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Posts Tagged ‘early modern Japan’

After going to a Medieval Studies get-together yesterday, I got to thinking, a bit, about whether we can or should call Tokugawa Japanfeudal,” or “early modern.” Of course, I am sure there is a ton of scholarship that I have not read on how precisely scholars of medieval and early modern Europe define and apply these terms, and on debates about it. But, one of the wonderful things about writing a blog is that, unlike in formal academic writing, I can jot down thoughts here and share it with you without having to do due diligence of reading and carefully considering all of that discourse. If I did have to do so, I can guarantee that this essay would have just sat on my hard drive, unseen by anyone, for years and years while I worked on it, polished it, worked on it some more, tried to find a journal that would publish it…

So, anyway, just drawing upon the ideas and associations I’ve come across in the seminars I’ve taken and the scholarship that I have read, I get the impression that the general consensus these days on the concept of “feudalism” is that the term, as it applies to describing a very particular set of structures and frameworks in England and/or France in a very particular frame of time, really shouldn’t be applied even to Germany, Italy, or Spain, let alone to anywhere further afield. It’s a convenient translation for the traditional Chinese term used to describe certain circumstances in ancient China, a term which Japan later adopted to refer to certain conditions within its own history, but… I think one of the key arguments against Japan being “feudal” in the Tokugawa era is that Japan wasn’t at war with anyone, and thus the crucial element of the “feud” in “feudalism,” the military service demanded of lords by their king, e.g. their provision of knights to help go fight the French, or the Crusades, that element wasn’t there under Pax Tokugawa. But, I counter, Japan still had castles, and lords, and fiefs. It still had a political system that relied more than anything else upon oaths of fealty/loyalty from regional lords, who paid some share of taxes, as well as corvee labor and such, in return for a considerable degree of power and autonomy within the lands in which they were enfeoffed. And while I hesitate to compare samurai too directly to the English or French knight, or bushidô to any European system of chivalry, it is relevant that the land was ruled by a warrior class whose power derived from having rallied other lords (military allies) around oneself, and then militarily seizing that power, regardless of whatever kinds of ideas of Divine Right (in the West) or Imperial recognition (in Japan) were claimed afterwards.

Returning to the idea of military service, of course, it is true that the shogun did not really call upon the lords’ armies to go launch military expeditions abroad, as the “feudal” lords of England and France did in being forced to contribute knights (and other warriors and equipment? I’m not sure) to wars in France, wars in the Holy Land, etc. But, there were domains which were relied upon for their military service in defending the ports / coasts from incursions – Fukuoka and Saga domains, for example, were among those charged with ensuring the defenses of Nagasaki harbor (harbor and city of Nagasaki themselves were under more direct shogunal control, and were not part of any lord’s domain), while Matsumae domain in the north was charged with the defense of the north against Ainu, and especially Russian, incursions. All of these domains were permitted reduced sankin kôtai obligations in exchange for their service, and Morioka domain, for example, was at one point granted a great increase in power/rank (a doubling of its kokudaka) in recognition of its contributions to the defense of the realm. Furthermore the sankin kôtai, or “alternate attendance”, system by which lords had to maintain residences in the shogunal capital of Edo, and had to travel great distances with a large entourage to come and personally appear before the shogun once every few years, has been identified by Constantine Vaporis as being very much a form of military service. Now, I’m not sure if Vaporis would use the word “feudal,” and I don’t want to put words in his mouth, but he does argue, in Tour of Duty, that this was a form of military service, and that just about everything about it, from the processions to the mode of dress, to the lord’s presentation of himself to the shogun, were military acts. And so far as I’m concerned, the combination of this military character of the system, combined with the “flavor” elements of that we have things that we can call castles, lords, and fiefs, is more than good enough for me to make Tokugawa Japan merit the term “feudal.”

Of course, as I hope most historians would point out, the real issue is not the question of whether or not Tokugawa Japan was “feudal,” but rather the question of whether this is a useful term, or in what ways it is useful, for helping us understand, and describe, the political structures of Tokugawa Japan. And the same goes for the term “early modern.” It is important that we remember this, that we keep this in mind as we consider or debate these things. Still, I do find such terms useful enough that I do think this exercise (i.e. the writing of this blog post) is worthwhile – there is most definitely a point at which I will argue that we need to stop worrying about whether or not Japan was quote-unquote “fascist” in the 1930s-40s and need to instead focus on the details of precisely how the government functioned at that time, regardless of what we call it. There is a place for such terminology debates, and there is a limit to their usefulness.

