studying individual leaders’ policies, if not their biographies per se, and some are deep in economic history. Morgan Pitelka has just put out a new book on Tokugawa Ieyasu, focusing on material culture approaches, and in particular on Ieyasu as a collector of tea implements.

And yet, even among all these incredibly varied topics and approaches, one thing is still missing: military history. And, for example, in the case of Tokugawa Ieyasu, even someone such as myself, deeply interested in the material culture side, can see there is something ridiculous about the absence of works closely examining Ieyasu as a strategic & tactical commander. Nate and T. Greer suggest that the culture surrounding the Vietnam War – particularly on college campuses – brought a significant shift away from military history. It was no longer seen as appropriate, or acceptable, I guess, politically, within the discipline to be studying war. I myself really don’t know anything about this, though I can certainly vouch for the unspoken pressures to adhere to liberal/progressive ideological values, even as we speak about open-mindedness, critical thinking, and embracing diverse perspectives and ideas. Yet, regardless of politics, regardless of left/right, liberal/conservative, Nate makes an extremely important point, in that just because someone studies military history doesn’t mean they agree with war, or violence. So many of us study a great many things we don’t agree with, from slavery to imperialism to fascism. So, that’s really no explanation. In truth, the discipline of History (and academia more broadly) should be accepting and incorporative of the study of any and all aspects of history. If book history and the history of sewing machines are important and valid objects of study (and I believe they are – I’m not making fun), if the histories of chocolate, sugar, and coffee, of conceptions of race & gender, of theatre and painting, are all taken as valid – if the study of manga and K-pop and video games is taken as valid – then why not military history? It really seems a crazy oversight.

Statue of Ii Naomasa at Hikone Station. Photo my own.

And, as T. Greer points out, as in so many things with East Asian history (and, indeed, with non-Western history more broadly), the trends have leapt past too quickly, passing over all too many subjects. I would not be surprised if you told me that the major battles of European and American history – from Salamis to Agincourt, to Valley Forge to Gettysburg, from Normandy to Iwo Jima – have been analyzed and over-analyzed to the point of excess. And, from the Western point of view at least, things like the Boer War and the Maori Wars may have received considerable attention as well. So maybe it really is time for Military History, as a sub-discipline, to move on, in certain respects, and for History as a discipline to move on from tactical & strategic analyses, at least for certain topics. I do think that the new social-cultural directions military history has been going are fascinating, and important, including discussions of war photography, gender performance, the social & cultural impact upon civilians on the home front and on the battlefront. But, when it comes to non-Western battles, we can’t move on so fast! Firstly, there are plenty of battles to be re-examined from the non-Western point of view. I touched briefly, in a post last year, upon a fascinating essay by James Belich on how British historiography has severely distorted understandings about the wars against the Maori, in New Zealand. The British refusal to admit intelligence on the part of the Maori, or a lack of technical, technological, or strategic superiority on their own part, severely skewed the historiography on the whole thing.

But, secondly, and coming back once again from digression, while Crecy and Midway, Marathon and Antietam, may have been analyzed to death already, there are countless East Asian conflicts which haven’t been (not to mention conflicts in even less-studied parts of the world). The many campaigns and battles of Japan’s Sengoku period, the Taiping Rebellion, and the battles of the Qing conquest, are only three of the many, many, conflicts which desperately need greater attention. There’s seriously nothing I can add, except to repeat and support what Nate has said, which is (1) that much of what’s already out there about these battles is wrong, from a strategic and/or tactical point of view, and (2) that it’s patently absurd to study the political, economic, social, and cultural history of a particular time and place while just skipping right over the details of the warfare. For me too, it’s not at all my specialty, and I don’t anticipate I’ll ever be doing tactical or strategic analysis in order to really write a military history of anything, but I am definitely interested to learn more about, well, any and all of this, but in particular about the Okinawan conquest of the Ryukyus in the 1500s, the Satsuma conquest of Okinawa in 1609, and the 1874 Imperial Japanese Army expedition to Taiwan… but if military history continues to be as sidelined as it is, we’re only going to continue to be in the dark – repeating the same stuff we already know about the political implications, but still not better understanding just what kinds of weapons and tactics, what kind of military organization, these groups had. How exactly /did/ these fights go? You’d never skip over a political debate, to only talk about its outcomes, so why would you skip over a military campaign?

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Arne Kalland, Fishing Villages in Tokugawa Japan, University of Hawaii Press, 1995.

In his discussion of fishing villages in Chikuzen province, Kalland provides an almost dizzying degree of detail about Tokugawa era fishing techniques and equipment, what kinds of fish were caught, and how they were used or prepared, and also about the complexities of economic logistics, tax structures, and regulations pertaining to fishing in Chikuzen. This book is surely a profoundly valuable resource for anyone studying Tokugawa period fishing villages, fishing, and the like, for the incredible level of detail he provides on a wide variety of aspects of fishing life. And, as such, it really fleshes out our picture of Tokugawa Japan, covering a very significant yet often overlooked sector, beyond the cities, beyond the samurai & townsmen, beyond even the agricultural peasantry.

However, for my particular project, since the Ryukyuan missions merely passed through these villages, I think Dusinberre’s brief Edo period chapter may be more directly applicable than Kalland’s entire book; in that brief chapter, Dusinberre mentions more about Korean missions, where they stayed while in Kaminoseki, how many houses they took up, and other key aspects of the logistics and burden of reception of these embassies than Kalland does in his entire book, mentioning next to nothing about inns, the harbor/port reception of any kind of official visitors, or the urban side of fishing villages otherwise. Kalland’s book is immensely valuable for one thing – for those interested in fishing villages – but I wish there existed an equally detailed, extensive, book on commercial port villages, more directly connected into networks of trade and travel.

That said, the one chapter on corvée labor (kako) could prove rather useful for my project, as Tokugawa systems of corvée – how people were called up, what types of tasks they contributed to – remain among the lacunae of my knowledge. Here, Kalland reveals that among the chief types of labor villagers in coastal villages were obliged to provide was, simply, the contribution of their boats and their labor for the transportation of officials and their associated cargoes. Though Kalland only speaks specifically of Fukuoka domain, it is easy to imagine, or extrapolate, that similar systems probably prevailed in other domains throughout much of the realm. Suddenly, we get a much clearer idea of how sankin kōtai missions, and Korean and Ryukyuan embassies, as well as any number of other official travels, were conducted: through considerable official appropriation of villagers’ boats and bodies. The numbers Kalland provides are a bit difficult to wrap one’s head around; that the reception of the 1748 Korean mission cost Chikuzen villages somewhere in the range of 120,000 man-hours worth of time/effort certainly makes an impression, suggesting the incredible magnitude of the corvée burden, but it does not give such a graspable, understandable, impression of the impact upon an individual fisherman, or upon a village. Still, combined with the figures and information given by Dusinberre as to how many houses in Kaminoseki and neighboring villages were taken up by Korean missions, we are able to begin to get some sense of the scale of the imposition.

