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Posts Tagged ‘Edo period’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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In the course of my research, I have begun to come across highly detailed references to which time of day events took place. I don’t know yet whether I will end up having anything to say about the ritual, political, or social significance of the fact that such-and-such an event took place at such-and-such a time, but at least on a basic logistical level, just trying to visualize whether people were going up to the castle in the morning or in the evening, how long an audience with the shogun lasted, and so on, so long as my sources are telling me what time it was, I might as well make a note of it, and make an effort to understand what time that was. Over the years, I’ve skimmed over quite a few different explanations or guides to telling time in early modern Japan. Perhaps one of the best online is that posted by the late Anthony Bryant on his website, SengokuDaimyo.com. Even so, I never quite managed to grasp it, until this week.

Above: A Japanese clock from 1678, on display at the British Museum. Not quite as impressive as this other one also at the BM, but I think the face and mechanics are a bit more visible here, because of the size. Photo my own. Apologies for the graininess that emerged as I brightened the photo.

I think a large part of what makes it so difficult to grasp is simply because our own timekeeping culture is something we learn from such a young age, and use so ubiquitously in our lives, it is so deeply ingrained, that it seems almost natural, and so it can be hard to conceive of other systems. Of course, the fact that there were several different ways of telling time in early modern Japan (by numbers that don’t correspond to our 12pm, 1pm, 2pm system, and by zodiac symbols which I have never managed to memorize the order of), and that Japanese “hours” shortened and lengthened with the seasons, doesn’t exactly help.

Thanks to Japanese blogger Chihuahua Luke for this diagram.

The day was divided into six koku (刻 – though often referred to as “hours” 時 or 時分 in the documents), and the night another six koku, for a total of 12 koku corresponding to each of our 24-hour days. You can see on the above diagram, the six “hours” of night on the top half, and the six “hours” of day on the bottom half. Midnight is at the very top, and noon at the bottom, with sunset at the left and sunrise at the right.

So, since there are 12 koku in each day+night cycle, each is roughly equivalent to two hours in our modern 24-hour reckoning. Kind of. The thing is, daylight was always six koku long, and night was another six koku. So, depending on the seasons, as daylight grew longer and shorter, so too did the koku. As this diagram below shows, in winter, there is less daylight each day, so the daytime (昼) koku are shorter, and the nighttime (夜) koku longer. In summer, this is reversed. When mechanical clocks were first introduced to Japan by Europeans in the 16th or 17th century, their mechanisms – designed in Europe to tell regular time, one hour per hour, 24 hours per day, like clockwork (literally) – had to be modified to allow for these shifts in the “hours” (or koku) with the seasons. Basically, the small weights which drove the clockwork (and which you can see under the bell on the image at the top of this post) had to be adjusted every day, or every few days, to accommodate the days growing longer or shorter. If you’re interested in further details on how these clocks worked, wristwatch company Seiko has a nice description on their website.

Another diagram from Chihuahua Luke. Thank you! This one shows how daylight hours shifted across the year. The small 1-24 numbers on top and bottom are our modern hours, while the numbers given in kanji are the bell system I describe below. You can see on top how in summer, with sunrise around 4am and sunset around 7pm, the six daylight hours (from 明け六ツ to 暮れ六ツ) were lengthened. And the reverse in the winter, shown on the bottom.

Still with me? It gets a little more complicated. If you read Edo period documents, or look at Edo period clocks, you won’t see the hours identified in a simple progression from one to six, or one to twelve. Nanatsu-toki 七つ時 or nanatsu-jibun 七つ時分, which we might call “7 koku” is not the seventh one of the day, and it does not come after six. Rather, each koku was assigned to one of the twelve “zodiac” animals, progressing from Hour of the Hare at dawn, to Hour of the Horse at noon, Hour of the Cock at dusk, and Hour of the Rat at midnight. These “animal” names for the hours can be seen in numerous sources, including in Utamaro’s ukiyo-e woodblock print series “Twelve Hours in the Yoshiwara” – twelve prints depicting courtesans at various hours of their day. The print for the Hour of the Hare shows a courtesan presenting her client with his jacket, as it is dawn and it is time for him to go.

Right: The Toki no Kane (“Bell of Time” or “Bell of the Hours”) in Kawagoe. Photo my own.