But, like “feudal,” I do think that “early modern” has a place. Granted, we no longer believe that all societies go through the same processes, as if there is only one path to modernization, one path to civilization, and that all societies are simply at a different place on the path, a path that Europe (of course) has forged ahead the furthest on. We no longer follow this Whig History concept of progress. But, nevertheless, I think that there is some validity to applying categories that have some universal meaning, rather than just sticking to East Asian or Japanese concepts of periodization that would leave any efforts at comparative or “world” history at a total loss.

One of the key reasons behind calling Tokugawa Japan “early modern” is to draw attention to certain dramatic developments that took place over the course of the period, especially in terms of urbanization, the rise of the urban merchant/commoner class, intensely integrated nationwide (archipelago-wide) economic/trade and travel networks, and the power of popular publishing. By the end of the 18th century, Japan had one of the first futures markets in the world, and a complex system of merchant trade networks, reliable courier services, and functioning post towns following well-established and relatively safe highways and maritime routes. Agricultural land reclamation, mining, and logging were pushed essentially to their maximums, to the point at which Japan actually suffered from dearths of precious metals and of timber for lengths of time. Cottage industries emerged, and were closely tied in to urban merchant networks, such that goods were produced in the countryside in a “mass manufacture” kind of way (though not in a fully mechanized or industrialized way, to be sure), and then transported all across the archipelago, earning money for merchant houses (some of which went on to become modern “businesses” or “corporations” in the late 19th century) based in the cities. A system of IOUs, scrip, or paper money, whatever we want to call it, and a system of what we might call proto-banks, likewise emerged.

Edo and Osaka were among the largest cities of the world, and some scholars have indeed identified some of the above developments in Japan as truly rivalling where England (the world leader in being the first in industrialization, etc.) was only a century or so before. So, if there’s anyone out there who still believes that Japan was totally backwards, static and stuck in an unchanging pre-modern state of affairs until Commodore Perry blew the doors open, that’s all hogwash.

Japan also had the benefits of European “Enlightenment” thought and scientific discoveries in the Edo period, as Western medical books, globes, telescopes and microscopes, and various other tools and knowledges did enter Japan via the Dutch. Plus, of course, Japan’s own intellectual development was plenty active at this time as well.

So, can we safely call Tokugawa Japan “early modern,” in that the period is marked by dramatic developments, improvements, progress away from the “medieval,” and in setting the stage for the sort of industrial “true” or “full” modernization that was to come? I would argue a resounding Yes.

However, there is just one thing. Those who are serious scholars of medieval or early modern Europe might claim a much more nuanced dividing line here, but on the surface of it, I’d wager that global exploration, mercantilism, and the beginnings of colonialism are crucial elements of the early modern experience in Europe. England, France, Holland only were what they were in the early modern period because of what those countries were doing in, and what they were getting from, the New World, Africa, South Asia, East Asia, and the Pacific. The tea, silks, spices, and porcelains England was getting from China in this period, alone, even putting all sorts of other factors aside, played a huge role in making English culture and economics what it was at this time. So, given that Japanese were not exploring, journeying, or colonizing, are they still “early modern”? How crucial is this element to the definition? I dunno. Given all the domestic developments, urbanization, cottage industry, publishing, and all of that, I would very much hesitate to call Japan “medieval” or “pre-modern” or “not-yet such-and-such” just because of this one element is not present. But… it’s something to think about.

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My hits spiked when I wrote about politics, but even then I still didn’t get any comments, despite the potential of my words to be quite offensive… But then the point of writing a blog isn’t to write what will get hits or what will get comments, but simply to write what I am interested in sharing. Now, if only companies thought the same way, allowing creators to make marketing decisions instead of marketers – if companies produced and marketed and sold things they wanted to share with the public, rather than things their marketing research shows will sell… If the ultimate goal were to produce a worthwhile, meaningful, creative product and not simply to make the most profits…

Anyway, this weekend I noticed a bookstore in Harvard Square, Raven Used Books, that I never noticed before. I wonder how long they’ve been there. My goal of course was not to buy but simply to browse while killing time, but of course, in the end, I ended up buying several books. Hey, when you happen upon things for relatively cheap (under $15) that you never expected to find outside of the SOAS library, you have to jump for it.

Studies in the Institutional History of Early Modern Japan

Studies in the Institutional History of Early Modern Japan

Studies in the Institutional History of Early Modern Japan (John W Hall, Marius Jansen eds.)

A rather dry title, to be sure, but this is an academic book after all. A collection of essays on various aspects of the economic, political, and social structures of Edo period Japan, this book contains quite a number of articles that, I get the impression, are fairly foundational, and certainly ones of great relevance to topics I enjoy and intend to pursue research on.