Okinawan fishing boats on display at the Okinawa Prefectural Museum. Probably somewhat different from what they would have used in Chikuzen, but this is the closest thing I happen to have among my own photos.

Kalland’s focus on Chikuzen province (or Fukuoka han), however, presents some challenges. As demonstrated by numerous scholars, Mark Ravina in particular, Tokugawa period domains functioned in some important ways like (semi-)independent countries, and varied dramatically in their policies and political, economic, and societal structures and functionings. Thus, it is difficult to know how much of what Kalland shares here can actually be taken to be indicative of economic structures, etc., in any other province. Where the likes of Roberts, Sakai, McClain, and Dusinberre, writing on Tosa, Satsuma, Kanazawa, and Kaminoseki respectively, are to one extent or another clear about how their respective cases are indicative examples or atypical exceptions, Kalland’s engagement with this issue is lacking. He is neither sufficiently explicit about how or why Fukuoka might be an exceptionally distinctive case (as Satsuma would be in a variety of prominent respects), nor explicitly argues that his findings should be taken as applicable to the rest of the archipelago, leaving the question open and vague. As he describes, in many Chikuzen villages, fishermen did not actually own their own equipment, but used equipment owned by an amimoto, an entrepreneur who basically did the investment into the equipment and kept a good share of the return; or fishermen entered into net cooperatives, sharing the costs of the equipment. Did these amimoto and net cooperatives function similarly in other provinces? Did they even exist? Even without going into detail about other provinces, Kalland might have at least discussed whether anything he detailed was or was not typical for the archipelago as a whole. Was the domainal administration of Fukuoka more or less regulatory than in other provinces? Were tax rates particularly high, or particularly low? Were amimoto or net cooperatives particularly powerful or numerous, more so than in other provinces? And if so, why? What about Fukuoka’s location, or about the wealth/prestige of the Kuroda, made economic, social, and political structures regarding fishing exceptional, or typical? This sort of approach, as discussed to one extent or another by Sakai, Roberts, Ravina, and Dusinberre, would have dramatically enhanced the accessibility and usefulness of Kalland’s text.

Echoing my comments on Dusinberre and Amino, however, Kalland’s emphasis on fishing villages, and his arguments against seeing Tokugawa Japan as merely a dichotomy between urban merchants and rural farmers, are of great value in combating a conception which ignores coastal & maritime activities entirely.

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Anne Walthall (ed.), The Human Tradition in Modern Japan, Scholarly Resources Inc. (2002).

The Human Tradition in Modern Japan offers a refreshingly and intriguingly different perspective on the history of early modern and modern Japan. Through biographies of figures representative of perspectives, groups, or types largely absent from the standard historical narratives, the volume contributes to a more nuanced, complex, and diversified understanding of Japan’s history. By describing how conditions and developments of the Edo, Meiji, and later periods impacted, for example, court ladies, samurai women, Okinawans, and middle-ranking officials in a provincial domain, these biographies further challenge the ability of those standard narratives to present themselves as representing the “whole” story.

Cecilia Segawa Seigle’s biography of Shinano-miya, a daughter of Emperor Go-Mizunoo, based on the princess’ diary, is of particular value in (at least) two ways. One, it indicates something of the activities and lives of members of the imperial court during a time when the court, and court aristocracy, had very little direct impact on political affairs, and are thus very often almost entirely absent from summarizing narratives. Our standard narrative of the Edo period, e.g. if one were to summarize the entire period in a lecture or two or three, might mention the court only so far as to say that, unlike in earlier periods, the court had effectively no power in the Edo period, and largely simply carried on in the cultural and ritual pursuits they had pursued previously. When asked about the role of the emperor during the Edo period, I myself often comment that the emperor did not leave Kyoto, and hardly left the palace, for a considerable span in the 17th-19th centuries. Only in a discussion of the period more centered on Kyoto, and on cultural activities (e.g. poetry circles), among a limited set of other aspects, might one expect to see the court aristocrats achieve any prominence in the narrative. Yet, just what did court nobles, and the imperial family, do during this time? Segawa Seigle’s biography of Shinano-miya reveals, not in vague broadstrokes, but in evocative vivid details, the familial and cultural activities, and trials and tribulations of court politics of an imperial princess’ life. We learn that leading members of the five sekke families could expect to pass through certain high court positions (e.g. Kanpaku, Udaijin, Sadaijin), and that these rotated between the families in a standard enough fashion that one would feel directly slighted when passed over for such a promotion. We also learn that members of the court were entrusted, or at least saw themselves as having been entrusted, with maintaining and preserving the cultural traditions of their ancestors, an active responsibility importantly different in character from the passive continuation of these traditions we might have assumed – that is, the idea that the courtiers simply continued these traditions because that is what they did.

A second great contribution of Segawa Seigle’s essay is in bringing to the forefront the personal, emotional aspect of individuals’ lives, something all too often overlooked in history, often because of the inability to glean it from the documents, and thus easily forgotten. It is one thing to speak of court ladies, for example, as a group or as a type, offering generalizing descriptions of aspects of their lifestyles, their place in society, and so forth. Even in biographies, we often focus in on a chronology of key moments in their lives, noting the dates at which they married, had children, moved cities, or took up different ranks or positions, perhaps stopping at times to give more detailed treatment to certain political events. We see this in both Roberts’ biography of Mori Yoshiki, in which several pages are devoted to discussion of a particular murder, and in Smits’ biography of Jahana Noboru, where various personal political conflicts are described in some detail; and that is of course of great value as well, illuminating interesting and important aspects, respectively, of the functioning of systems of justice under the Tokugawa, and key social-political developments in Okinawa’s Meiji period history. But, it is quite another to do what Segawa Seigle does here, relating to the reader, by virtue of the fortune of having Shinano-miya’s personal diary, her thoughts and emotions, bringing to life the emotional humanity of the individual, and by extension inspiring, or challenging, us to think about the individual humanity of all historical figures. This is a major theme, too, of Anne Allison’s recent book, Precarious Japan, in which she emphasizes that economically and socially precarious positions – e.g. lacking in job security; financial savings or retirement funds; or familial, corporate, or governmental safety nets for social welfare – have not only economic and social impacts, but profound impacts emotionally and otherwise upon one’s sense of identity, of self-worth, and so forth, and that these need to be recognized as of profound significance.