The time was also announced in the big cities by networks of belltowers, which rang nine bells at noon or midnight, progressing down to eight, seven, then six bells at dawn or dusk, then five, and four, before jumping back up to nine. I have pasted a copy of a chart of this up on the wall by my desk, and have been consulting it frantically, as I was just a little too overwhelmed with the complexity, was having a really hard time remembering which numbers corresponded to which time of day, and just didn’t think I was going to be able to memorize it. As I made my way through my sources, I took meticulous notes of the corresponding times – for example, where the source says 七ツ時 (7 bells), I wrote “3-5am,” as it says directly on my chart.

But, then my advisor reminded me that it really doesn’t correspond directly to our regular hours; rather, it shifted over the course of the seasons. (EDIT, 3/13: Besides, let us not forget the idiosyncrasies of our own system, which includes setting our clocks forward or back by an hour each spring and autumn.) Oy gevalt. But, complicated as this all is, I had a sort of “aha!” moment today, and realized two things, which spurred me to be writing this post.

First, no one had wristwatches or anything like that at the time, and in an age before railroad timetables, very few things were done strictly according to schedule (i.e. directly on-time). So, really, it’s the rough time relative to dawn or dusk, or relative to noon or midnight, that is perhaps most relevant – and this gives us a stronger sense of the actual look/feel of the day. 七ツ時 (7 bells) is shortly before dawn, so that means it’s dark out. People would have put out paper lanterns to help light the way; these will be extinguished right around dawn. Are people up yet? Are they milling about? Are they just sort of first starting their day, starting to get things ready? The source tells us it was snowing that day… So, I think I may simply change all my references to “3-5am” to instead read something like “shortly before sunrise.” While this is vaguer, it is also less inaccurate, and arguably perhaps more directly indicative of the time of day relative to dawn, dusk, etc.

Second, while I do think I’ll be leaving the chart up for reference, I think once you manage to learn/remember that six bells is always sunrise or sunset, that nine bells is always noon or midnight, and that the bells count down from nine to four, and then jump to nine again, everything else falls into place. Five bells (五つ時) is the early morning or the early evening, four bells (四ツの時分) is late morning or late evening, and then we jump back up to nine bells for the time around noon, or midnight. Eight bells is either early afternoon, or very early morning (i.e. the hours after midnight), seven bells is either late afternoon (approaching dusk) or the hours approaching dawn. And that’s actually about it.

People milling about, possibly getting their day started? Or, perhaps it’s closer to sunset, and closing time? A model of the Echigo-ya, one of Edo’s most major department stores, at the Edo-Tokyo Museum. Photo my own.

It was quite common for people in early modern Japan to rise during the period of seven bells (七つ時), that is, within the last koku before dawn (the last hour or two before sunrise in our modern conception), to begin to get ready for the day. While on the road, we find that Ryukyuan missions very often departed a town around dawn (thus implying they’d already been awake for a bit, to pack up and prepare for departure), and arrived places by around dusk. Still, there were many occasions when they arrived considerably after dusk, and fure were circulated around the town ordering that homeowners & shopowners put up paper lanterns (chôchin), taking the lanterns down at dawn.

When traveling up to Edo castle for formal audiences, the missions generally got prepared around 8 bells (that is, two koku before dawn) – as, one supposes, there were a lot of preparations to be done – and then departed the mansion for the castle shortly before sunrise, arriving at the castle after daybreak (6 bells). It’s certainly something to think about, that they would have been marching through the streets, in their colorful costumes, banners, palanquins, and everything, and blasting street processional music, at such an early hour – and in the faint light of dawn. One supposes the popular crowds came out more when the missions came back down from the castle later in the day? But, then again, we should not presuppose based on modern-day conceptions of what feels too early in the day according to our own modern lifestyles…

As for how time was actually calculated in order to know when to ring the bells, I’m not actually sure. But, both for individuals and institutions (e.g. castles, temples), there were a number of other ways in which time was counted as well. Perhaps one of the most obvious is to simply look at the sun – I haven’t actually read up on it, but I wouldn’t be surprised if this was the most common method out in the countryside. Shuri castle maintained a water clock – water was allowed to drain out of a large tank in a controlled manner, such that the level of water could be used to tell how much time had passed. This was used in combination with a sundial to tell the time, which was then announced to the castle and the city by drums. Though this is a Ryukyuan (Okinawan) example, I wouldn’t be surprised if something like it were used in Japan as well. So, various kinds of water clocks and sundials. Candles could also be burnt to tell the time – just keep track of how far down the candle has burned, or how many candles you’ve gone through. In the Yoshiwara, a client’s time with a courtesan was measured based on how many incense sticks had been burned, and he was charged on that basis.

