I have not yet found time to read Rethinking Japanese History (CJS, UMich, 2012), Amino Yoshihiko’s 1991 book, newly translated into English by Alan Christy and re-published, though I very much hope to next summer. In the meantime, I’ve just finished reading something much more manageable, but similarly important and impactful – a short 1992 article by Amino entitled “Deconstructing ‘Japan’,” translated into English by Gavan McCormack.
There is a general consensus among historians that Japan did not come into existence as a nation-state in the modern sense of the word until the Meiji period. And that up until then, to one extent or another, in one way or another, no Imperial or shogunal government ever really fully controlled the archipelago. Yet, we still think of it as “Japan,” rather than thinking of the territory controlled by “Japan,” in this or that historical period, as being only some subsection of that.
In the course I TAed last term, I tried to talk about “the archipelago,” rather than talking about “Japan,” but, for me, and I imagine for most of them, it seemed more or less a purely semantic matter. Our fundamental assumptions about Japan, and indeed about history, are hard to shake. We can adopt new phrases, and parrot back ideas taught to us, but to truly adopt those ideas, to truly alter our most fundamental assumptions, to change our attitudes or approaches, is difficult.
Amino questions and problematizes those assumptions, highlighting the geographical limits of what people in the center (the Kinai) thought the geographical extents of “Nihon” were at various times, and emphasizing the various polities that existed, at various times, on the edges of, or beyond, those limits. He emphasizes the idea of “Nihon” or “Yamato,” the Emperor, and the Sun Goddess, all belonging to just one of many peoples, many polities which have existed on the archipelago. Though he does not explicitly make the following comparisons, he is essentially saying that like the various Chinese dynasties expanding outwards, like England expanding northwards, like the United States expanding westward, the territory today controlled by Japan is not (was not), historically, inherently, pre-destinedly “Japanese,” and that, at its core, “Japan” was a much smaller cultural/political entity, originating in the Kinai, which expanded and extended its reach, absorbing other territory, peoples, and culture into it.
When we talk in highly abstract terms, in seminar, about Theoretical approaches to history, about Foucault and Marx and Hegel, about paradigms of knowledge, about questioning and problematizing everything, I find it extremely difficult to find any of it interesting, relevant, or applicable. And I rail against the idea that we should be operating on a theoretical level, rather than engaging with actual historical events, conditions, phenomena, etc. “on the ground.” But, ground theoretical arguments, conceptual arguments, in our understandings of and approaches to specific issues in Japanese history, and you’ve got my rapt attention. Questioning, problematizing, reassessing, what we believe about Japanese history, how we approach it, the assumptions we bring to the table, could not be more important. Debating Theory on a purely abstract level, well, that’s a separate matter.
I now all the more look forward to reading Amino’s book. For now, this article is definitely going in my “important articles” folder, right next to the ones by Arano Yasunori where he argues against the use of the term “sakoku,” and against the idea of Japan ever having been “closed to the outside world.”