Walthall does this to an extent as well in her essay for the volume, on Nishimiya Hide, a lady-in-waiting to the wife of a prominent daimyō, who after the Meiji Restoration struggles to get by. Nishimiya’s story also serves as suggestive of what many others likely faced in the early Meiji period, a period of incredible social, political, economic, and cultural upheaval. While we may have some conception, in broad strokes, of which types of people were “winners” and “losers” as the results of these changes, there are many who fall through the cracks. Nishimiya’s biography, in fact, makes one curious to read about others’ experiences at this time. In her biography, we see someone who, after passing an interview and being hired by a high-ranking daimyō family, enjoyed a rather stable and comfortable life, but who lost very nearly everything when the bakuhan system was dismantled. One can easily imagine that there were many of similar station who fared better, many worse, and many similarly; like Dusinberre’s treatment of the town of Kaminoseki, Nishimiya may not be “typical” or “representative,” but she is certainly suggestive or evocative of other cases. One is inspired to wonder about other cases, other stories from this period. We know of certain merchants, and certain daimyō who did quite well, and that in broad strokes there were many farmers who did not. What happened to other daimyō, other merchants? What happened to someone of similar rank and position to Mori Yoshiki? Nishimiya tried her hand for a time at applying her experience in refined arts and elite housekeeping to open a geisha house; in her case this does not last, but one cannot help but wonder about other cases where it might have succeeded. How many individuals from samurai or court noble families succeeded in transferring their abilities in the traditional arts (and/or in aspects of traditional lifestyle, such as Nishimiya’s experience in serving her lady) into successful employment or commercial pursuits in the modern period? At the very least, despite her geisha house not lasting very long, Nishimiya’s willingness to go that route, and to have her son become a leatherworker, is a dramatic indication of shifts in attitudes, as one allows oneself to (or is forced to) put aside “traditional” attitudes about “low” things that one of such elite birth could not imagine being involved in.

Jahana Noboru (left) and Narahara Shigeru (right), as portrayed in Ishikawa Mao’s photo installation “Dai-Ryûkyû shashin emaki” (2014).

Gregory Smits’ biography of Jahana Noboru, in addition to simply bringing Okinawa into the story of modern Japan, also serves as a good example of a point made by Anne Walthall in her introduction to the volume. Human lives and careers happen in fits and starts, and we should not allow ourselves to deceive ourselves into thinking that any person’s life takes place in a smooth, linear fashion, with all major occurrences prefiguring later key accomplishments. Jahana is remembered today as a hero, a champion of peasants’ rights and a defender of Okinawan interests against the predations of both government officials & corporate interests from mainland Japan, and of the former Ryukyuan aristocracy. Yet, as Smits points out, citing the work of other scholars, several years prior to Jahana’s famous stand-off against Narahara Shigeru in 1897-1898, and against the aristocratic interests of the Kōdōkai c. 1900, Jahana in 1894 was perhaps rather dismissive of peasants’ attitudes and demands, and resentful of their questioning his expertise, as someone trained at the top agricultural college in the country.

Biographies such as these contribute to our understanding of Japanese history in a number of profound and significant ways, providing diversity and challenging the national-level version of narratives of historical developments, and in doing so problematizing generalizing notions of “the Japanese people,” as well as inviting us to consider the personal and emotional, human, aspect of historical experience, and providing us with valuable details on specific cases and situations – even beyond these unquestionably important broader, historiographical aspects, these biographies also teach us much about the material and logistical culture of the court, of samurai life, and so forth, and about the names, dates, and events of Mito and Tosa domains, the Imperial court, the city of Tokyo, and of Meiji period Okinawa.

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Amy Stanley, Selling Women: Prostitution, Markets, and the Household in Early Modern Japan, UC Press (2012).

Amy Stanley’s Selling Women provides a much-needed counterpoint to discussions of Edo period prostitution which focus on the pleasure quarters primarily, or solely, as a romantic(ized) site of cultural dynamism – a font of popular arts, fashion, and attitudes. Indeed, the significance of the pleasure districts upon painting, prints, publishing, music, dance, theater, fashion, and literature cannot be understated. Places like the Yoshiwara were in fact profoundly influential upon Edo period popular culture, and upon much of what has since come to be regarded as “traditional” Japanese culture, as described by Cecilia Segawa Seigle in her book on the Yoshiwara, Eiko Ikegami in Bonds of Civility, and in countless other works on ukiyo-e and Edo period popular culture. However, the suffering and exploitation of the women in these districts, the functioning of prostitution across the archipelago, and attitudes towards prostitution have very much been under-discussed in English-language scholarship.

Stanley’s Selling Women represents a powerful step in rectifying this. Though prostitutes were officially seen as marginal people in the official status hierarchies of the day, along with other types of entertainers, Selling Women clearly shows they were hardly marginal at all in the economy, local culture, and everyday society of many villages, towns, and cities throughout the archipelago. Moving beyond the Yoshiwara, Stanley discusses and contrasts prostitution in a variety of different spaces of early modern Japan, including the big cities of Edo and Nagasaki, a small mining town in Tōhoku, the ports of Niigata and of the Inland Sea, and post-stations along the Nakasendō, each at a different time within the period.

In the process, we also see something of how women, in general, were regarded in society at the time, as wives, as daughters, and sometimes as property, and how they were treated, economically and legally, as a result. By illuminating the logics underpinning women’s (and especially prostitutes’) circumstances in Edo period Japan, showing how fundamental assumptions and attitudes particular to that historical period contributed to a distinctive set of repercussions, Stanley makes a valuable contribution to a more global, more diverse, conception of women’s history, and to scholarly discourses on sex, women’s role in society, and so forth as well.

Right: An image of Nagasaki yûjo entertaining Chinese clients in Nagasaki, from the ”Nagasaki meishô zue”, c. 1820.

As Stanley explains, prostitutes in early modern Japan had the most advantage in defense against exploitation or ill treatment, ironically, when representing themselves as passive victims, and when having someone else speak for them. This was perhaps most powerful in Nagasaki, where girls of the Maruyama and Yoriai districts, who chiefly served European and Chinese clients in the foreign districts of the city, maintained close ties with their families and local communities. Parents or guardians could speak on a girl’s behalf, presenting her as a dutiful and filial daughter, working and suffering in order to help provide for her family. That prostitution contributed positively to moral order or the social fabric, or was at least a necessary evil, is a recurrent theme throughout the places and times Stanley discusses in the chapters of Selling Women. Among other arguments, brothel owners, local officials, and others argued that prostitution provided an outlet for men’s sexual urges (thus protecting village daughters from men acting on those urges), and also that it was essential in many cases (especially in port towns and post-stations) for the prosperity of the town, as it brought travelers and traders who would otherwise bring their trade and custom to other towns instead, thus dooming the town to economic decline or collapse. The ability to provide for one’s family by engaging in prostitution, especially if it means rescuing one’s parents from poverty, was also often seen as a virtuous and self-sacrificing act on the part of the girl. As such, protecting prostitution – and thus protecting the economic prosperity of the town, and the wellbeing of the prostitutes’ parents – is often framed as “compassionate” or “benevolent governance” on the part of officials, a key element of Tokugawa Neo-Confucian attitudes about government. Stanley shows, however, that at other times and places in the archipelago, however, especially later in the Edo period, commercialism grew more influential, and many brothel owners, as well as local officials, began to appeal less to the idea that prostitution served a valuable moral or social function, and more to the simple commercialist idea that businessmen had a right to a certain degree of freedom in how they pursued business. Producers supplied purchasable sex because consumers demanded it, these men asserted, and all was done fairly and properly according to contracts and agreed-upon (if unspoken) rules of the business.