For more on timekeeping in Edo period Japan, check out Dissertation Reviews’ review of Yulia Frumer’s recent PhD dissertation, “Clocks and Time in Edo Japan.” The dissertation itself is sadly embargoed until November 2016. Hopefully Frumer will be getting her work published as a book in the near future; I’ll be looking out for it.

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A stele at the temple Zuikô-in in Kyoto marking the burial site of the topknots of 46 of the 47 ronin. The graves of the ronin themselves, and of their lord Asano Naganori, are located at Sengaku-ji in Tokyo, a temple which is much more strongly associated with the 47 Ronin today; but, as I haven’t been there, and prefer to use my own photos…

I have yet to see the new “47 Ronin” movie starring Keanu Reeves, and most likely will not be seeing it any time soon (if at all). So, I post this having admittedly not seen the film myself. That said, Prof. Jonathan Dresner of Pittsburg State University in Kansas has seen the film, and in a review entitled “The Many Things “47 Ronin” Gets Wrong About Shogun-Era Japan (And the One Thing It Gets Right),” has some choice words.

Nearly everything in the movie, from a cultural and historical standpoint, is questionable or wrong. Nothing unusual about that, but the movie credits two historical consultants, and begins and ends with voiceover claiming historical and cultural authenticity: “To know the story of the 47 Ronin is to know the heart of old Japan” … Even discounting the “witches and demons,” the movie frames the Tokugawa Shogunate (1603-1868) as “Ancient,” “Feudal,” and shoguns as “an absolute ruler,” none of which is helpful. It perpetuates the myth of samurai as “master swordsmen” and “protectors” and the conclusion praises them for enacting “the old ways of Bushido” as though there were a continuous tradition which had degraded in the contemporary age (but which the Shogun had no desire to actually revive).

These are, of course, some of the key ideas I have tried to impart to my students. Three hundred years ago is not “ancient times,” but is actually relatively recent, and indeed many scholars consider the Tokugawa periodearly modern.” Shoguns were absolutely not absolute rulers; the daimyo (regional lords) had onsiderable autonomy within the Tokugawa state.

Samurai were bureaucrats and administrators who paid lipservice to a martial tradition generations past. Training in swordsmanship and the like was certainly a part of their upbringing, but by no means does that mean that most, or even many, were truly masterful fighters. And as for them being “protectors,” or “honorable,” honestly, do you know of any class of people that can truly be said to be just and honorable? Certainly, there were some samurai who were more ethical and upright in belief and action, but so too were there many who were corrupt, selfish, or just trying to get by. Many frittered away their meager incomes gambling and cavorting in the pleasure quarters. Many took up dishonorable by-employments (side jobs) in order to earn enough just to get by. Many were unable, all their lives, to secure an official government position. Many got into fights in the streets. And, of those who did hold official posts, and relatively sizeable incomes, many were corrupt and selfish in a variety of ways, just like politicians or corporate elites today.

“Bushido” (“The Way of the Warrior”), meanwhile, that crown jewel in the myth of the samurai, was invented during the Edo period, and only first more fully articulated in 1900, roughly thirty years after the samurai class itself was abolished entirely. To be clear, this means that no samurai in early periods, “traditionally,” even knew of, let alone could have adhered to, the bushidô ideals articulated by Nitobe Inazô in 1900, or those described in the Hagakure (c. 1709-1716) or Miyamoto Musashi’s Book of the Five Rings (c. 1645). These Edo period texts were written at a time when the wars were already over, and members of the samurai class were working to try to understand, or re-capture, their identity as “warriors,” through a re-invention and glorification of the past. In short, bushidô is, through and through, an invented tradition. Only a small portion of people would have ever read Hagakure or the Book of the Five Rings during the Edo period; in other words, the vast majority of samurai would not have read them, would not be aware of their content, and therefore could not have subscribed to any “code” they describe. Simply put, there never was a single “code of conduct” or “honor code” widely known and widely accepted among samurai throughout the archipelago.