Includes articles on feudalism, urbanization, economic structures, and Tokugawa law, as well as several articles focusing upon Tosa and Satsuma, though these are used not as interesting topics unto themselves but merely as examples exploited for the purpose of advancing abstract theories about historical interpretations of political/economic/social structures, an approach that I harbor a distaste for. Still, it’s great to have all these articles collected up in one book rather than having to rely on photocopies made from individual academic journals, etc, which would have been quite time and money consuming.

Some articles of particular interest:
*”Foundations of the Modern Japanese Daimyo” – John Whitney Hall
*”The Consolidation of Power in Satsuma han” – Robert Sakai
*”The Castle Town and Japan’s Modern Urbanization” – John W Hall
*”Bakufu versus Kabuki” – Donald Shively

Southeast Asia in the Early Modern Era: Trade, Power, and Belief (Anthony Reid, ed.)

Another collection of academic essays, another book providing good foundational sources. I’m far less knowledgeable, experienced in the field of Southeast Asian studies than in Japanese, but from what I gather, many of the scholars featured here, particularly the book’s editor, Anthony Reid, are big names in the field, and not only reliable, but would also serve me well as core reading.

As I may have mentioned in a previous post, I wrote my MA thesis on Japan’s commercial and diplomatic relations with Southeast Asia in the 17th century, focusing particularly on relations with Ayutthaya (Siam/Thailand) and southern Vietnam under the Nguyen lords. Japanese history tends to be fairly inward-looking (just look at the previous book, Studies in Institutional History), focusing on culture within Edo, politics within a domain (han), trade routes and economic systems within the country. It is also the study of a country which thinks itself quite homogeneous. And so, to talk about maritime history, overseas trade, the colorful multi-ethnic, multi-cultural ports of Southeast Asia was an exciting change of pace for me. It is easy to fantasize and romanticize about adventurers on the high seas, interesting characters who fled Japan or were exiled and sought fortunes overseas. Samurai fighting on elephantback alongside Thai forces against Burmese invasion; Japanese silk traders in Viet Nam dominating the market despite their inferiority of numbers against the Chinese, driving prices up and driving the Dutch crazy. Japanese from well-to-do Osaka merchant families marrying into the Nguyen noble family which ruled southern Vietnam. … And to just imagine the ports themselves, what a vibrant and exciting place they must have been, seeing the kind of intercultural exchange one rarely sees in early modern Japan, with its strictly controlled international interactions.

Some articles of particular interest to me:
*”Nguyen Hoang and the Beginning of Vietnam’s Southward Expansion” – Keith W Taylor
*”Restraints on the Development of Merchant Capitalism in Southeast Asia before c. 1800″ – J. Kathirithamby-Wells
*”The Vanishing Jong: Insular Southeast Asian Fleets in Trade and War” – Pierre-Yves Manguin


Japanese Castles AD 250-1540 by Stephen Turnbull

A far less scholarly book than the previous two, Turnbull’s writing tends to be marketed towards the young enthusiast who thinks samurai and ninja are kewl and want to learn more about the real thing. Which isn’t really something I can fault anyone for; after all, that’s how I got into it, that’s how a lot of people got into it, his books are cheaper, far easier to find, and far easier to read than the proper scholarly books.

His books tend to be short, covering the topic in a rather cursory manner, going into way too much detail on some points and leaving massive gaps in the big picture. But he does focus on a topic for its inherent interest, and is not simply using this as an avenue to discuss historiographical theories. I also get the impression from those who do take military history a bit more seriously that Turnbull misinterprets his sources and often takes them too literally, uses some sources excessively and others not at all, and just plain fails as a reputable scholar (and thus a reliable source) in general. A good read, and mostly accurate in its content, but perhaps not quite enough so to quote from, cite from, in a formal dissertation or essay. Outside of the fact that he has no inline citations or footnotes whatsoever, listing his sources only in a works cited in the back, giving the reader therefore no indication of which assertions are derived from which sources, I have only one real quibble with his writing that I myself have noticed. He very rarely mentions controversies or uncertainties as a proper scholar should, making assertions (for example, in this book,) about the relationship between the Yayoi and Jomon people, the Korean origins of the Yamato people, the colonial status/identity of Mimana (the Gaya Confederacy, which he misspells as Minama) as if they are fully accepted truths without even hinting at the fact that these are things that are in fact hotly debated in the academic community.

Nevertheless, all of that aside, it is a book which focuses well on its topic, covering “Japanese Castles AD 250-1540” in greater detail, more straightforward language, and with more pictures and illustrations than any historian whose focus is on historiographic analysis of social trends in political structures of the economic impact of whether or not feudalism is a valid word to apply to Japan ever would.

For some reason I cannot fathom, the professional proper academic community looks down upon, or outright ignores, military history. … So, for what it is, Turnbull’s works can be quite interesting and valuable.

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