An important and interesting distinction raised by Stanley throughout the book, highlighting differences from modern/Western discourses on sex, is that in early modern Japan, prostitution was not stigmatized for the same sorts of reasons that it has historically been (and still is) in our own society. Japanese did not see sex itself, female sexuality, or promiscuity, as inherent evils. That a woman was unchaste, or even promiscuous, was not seen to make her “dirty” or otherwise undesirable, let alone sinful. What was seen as dangerous, distasteful, and problematic, on the other hand, was women acting independently, for their own personal monetary benefit. This was seen as posing a threat to the patriarchal social order, to Confucian relationships, and thus to community and society itself. The stigma against prostitution thus came primarily not from any association of sex itself as being stigmatizing, but rather from a Neo-Confucian morality which both opposed greed, and supported a patriarchal conception of women’s passive relationship to the men in her life (father, husband, employer) as rightful and appropriate. When women were seen not as self-sacrificing dutiful daughters, but as profit-seeking independent women who sought to entice young men away from their work, their families, and their wallets, this, Stanley argues, was the key source of stigma and attitudes against prostitution.

Meiji period hand-colored photo of courtesans on display in the Yoshiwara.

Another significant trend seen in Selling Women is the commodification of women. Whereas in some times and places, such as Nagasaki in the mid-Edo period, prostitutes were treated much like full subjects and members of the community, with, Stanley asserts, prostitution being seen as little different from any other job, in others, such as the early 17th century northern Japanese mining town of Innai, or the highly commercialized networks of trading women from brothel to brothel across the mid-19th century Inland Sea, women were essentially objects, owned by their families or by brothel masters, to be bought, sold, loaned out, or moved about as men wished. The commodification, or objectification, of women is key to women’s exploitation and ill treatment both historically and today, and so in addressing this issue, Selling Women becomes an eye-opening introduction too, in some respects, to some of the most key issues in women’s history and feminist studies more broadly, bringing the reader insights into how these issues play out beyond their own place and time (the 21st century Western world / US), informing about early modern Japan while at the same time containing great relevance beyond simply that which pertains to the early modern Japanese case.

That Stanley addresses multiple different places, and types of places, across the archipelago and across the Edo period, makes her study far more valuable and meaningful than it might have been otherwise. The Yoshiwara cannot stand as representative of prostitution throughout the realm, but neither could a case study of a post-station, mining town, or port town alone appropriately represent the archipelago-wide situation and thus remedy that problem. In this sense, Selling Women could serve as a model, or as inspiration, for other works, which might similarly bring a more regionally diverse approach to any of a myriad of other topics. Certainly in my own work I intend to examine how the Ryukyuan missions processed through the streets, and were received, not only in Edo, and not only in Tōkaidō post-stations, but in Kagoshima and Inland Sea port towns as well. In doing so, Stanley provides a much more illuminating and informative treatment of how prostitution manifested itself, across the realm, than perhaps any other previous work.

However, her approach also creates some difficulties, in that by spanning both space and time, the book compares apples and oranges, and fails to provide a clear indication of which differences manifest across time, and which across space. In Chapter Four, village headmen and the like in villages surrounding Kantō area post-stations are shown to have seen prostitution in the post-stations as a distraction pulling young men away from the farms, as a waste of money, and as a threat to social order and to village culture otherwise. Meanwhile, Chapter Five illustrates that urban/commercial town officials in port towns in the Inland Sea encouraged the opposite, seeing prostitution as essential to the prosperity of the port. It is laudable that Stanley shows both townsmen and villager perspectives, silencing the voices of neither. However, her case studies leave unclear the ways in which Inland Sea port officials’ attitudes aligned (or not) with those of the post-station officials the Kantō villagers were opposing, and likewise, how much the people of fishing villages in the Inland Sea might have been comparable in their views and desires to those of the Kantō farming villages. Similarly, Chapter One describes the all-but-complete commodification of women in the mining town of Innai, in northern Japan, in the early decades of the Edo period, before the reach of Tokugawa legal & administrative authority had quite extended into such an area. Yet it is left fairly unclear whether the same took place at that time throughout the archipelago, or only in the north, or perhaps even only in some towns and villages of the north and not others. As women are presented as more commodified again towards the very end of the Edo period, in the Inland Sea ports of Chapter Five, here too we are left wondering whether this is something distinctive of the Inland Sea cross-temporally, or distinctive of more archipelago-wide developments by the 1850s-1860s.

A view of the Inland Sea port town of Mitarai.

The question of the representativeness of each of Stanley’s cases, and the extent to which they can stand to inform us as to circumstances in other port towns or post stations, recalls an issue we have wrestled with throughout this reading list, perhaps most eloquently addressed by Martin Dusinberre in defense of his discussion of Kaminoseki. No case can be truly representative. Reality is more complicated than that, variation is everywhere, and no study could truly even begin to approach representative comprehensiveness without doing an even more thorough examination of a far greater number of cases. None of the places described by Stanley in this book can truly stand as indicative that all other post-stations, or all other mining towns, were just the same. Indeed, she even notes that, for example, some domains (such as Hiroshima) largely looked the other way and tolerated prostitution in their ports, while others (such as Takamatsu) were far stricter on prohibiting it outside of entertainment districts such as those associated with shrines and temples. Yet, while Mitarai might not be able to stand for Murotsu, nor the Kantō area post-stations of the Nakasendō for those of the Tōkai region along the Tōkaidō, some general trends and recurrent themes are evident.