Certainly, samurai placed high value on loyalty to their lords, but that loyalty was based on reciprocal relationships, of service to one’s lord in exchange for titles, land, wealth, or the like, and not on some abstract sense of honor, or a coordinated structured system of honorable (and dishonorable) behaviors. In short, warriors demanded rewards for their loyal service, and when lords were unable or unwilling to provide such rewards, warriors grew disgruntled; there are numerous examples of individual samurai betraying their lords, and historians credit the inability or refusal of the Court or shogunate to grant rewards to samurai as major factors contributing to the rise and fall of shogunates. The above is a clip from the 1955 film Shin Heike Monogatari (“New Tale of the Heike”) depicting samurai returning from battle, expecting considerable reward from the Imperial Court for their service; though clearly quite stylized, in some respects, it may be the most “accurate” depiction of samurai I have ever seen. The warriors are dirty, uncouth, and violent – essentially, dude-bro frat jocks – in sharp contrast to the well-mannered, elegant court aristocrats in perfectly clean, well-put-together robes; the warriors are plainly shown as beneath the aristocrats, not only in terms of being less cultured, and in terms of political or status hierarchy, but also literally, physically beneath the aristocrats – whenever they speak to aristocrats, the warriors sit or kneel on the ground, and are not permitted to step up onto the clean wooden floors of the aristocratic mansion or Imperial Palace. This may take place way back in the 12th century, but I think it a good indication of how we should think about samurai, the warrior class, during the Sengoku Period as well. The Sengoku era, literally the Age of the Country at War, was surely not an era of glorious loyalty and refined codes of honor, but rather one of great chaos and violence, in which anyone and everyone, samurai and peasant alike, scrambled for power, or simply to survive.

For those interested, this issue of the myth of the samurai is addressed further in various places throughout the Samurai-Archives Forum, and in episodes 5, 6, 7, and 8 of the Samurai-Archives Podcast (Disclaimer: a podcast in which I am one of the discussants).

Dresner finishes his brief review of the film saying:

As I’ve told my students, family, and acquaintances many times, it’s a shame that more media creators don’t trust the original source material, the actual history, to be captivating, when it so often is much more interesting and dramatic than the fictions.

I could not agree more.

You can read the rest of Prof Dresner’s review at the History News Network.

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As I gradually made my way, one character at a time, through the primary source document I’m reading right now, I came across the name/title Matsudaira Izu no kami1, and I had a thought. I don’t know if anyone has written on this, if there is any scholarship on it, or if there’s any real supporting evidence, but, it’s just a thought.

The document refers to Matsudaira Izu no kami without any indication of a given name. Now, certainly, there are all sorts of potential reasons for this, in terms of etiquette and politeness, respecting and honoring the title or the position instead of referring to the individual, and/or reserving the use of the personal name for personal relationships. But, the thought occurred to me, does it matter to the person writing the letter who this Matsudaira Izu-no-kami is? Does he care whether this Matsudaira Izu-no-kami is the father, or the son, whether he is Matsudaira Nobuyori or Matsudaira Kazunobu or Matsudaira Tadakazu?2 Whether he is this sort of person, or that sort of person, in terms of physical appearance or personality? Or does the author of the document only think of Matsudaira Izu-no-kami as a position, as a person embodying that hierarchical and administrative position, as a member of the Matsudaira clan more or less interchangeable for any other member of the clan who might alternatively be occupying that title, or position, of Izu-no-kami?

What if, when you inherited a name or title, you weren’t just taking on the name or title while retaining your own individual identity? What if the common cultural understanding at the time was, rather, that you’re taking on that identity as well, subsuming, replacing, or erasing your own individual identity, and becoming a continuation, or embodiment, of that identity?

It was quite common in the Edo period, particularly within certain trades, for a son or successor to have the exact same name as his father, or predecessor. Look through Andreas Marks’ book on Edo period publishers, and you’ll find that a great many of them seem to have been active for spans of nearly a hundred years, or in some cases even longer. Moriya Jihei, whose publications included works by ukiyo-e greats Hokusai, Utamaro, and Kunisada, was active from roughly 1797 to 1886. Clearly, there was more than one individual operating under this name; it is exceedingly unlikely that a single person, by the name of Moriya Jihei, could have lived that long. Now, individual identity seems to us today pretty natural, and obvious – on at least some level, surely, people of any time and any culture would have had to recognize that one person (e.g. the original Moriya Jihei) has grown old and died, and that a different person, younger, with a different face and a different personality, has taken his place. I don’t think I would ever want to go so far as to suggest that there was no concept whatsoever of individuality in the Edo period. But, is it not possible that there was, at least to some extent, some idea of this young man as being the [new] Moriya Jihei, and not an entirely different person who’s taken on the name alone?