Prostitution in Japan is argued to have grown chiefly in the big cities in the 17th century, before expanding out to provincial villages and towns in a significant way only beginning in the mid-18th century. While Stanley’s often conflicting examples remind us to always acknowledge the great degree of variation which existed, still there are enough similarities between the cases to allow us to generalize about what likely took place, if not in any one particular locale untouched by Stanley, then still about what “likely” “often” happened in “many” cases. Officials often prioritized economic prosperity over protecting the social order, claiming this to be compassionate & benevolent governance and to be a defense of the economic well-being of the people, even as they ignored the suffering of a sub-section of those people: their female subjects sold into, essentially, sex slavery. Indentured servitude was represented as dutiful and self-sacrificing, and not as an affront to women’s personhood and autonomy, and assertion of that autonomy on the part of the woman was seen as socially destructive, and as deriving from selfishness and greed. As a prostitute, she was meant to be an outlet for others’ desires, not to possess or act upon her own, and since female passivity was seen as a virtue, a woman could not assert her own agency without compromising her own moral position. Though one of Stanley’s key purposes in this book is to counter the romantic vision of the Yoshiwara put out by much other scholarship, and thus she does emphasize the difficulties and suffering of women forced into prostitution, she also notes beneficial or progressive aspects of cultural developments. She notes, for example, that even in the case of Inland Sea ports in the 1860s, where girls were legally bound to their contracts, and to the unspoken “rules of the teahouses,” and where a brothel manager could transfer a girl to another establishment as far as several provinces away without much room for moral appeal by her parents, and indeed even in most prostitutes’ circumstances throughout the archipelago and across the period, even in these cases they still were treated as something more than purely property with monetary value. By contrast, in the mining town of Innai, a man frequently could not petition for debt forgiveness unless he had sold his wife and daughter along with all of his other possessions.

Thus, we are presented with both a handful of focused and informative case studies, and considerable overarching general understandings. Selling Women goes far beyond what (almost?) anyone else has previously done, examining prostitution and attitudes towards women across numerous different places and circumstances across the early modern Japanese archipelago, and while noting trends across time. Her study shows how many of the same issues which plague women in other times and places throughout world history played out in Edo period Japan, both similarly, and in distinctive ways particular to this case.

Public domain and Creative Commons images courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

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Takashi Fujitani, Splendid Monarchy: Power and Pageantry in Modern Japan, UC Press, 1996.

Alright. Japan books from my exam list. What we’ve all been waiting for. Here we go.

Much of the modern ideas about emperorship and nation in Japan today stems from ideological constructions of the Meiji period intentionally constructed at that time. Such ideological and ritual constructions claim to be a “restoration” or continuation of ancient precedents and unbroken tradition, but in fact were heavily reshaped, if not invented whole-cloth in many cases. This makes Meiji Japan a ripe ground for applying the general concepts of Hobsbawm & Ranger’s The Invention of Tradition, a project for which Takashi Fujitani’s Splendid Monarchy serves as perhaps the greatest effort in English-language scholarship.

This basic concept, that modern traditions of government in Japan were largely (re)invented in the Meiji period, is evident from almost any basic survey of the history, and scholars such as Amino Yoshihiko and Ben-Ami Shillony have discussed in some detail the evolution of terminology applied to the Emperor. But, while some art historians may have also touched upon the use of architecture to construct and convey Japan’s modernity, few if any have written in English on the Imperial Palace, or described the construction of Meiji era pageantry as Fujitani does.

Beyond this, Fujitani also contributes valuably to the field by illuminating the degree to which the architects of Meiji nationalism and imperial ideology did not have a single plan all along, and by detailing the chronological progression as plans changed dramatically over time, especially in the first two decades or so of the Meiji Period. While most survey treatments of the Meiji period represent it as a steady-going, directed, and rapid period of progress, with each of a number of significant metaphorical “bricks” being placed one after another (e.g. the move to Tokyo, the adoption of military dress for the emperor, the Constitution, public education, the formation of the Diet, and so forth), Fujitani reveals that for much of the 1870s and into the 1880s, there was much disagreement about the form and direction of nearly every aspect of modernization, and furthermore that from 1873 to 1889, there wasn’t even a palace standing in the center of Tokyo. As he explains, there were a multitude of opinions in these early years as to whether Tokyo should become the Imperial capital, and whether it should be the only capital, and the Imperial Court was, at times, seriously described as being ambulatory, harkening back to ancient precedents which had not been the case in over one thousand years.

A model of the Daijôkyû, a ritual space within the Imperial Palace.

As Fujitani explains, it was only in the 1880s that it was decided that Tokyo would become the sole imperial capital, and that Tokyo and Kyoto would be spun in a particular manner discursively, to emphasize the twin aspects of the Imperial institution and of the Japanese state: ancient and modern; with great traditions stretching back to the time of the gods, but also eminently modern; spiritual and mystical, but also with real economic and military power; feminine and masculine; and so forth. It was only at that time, and especially beginning with the completion of the Palace and promulgation of the Constitution in 1889, that Tokyo began to be reshaped in a more extensive and centrally-directed way, into a modern capital after the models of the Western powers; and it was only at that time that modern Imperial / political rituals began to be constructed in a more coordinated and rhetorically informed sense, with the architects of the modern Imperial institution carefully constructing the private image of the Emperor as spiritual, mystical leader, untainted by politics, descendant of the Sun Goddess and of a direct unbroken lineage, continuing supposedly ancient (in fact newly invented) rituals, as balanced with a construction of the emperor as modern, martial, and deeply engaged in the administration of the state. As explained by Fujitani, all of this was expressed through pageantry, architecture, and public monuments, designed both to impress the Japanese people, and foreign observers, conveying to both domestic and overseas audiences Japan’s power and modernity.

Right: A statue of Prince Kitashirakawa-no-miya Yoshihisa at Kitanomaru Park. The first member of the Imperial family known to have died outside of Japan, he died of illness in Taiwan in 1895.

Fujitani makes several bold and significant choices in structuring his book, which contribute to its strengths and weaknesses in various areas; no volume can do everything, and Fujitani has made his decisions. Firstly, he sacrifices deeper, more extensive discussion of particular topics in favor of a broader survey of the various different ways in which the Meiji state performed & expressed discourses of legitimacy and modernity. By touching upon the two Imperial Palaces in Kyoto and Tokyo, the development of the urban space of Tokyo, the museumification of Kyoto, Imperial tours in the provinces, Imperial parades in the capital, Imperial funerals, bronze monuments, triumphal arches, and so forth, Fujitani articulates a network of powerfully interlinked phenomena, and makes that interlinking more evident. However, he advances this important thematic / conceptual argument at the cost of sacrificing more thorough description of any one of those subjects. A reader looking for an account of the history of bronze statues in Japan, of the urban development of Tokyo, of the museumification of Kyoto, or of the architecture and layout of the Imperial Palace, will find just enough material to get intrigued, but not enough to quite cover the subject satisfactorily. But, this is the balance we all must choose.

On the positive side, Fujitani grounds his work in Meiji period Japan, and states emphatically that his objective is not “to construct universally valid generalizations about political rituals” (95). While the work might, hopefully, inform others’ examinations of other times and places, Fujitani does not use Japan merely as a tool, merely as an excuse or a case study to discuss broader conceptual topics; rather, he makes a solid and meaningful contribution to our understanding of Japanese history in particular, and does not allow theoretical concerns to pull him off course from producing something deeply informative about Meiji era Japan, in particular. I suspect that similar works have been done, building off of or inspired by The Invention of Tradition, to describe similar developments in Britain and Europe at this time; I have already posted about a work which does the same for the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi. Fujitani’s Splendid Monarchy contributes valuably to this constellation of projects, providing the fruits for comparative work by presenting a treatment thoroughly grounded in the historical specifics of one nation, Japan.

All photos my own. (Book image from Amazon.)

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We now return to our regularly scheduled set of book/article reviews.

*Kang, David C. “Hierarchy and Legitimacy in International Systems: The Tribute System in Early Modern East Asia.” Security Studies 19, no. 4 (2010): 591–622.

*———. “Hierarchy in Asian International Relations: 1300-1900.” Asian Security 1, no. 1 (2005): 53–79.

*Schottenhammer, Angela. “Empire and Periphery? The Qing Empire’s Relations with Japan and the Ryūkyūs (1644–c. 1800), a Comparison.” The Medieval History Journal 16, no. 1 (April 1, 2013): 139–96.

Having spent the better part of seven pages in my previous post summarizing Zhang Feng’s argument,1 with only a sprinkling of Kang and Schottenhammer for comparison, I think I will start afresh in comparing and contrasting Schottenhammer and Kang’s approaches, in these few particular articles under review.

The investiture ceremony for Ryukyuan kings, a crucial part of the China-Ryukyu relationships, as seen in a model on display at Shuri castle.

While Zhang, as discussed in the previous post, offers much valuable critique of Fairbank’s “Chinese World Order” tributary system” model, “Empire and Periphery?,” just one of Angela Schottenhammer’s many broad-ranging and yet thoroughly detailed essays on maritime East Asia, seems to actually put these suggestions into practice. Schottenhammer demonstrates recognition of the so-called “tribute system” schema articulated by John K. Fairbank as pointing to some meaningful and important historical structures, but also as being only a model, describing only one of a complex of institutions in the very complex world of East Asian maritime trade relations. She examines the actual relations that took place between Qing Dynasty China and Japan & the Ryukyu Kingdom, in particular, comparing ideology and reality, and tracing shifts and developments in Qing attitudes and policies. She writes,

We will discuss not only why and in which respect China’s relations with these two countries differed but also if her concepts and visions correlated with reality or were simply ‘Chinese projections’ that drew an idealistic picture of the East Asian world. … Did the Qing rulers simply act on the basis of a traditional vision that saw them in the center of East Asian civilization, or were they able to distinguish between vision and reality, consequently making decisions on the basis of political necessities[?] (142)

Zhang, quoting John Wills, also advocates not taking the tribute system or Sinocentric worldview themselves as a starting point, as this “short-circuits” thinking about, seeing, recognizing, the fuller, more complex, more nuanced range of interactions going on in the region, outside of the tribute system.2 Schottenhammer certainly does seem to epitomize this complex and nuanced approach, though she does begin with a Chinese / Confucian definition of “empire,” as being the idea of tianxia, or “all-under-heaven,” a realm within which all is ordered, peaceful, and harmonious because of emulation of the emperor as the paragon model of virtue (141).

All in all, Schottenhammer provides a nuanced and complex view of the situation in mid-Qing maritime East Asia, covering the reigns of the Kangxi (r. 1662-1722), Yongzheng (r. 1723-35), and Qianlong (r. 1736-1795) Emperors. Balancing both ideology and practical reality, she explains that Qing attitudes and policies shifted over the course of time, from flexibility and toleration at the beginning of the dynasty (1644) through the Kangxi reign, to guarded caution under Yongzheng, to self-assured disinterest under Qianlong. For the first decade or two after 1644, despite the Manchus’ need to establish themselves – and not the Ming pretenders and loyalists – as the legitimate rulers of China, or perhaps because of this desperate need for legitimacy, the Qing were quite flexible in their relations with other courts and polities. They did send out missions almost immediately after the conquest, to seek the establishment of tributary relations with Korea, Ryukyu, and Annam, securing such relations by the early 1650s, but Schottenhammer suggests that at that time,

while foreign countries were requested to emulate a good action and return to allegiance, to submit tribute items (nakuan 納款) and pay the [new] court its respects, … the formal recognition of the ruler of a tributary state, in the form of investiture (cefeng 冊封), does not seem to have been an absolute prerequisite for the tributary trade (144-145).

As an aside, the regular, consistent willingness of Schottenhammer’s publishers to include Chinese characters within the text makes her work not only much more helpful and informative, but also makes it feel more professional, more scholarly. So, insofar as this is a review, two thumbs up for including the original Chinese, Japanese, Korean terms in the paper – not only does it show that Schottenhammer is engaging with the original texts, and the original language (complexities of translation, nuances of meaning), but it also provides the tools for the reader to more directly engage with that, on a higher level. Speaking to that point, Schottenhammer introduces and engages with a number of Chinese terms and the associated concepts, elucidating how relations were understood, or at least how they were described in the rhetoric of the day.

Right: Map of the traditional Chinese conception of the world, with civilization at the center, and barbarism at the edges. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Even a single phrase such as that inscribed on a 1751 world map commissioned by Qianlong can contain great insights, when the characters are given, and the meanings unpacked and discussed a bit. The inscription reads: “After our dynasty had unified the Empire, all non-Chinese peoples (苗夷) in the regions of the universe (區宇) have paid tribute and pronounced their cordial bonds [with us] beyond our [borders]. They approached us, in order to come under our transforming influence (輸誠向化).” (151) The term given for “non-Chinese peoples” here, miao-yi, incorporates two of the traditional Chinese terms for barbarians of the four directions – the miao to the south (today, the term has become a proper noun to refer to a particular ethnic group), and the yi to the east.

The “regions of the universe” (quyu), Schottenhammer explains, covers not just the realm (tianxia) itself, but all the world, conveying a paternalistic, possessive, and universal connotation – no more universalist or paternalistic, though, than European rhetoric of the Enlightenment, rationalism, imperialism, and the “White Man’s Burden,” however. Finally, this concept that “they approached us, in order to come under our transforming influence” (shucheng xianghua) is of particular interest, giving the reader a direct insight into the precise language, and through that the character of the logics, employed in this system. Though we may never truly be able to understand the past quite exactly as it was understood at the time, looking at the actual language gets us a little closer, removing one more intermediate layer of translation.