Perhaps what I’m getting at might be seen best in the arts. People expect a certain style from Hiroshige, or from Toyokuni. And they get (pretty much) the same style, the same themes and subjects, from the figures we today call Hiroshige II or Toyokuni III. In our individual-oriented conception today, we might say all kinds of things about Hiroshige II or Toyokuni III being separate individuals, with individual personalities and desires, taking on the name of their teacher because of custom/tradition, and/or applying that name in order to continue to sell an established, popular “brand.” But what if – and I’m not saying it was the case, but only that it would be an interesting phenomenon if it were – what if people at the time saw these artists not as new, different, individuals who had taken on a name, not as new, different artists with their own unique interests and styles, but as truly continuations of the same identity?

To make it even sharper, take the case of Kabuki. The history/historiography of kabuki of course recognizes the birth and death dates, life events, and unique personalities, skills, and talents of individual actors such as Ichikawa Danjûrô VII or Onoe Kikugorô III. But, kabuki tradition also holds that there are certain roles and techniques at which Danjûrô or Kikugorô excel, and in each generation, the actor bearing that name was expected to reflect those talents. In the West, we might say that so-and-so Jr. was really good at X, Y, and Z, while his father so-and-so Sr. was a completely different person. Charlie Sheen is not Martin Sheen, Beau Bridges is not Lloyd Bridges, Kiefer Sutherland is not Donald Sutherland, and we wouldn’t expect them to be, even if any of them did have the same name (e.g. Martin Sheen Jr.). Kabuki actors, on the other hand, are expected to not simply emulate or imitate the performance style of their predecessors, but, in a way, to be their predecessors. Danjûrô I (d. 1704) excelled at, among other techniques and distinctive moves, crossing his eyes and popping them out, and ever since then, each Danjûrô has been expected to do the same. To be unable to do so would mean not being Danjûrô — this is something that Danjûrô is famed for, and you’re Danjûrô, so you should be able to do it. Even if our more individual-oriented approach tells us that popping your eyes out, or crossing your eyes, like wiggling your ears or curling your tongue, is simply something that some people can and some people cannot do. Similarly, Onoe Kikugorô is famed for his ability to play both female roles and male roles, and especially for his skill, or talent, at playing both at once – in the play Benten Kozô, he plays a man disguised as a woman, who then strips his/her disguise and reveals himself within a scene. In the Western tradition, we might identify this as the special talent of one particular individual, saying, Onoe Kikugorô V was really especially good at this, and Kikugorô VI wasn’t, but Kikugorô VI was really good at such-and-such other thing… I don’t think this happens quite as much in kabuki. Kikugorô VI is Kikugorô; he’s the Kikugorô, the only Kikugorô (of this current generation, of this contemporary moment), and he is expected to perform, and embody, all that Kikugorô is expected to be.

Again, I don’t know that people in the Edo period generally, or even to whatever extent, or in whatever ways, did or did not think about identity and individuality in this way; I don’t have extensive evidence or scholarship that I’m drawing upon right now. I’m not saying it was, but only what if it were, and isn’t that an interesting thought. How did people of the Edo period view individual identity, and the relationship between individual identity and names?


1) I’m surprised to not find any good pages to link to online to explain the term “kami” (守) but, essentially, being the “kami” of a province, e.g. Izu no kami 伊豆守, or Satsuma no kami 薩摩守, was an honorary court title. It had no direct connection to the province a given lord was from, nor the province where he held power, and was purely a symbolic/honorary/ceremonial title. Nevertheless, this was a very prominent way of identifying people.
2) I’m making these names up, and not referring to anyone in particular; which is, essentially, the point. The name, and the individual identity, doesn’t seem to matter to the writer.

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Two years ago, I was honored to play a small role in a Hawaii Kabuki production, The Vengeful Sword, and to serve as dramaturg. This involved doing research on a variety of elements that come up in the play – including the historical events that inspired the play, the history of the locations, the meaning of certain terms – and sharing the results of my research with the cast & crew via a private (closed) blog. I’ve posted before, on numerous occasions, about the production, but now, I’m finally getting around to re-posting, publicly, some of that content. I hope you find it interesting.


In The Vengeful Sword, the courtesan Oshika claims to have lent the samurai Mitsugi ten gold pieces, or ten ryō in the Japanese. Each “gold piece” would have been a coin called a koban, roughly the size of the palm of your hand, and each worth one ryō.

Right: Two koban coins from roughly 1818-1830, each worth one ryō. Each would be roughly the size of the palm of your hand, and perhaps roughly as thick as a quarter. Not pure gold, they would have been roughly 80% gold, 20% silver, the coins having been debased numerous times since the beginning of the Edo period.

But how much money was this, really, in terms of value? Oshika talks of selling all her special kimono, and her regular kimono, hair ornaments, all to try to raise this money for Mitsugi. Must be quite a bit of money. Of course, given how expensive kimono could be, how many did she have to sell? This webpage indicates that a men’s ensemble (haori, hakama, and kimono) would have been about one ryô at the cheapest; I’m merely extrapolating, but I’d guess that the much more elaborate, embroidered, and otherwise more fancy kimono of the courtesans would have cost much more. Three ryô each? Five?

Still, that doesn’t give us a very good feel for the real value of the ryô. So how much is “ten gold pieces”? Well, it’s hard to say. For much of the 17th century, for the most part, one ryō was, at least in theory, equal to one koku, a set standard measurement of rice said to be equal to the amount needed to sustain a man for a year. But by 1796, when our play takes place, there was considerable inflation, and the coins were debased. One koban no longer contained enough gold to be worth a full ryō in terms of the precious metal it contained, but was one ryō only in face value; furthermore, one ryō was not worth as much as it once was – you couldn’t buy as much with it. As with all currencies, purchasing power, and thus “real value,” fluctuated widely across the Edo period, and so it is impossible to say with any certainty an exchange rate between 1796 ryō and 2011 US dollars.

However, a few figures might help us put it into perspective.1

*The salary of kabuki star Ichikawa Danjūrō I (1660-1704) peaked at 800 ryō.
*Yoshizawa Ayame I (1663-1729) was the first kabuki actor to attain an annual salary of 1000 ryō.
*The Kansei Reforms, in 1794, two years before our play is set, put a cap on kabuki actors’ salaries of 500 ryō.
*In 1711, a high-ranking hatamoto (direct retainer to the Shogun, rather than to a provincial daimyo) earned 483 ryō.

It’s only a rough estimate, and fairly sloppy, but let us assume for a moment that we can apply this figure of 483 ryō to 1796, eighty years later. If a high-ranking hatamoto is earning less than 500 ryō (and has expenses in excess of his income!), then this ten gold pieces that Oshika has supposedly given to Mitsugi is fully one fiftieth of what a very high-ranking samurai (or a top-ranking kabuki actor) is earning. Mitsugi himself is only a low-ranking Shrine priest – surely, it’s safe to assume that this ten gold pieces is a rather sizeable sum for him. What is his annual income? Ten ryō? Twenty? Fifty? I can’t imagine it would be above 100, or maybe 150 or 200 at the absolute most.

Cecilia Segawa Seigle, in her volume on the Yoshiwara, suggests an arbitrary conversion rate of $450 to one ryō, and suggests that one’s first visit to a major Yoshiwara bordello could cost as much as 10 ryō, including tips to the nakai (serving girls) and taikomochi (men who work in the teahouse) [hey hey! I get tips!].

One website, giving a rundown of typical Edo period prices, costs, and incomes indicates that an officer of the law, i.e. an officer of the magistrate’s office (奉行所同心) earned about 28 ryō a year.

Seeing a play at Ryōgoku in Edo cost 32 mon in 1820, or roughly 1/125th of a ryō, at 4000 mon to the ryō. Sending your child to temple school (terakoya) for a year cost up to 1/4 of a ryō, while hiring a maid cost roughly two or three ryō for a year. Buying a small room in Edo (roughly 80 square yards or 66 square meters) was 360 ryō.

So, in the end, I am not sure what we can say about quite how much money 10 gold pieces (ten ryō) is to Mitsugi or to Oshika, as we don’t really know their incomes. On the one hand, in terms of income, ten ryô might be a very sizeable portion of Mitsugi’s annual income – anywhere from 1/10th to 1/2 of his total annual funds. But, on the other hand, in terms of prices or costs, ten ryô could just be the price of visiting the Aburaya a few times. I guess it becomes clear that Mitsugi has been living far beyond his means. Even a high-ranking samurai like Manjirô (son of the Chief Counselor to the daimyo of Awa province), whose income is presumably much more than Mitsugi’s, got himself into debt with the teahouse, and had to pawn the precious Aoi Shimosaka sword.