Returning to the dynastic narrative, Schottenhammer explains that this initial period of flexibility blended into a period under the Kangxi Emperor characterized by toleration. The Tokugawa, by the beginning of the 18th century, were working to make Japan more economically self-sufficient, and in particular to stem the great outflow of silver and copper from Japan to China. The Ming had severed formal relations with Japan in the 16th century, and the Tokugawa never made any effort to enter into formal relations with the Qing; many regarded China as having fallen to the barbarians, and some, such as Hayashi Gahô and Nobuatsu, in their book Ka’i-hentai, even advocated taking military action to drive the Manchus from China (158-160). Though the Qing also did not make efforts to bring Japan in as an official tributary, the Qing Court tolerated Japan’s official stubbornness, and took a number of steps towards the end of the 17th century to not only implicitly allow, but to even encourage the unofficial trade with Japan, which was, after all, essential to China’s precious metal needs (160). Despite the lack of official relations, which many analyses might take to mean there were no governmental interactions at all, the Qing even sent secret agents, or spies, to Japan, during this period (160-161).

Not the most popular attitude in Japan at that time.

Schottenhammer goes into wonderful detail about relations between the Tokugawa and the Ming loyalists based on Taiwan, such as we do not see regularly discussed elsewhere in the scholarship, almost at all. This is what I love most about Schottenhammer’s scholarship – she goes beyond the standard China-Japan-Korea metropole-politically-centered narratives to show the vibrant, colorful, textured complexity of history, bringing in all sorts of other actors that we just don’t hear about enough otherwise. In connection with this Japan-Taiwan relationship, and perhaps other causes, the Yongzheng Emperor’s reign came to be characterized chiefly by an increase in coastal patrols, and other steps taken to secure China’s maritime borders. Schottenhammer emphasizes numerous times that China’s rhetoric of centrality and superiority, and its aloofness, did not necessarily mean that the Court was willfully oblivious of goings-on in the region, including within Japanese politics. They kept an eye on such things, through a variety of means, including secret agents (166), though one imagines that Korean and Ryukyuan officials, and southern Chinese merchants and port officials, probably contributed to the providing of information as well.

Under the Qianlong Emperor, the Qing made efforts to become more independent of Japanese exports, directly working on expanding mining efforts in Yunnan, for example. Qianlong also led several rather successful expeditions to expand Qing territory, and to suppress rebellions and so forth. Qianlong’s reign is thus characterized by a self-assured disinterest in maritime matters, stemming from a reassurance of Qing strength and centrality, and from the belief that it was Japan’s responsibility to seek better relations with China, and not the other way around (170-173). In short, Schottenhammer’s argument throughout this paper is simply that Qing Emperors were not blinded, nor immobilized, by tradition, and were very much capable of addressing “reality” and changing policy, when necessary.

The Ryukyuan throne room at Shuri castle, filled with gifts from Chinese emperors, and designed thoroughly after Ming (& Qing?) models.

Turning to Qing relations with Ryukyu, Schottenhammer walks through a nuanced but relatively standard description of the narrative. She describes Ryukyu as China’s most filial country, and writes that it is beyond a doubt that tributary/investiture relations were economically profitable for the small island country, as China practiced houwang bolai (厚往薄來, “giving much and receiving little”), a part of the broader Emperor-centric ideology, which portrayed the emperor as the benevolent and virtuous giver of gracious bestowals to his loyal tributaries. All trade and interaction outside of the official tributary/ investiture relationship was officially ignored – officially, it did not exist at all – but in truth, there was plenty of illegal and semi-legal trade and interaction between Ryukyu and China, as Schottenhammer explains.

She then goes on to touch upon China’s views on Ryukyu’s relationship with Satsuma. That Ryukyu was a vassal (or whatever the proper term should be) of Satsuma was an open secret. Under the belief that a no-longer independent Ryukyu, controlled by or incorporated into a Japan that refused to be a tributary, could no longer engage in tributary relations, the Japanese and Ryukyuans both made efforts to hide the relationship; however, these efforts were largely for naught, as Chinese investiture officials, and other sources of information, saw more than enough to reveal to the Qing at least the general outlines of the situation. Still, the Qing tolerated, or overlooked this situation, proving, Schottenhammer argues, that the Qing never had any political-military intentions in the islands – so long as the cultural-ideological relationship continued, they didn’t care. There is the question, however, of why the Ming rushed to the defense of Korea in the 1590s, and not to the defense of Ryukyu less than 20 years later. Was the Ming so weakened by the Korean conflict, and/or by other factors, that they couldn’t? Perhaps it ties into Schottenhammer’s initial argument, that continental borders and maritime frontiers are separate categories of matters. But, that’s a topic for another time.

A Ryukyuan lacquerware dish with mother-of-pearl inlay.

Both in her discussion of Qing relations with Japan, and with Ryukyu, Schottenhammer draws upon ideas and elements of the tribute system, but combines them with practical political, military, and economic concerns, and shows that the Qing were flexible and dynamic in their approaches to this part of the world, deploying their traditional rhetorics and systems, but using them as a tool, or sometimes as a screen, in concert with a rather vibrant and complex set of other modes of interaction. All in all, she seems to embody, or enact, the approaches that Zhang advocates.

David Kang, meanwhile, does not. Despite writing in 2005 and 2010, Kang shows little of the nuance or complexity, little of the post-modern(ist) approach that Schottenhammer does. In fact, he is rather dismissive of the criticism that has been leveled against the tribute system model, and argues quite boldly and straightforwardly, in essence, that the tribute system is clearly evidenced in the documents and that to think otherwise is absurd. Now, admittedly, both of the articles I happened to read by Kang were published in Asian Security journals (that is, the field of International Relations and regional security), and so they are written for a rather different audience – not for historians, but for policy wonks and political scientists who may have very little knowledge of the history, or the historiography. Still, nevertheless, rather than bring his audience up to speed on the latest interpretations and approaches – those of Zhang, Schottenhammer, and the numerous scholars they regularly cite, including Hevia, Wills, and so forth – Kang cites works as old as the 1980s as reflective of historians’ approaches “today.”3

Given that for the most part all that Zhang and others are arguing for is admission of nuance and complexity – and not for throwing the tribute system out entirely – Kang’s reactionary resistance, strict adherence to the traditional narrative, and refusal to accommodate nuance or complexity is shocking, and confusing. In discussing the feudal, decentralized, nature of the Tokugawa state, which many scholars since as early as 1989, if not earlier, have described as more of a confederation of pseudo- or quasi-independent states, Kang again blows right past any nuanced interpretation, ignoring entirely the various scholarship on this subject since then, to simply assert that, for all intents and purposes, the Chinese and Korean courts saw Japan as a single entity throughout the medieval and early modern periods. He writes, “we should not overemphasize the feudal nature of Japanese politics, nor its differences with the other Asian states,” and then, despite an entire section on the significance of the bureaucratic and centralized nature of the Chinese and Korean governments in allowing us to consider them “nation-states” even as early as the 1300s (if not much further back than that), asserts that “all countries were essentially feudal, and Japan was no exception” (Kang 2005: 58).

Does this look like a centralized unified state to you? Come on. (Charger with Japanese map design. 1830s-40s. LACMA.)

While, simply in terms of the “factual” details, much of the content of his historical details and narrative is quite interesting, and valuable, Kang is utterly uncritical of Fairbank’s approach, citing essays from the 1968 volume Chinese World Order as if those arguments are infallibly just as valid as they have always been; to take just one example, he uncritically asserts that “there is no doubt that China had at least a vague concept of state (kuo) by late Chou times (BC 400),” quoting and citing Lien-shang Yang.4 Perhaps it is his disciplinary bias as a specialist in modern/contemporary relations, and in particular in political science & IR rather than history, which leads him to unquestioningly apply generalizing modern definitions – such as the idea that a “nation-state” is sovereign within its borders, and had a concept of itself and its neighbors as 國 (C: kuo, J: kuni or koku; “countries”). However, historians such as Luke Roberts and Mark Ravina have written in some considerable depth questioning and problematizing the meaning of , which in the early modern Japanese usage really can mean “country” (as in Japan, China, or Holland), or geographic “province,” or lordly domain, just as it can equally mean hometown or home region, depending on the context. To simply ignore this shows, I don’t know, either ignorance of the field, or a willful rejection of those arguments.

Kang’s 2005 article starts off strong, boldly calling out the Eurocentrism at the core of “objective,” “universal” IR theory. His chief argument, throughout both this article, and one from 2010, that a hierarchical system could be just as valid, and in fact far more stable and peaceful than a Westphalian system based on maintaining balance of power between states that are considered equally sovereign, is a compelling, interesting, and valuable one. And there is, indeed, much merit to be found in Kang’s discussion; his treatment of the ways in which Chinese cultural or civilizational centrality – and not political power or influence – functioned (605-606) was particularly thought-provoking for me, and his assertions about the importance of considering ritual and rhetoric also do much to support my own positions. As he writes,

Norms and beliefs are not epiphenomal to material power; that is, they are more than a convenient velvet glove over an iron fist. Legitimacy in itself is a form of power, but it derives from the values or norms a state projects, not necessarily from the state’s military might and economic wealth (Kang 2010: 598).

Further, Kang is quite good in his critiques of the “functionalist” and “symbolic” approaches to the tribute system, which describe the system as either a series of arcane and comically unnecessary or excessive rules and procedures – an over-bureaucratization, perhaps – through which trade & relations had to be conducted, or else as a series of meaningless symbolic gestures, irrelevant to the task of examining the “true” political motives and actions underneath. His reactionary stance, though, against those who suggest further nuance or complexity, and who point out that it is, originally, a Western theoretical construct and not a native Chinese concept – a position he misrepresents as “challeng[ing] the tribute system’s very existence” (600) – and refusal to incorporate any such nuance or complexity, continues to be terribly off-putting.

A celebration for the Crown Prince Yi Cheok (later, Emperor Sunjong of Korea), as depicted on a 1874 screen painting. National Palace Museum of Korea. Ritual is not merely empty prancing; it is powerful, and meaningful, as individuals enact their rank and position, constituting the political order through their acts.

Even if we look past this excessive conservatism, and forgive the numerous examples of iffy or outright incorrect dates, a number of the subordinate arguments in the 2010 paper leave me confused, and utterly unconvinced. One of these is the assertion that Japan (along with Korea, Ryukyu, and others in the region) “consciously copied Chinese institutional and discursive practices in part to craft stable relations with China, not to challenge it” (593). While this argument, too, has some merit in so far as those adopting Chinese modes could then play the part of “buying into” the Confucian world order, to display to itself, to China, and to others, how civilized it was, numerous academic articles by other scholars extensively detail how the Tokugawa shogunate in particular, as well as the Ashikaga shogunate, and Toyotomi Hideyoshi, worked to construct a Japan-centric regional order, and to do that very thing: to challenge China.5 In the 17th century, following the fall of the Ming, and again in the 19th century in the wake of the Opium War, there were again numerous Japanese scholars, some of them directly influential in government, who pressed for Japan to take action against the Manchus, or at least for the idea of Japanese superiority.6

All of that said, though, skimming over Kang’s two articles again, I realize I may have been too harsh in my initial assessment. I suppose I shall have to revisit this. These articles certainly have their points where they raised red flags for me, but all in all, Kang’s articles are lengthy arguments against the idea that the tribute system & Sinocentrism are mere myths, and against the idea that engaging in tributary relations & Sinocentric rhetoric was merely paying lip service in order to attain “real” “practical” goals. He attacks the idea that Korea (in particular, maybe a lesser extent Japan) only ever wanted to placate China, and asserts that the thorough adoption of Confucian governance and political philosophy, as well as countless other aspects of Chinese elite culture, stands as evidence that neighboring states such as Korea, Japan, and Vietnam absolutely did see China as a cultural center, a source of superior civilization. And the tribute/investiture system allowed Koreans, Vietnamese, and Ryukyuans to perform or display their cultured refinement, and membership among the civilized nations of the world. So, in the end, who knows what to think?

—–
(1) Zhang Feng. “Rethinking the ‘Tribute System’: Broadening the Conceptual Horizon of Historical East Asian Politics.” The Chinese Journal of International Politics 2, no. 4 (December 21, 2009): 545–74.
(2) Zhang, 557, quoting J. E. Wills, “Tribute, Defensiveness, and Dependency : Uses and Limits of Some Basic Ideas About Mid-Qing Dynasty Foreign Relations.” The American Neptune 48, no. 4 (1988): 226.
(3) Kang (2005), 64, citing Ronald Toby, State and Diplomacy, 1991, which is simply a newer edition of Toby, 1984. Admittedly, Wills’ book Illusions & Embassies, cited by Zhang and Schottenhammer, is just as old, and Toby is still largely valid and extremely valuable. His arguments very much inform my own understanding of the topic. But, even so, to say this reflects scholarship “today,” seems problematic, when there are scholars such as Schottenhammer putting out new stuff all the time, and when Toby is, in fact, problematic in some important ways.
(4) Kang (2005), 57, citing Lien-sheng Yang, “Historical Notes on the Chinese World Order,” in John Fairbank, ed., The Chinese World Order: Traditional China’s Foreign Relations (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1968), p. 21.
(5) Arano Yasunori. “The Formation of a Japanocentric World Order.” International Journal of Asian Studies 2, no. 02 (2005): 185–216.; Tanaka Takeo, “Japan’s Relations with Overseas Countries,” in John Whitney Hall and Toyoda Takeshi (eds.) Japan in the Muromachi Age, Cornell University East Asia Program (2001), 159-178.; Toby, State and Diplomacy, op cit.
(6) According to Marius Jansen, China in the Tokugawa World (Harvard, 2000).

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