So, while we can’t really come up with any particularly definitive answer, let us just suffice it to say that “ten gold pieces” is quite a lot of money. Yes, granted, it is only about the same amount as the cost of a visit to a prominent teahouse in the Yoshiwara, but it is also about four times the total annual salary of a housemaid, one third the total annual salary of a local officer, or 1/50th the total annual salary of a high-ranking shogunal retainer or top-ranking kabuki actor. So, not exactly the kind of money you just throw around. Nor would I want to encourage throwing it around – those gold pieces are large and heavy, and could do some serious damage if you hit someone in the head with them.

EDIT: This post, from two years ago, represents only my first tentative effort to dip my toe into this subject. Having looked into it a bit more in the last two years since then, the issue of how much a mon or a ryô is worth, and how much things cost, remains frustratingly elusive and complex. The multitude of currency denominations – not only koban and ôban and ryô and mon, but also momme and bu – along with differences between gold, silver, and copper, and of course the dramatic changes in the strength of the currency over the course of the Edo period, make an understanding of the real purchasing power value of the currency, and of the real ‘cost’ of this or that item, extremely difficult. But, I continue to explore the subject; what little I’ve come up with can be found in an article on Currency on the Samurai-Archives Wiki.

——
(1) Samuel Leiter. “Edo Kabuki: The Actor’s World.” Impressions 31 (2010). pp114-131

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I will be beginning a PhD program in the Fall, studying under Prof. Luke Roberts, whose newest book, Performing the Great Peace, just came out a few months ago, and is now sitting on my shelf. I hope to be reading it before the summer is out. I had only a very vague sense of what it was about earlier – something about Edo period politics, and the relationship between shogunate and daimyo – and while I knew that basically anything I were to read would likely be useful information, expanding my understanding of the period, I was crossing my fingers that it would be interesting and exciting, and relevant to my own research.

There is always a danger when writing this kind of “first impressions” post, that the book may still yet turn out to be quite different from what I expect, but, having now read the first few pages, and a Japan Times review of the book, I think it’s safe to say that I do have a better sense of what it’s about. And, I am happy to say that I am actually quite excited to read this, and think it will have great relevance to my research, and to my understanding of Edo period politics in general.

In summary, Performing the Great Peace analyzes the ways in which the Edo period political system allowed, and indeed expected, daimyo to “perform,” on the surface, all due obedience to the shogun(ate) and his/its laws, while at the same time, beneath the surface, doing things very differently. It is about “open secrets” – doing one thing, and pretending to be doing another. As the Japan Times review cogently explains,

Two key terms that must be mastered for a proper grasp of Tokugawa rule are omote and uchi — roughly “outside” and “inside,” “surface” and “beneath the surface.” Omote was the ritual subservience a subordinate samurai owed a superior. Uchi was the willingness of a superior to allow subordinates to do pretty much as they pleased within their own jurisdictions — on one condition: that no semblance of disrespect or disorder breach the surface.

This seems like it could be extremely enlightening, a new seminal book for everyone’s understanding of how politics functioned in the Edo period. And, it could provide some interesting insights into the logic of Japanese administration and governance today. As events developed at Fukushima on & after 3/11, and as details have emerged in the fifteen months since, we have seen how the government, TEPCO, and other institutions tried to make sure that “no disorder breach the surface,” “performing” the proper obedience to order, to protocols and policies, while in fact, under the surface, in certain respects, chaos reigned. In applying the topic to contemporary behavior, we come dangerously close to getting involved with the discourse on Nihonjinron, something that I would prefer to not touch with a ten-foot pole. I would not be surprised if Dr. Roberts feels much the same way, and if he were to hesitate to say anything much about the relevance to today’s situations. Yet, perhaps there is something of value here for students and scholars of contemporary Japanese politics and sociology.

The topic of “open secrets” is an extremely relevant one for understanding the Ryukyu Kingdom’s relationships with Satsuma, with the shogunate, and with China, in the Edo period. It is something I have long known is important, but never really understood, or investigated, sufficiently, and something on which I therefore stumbled in my recently completed MA thesis on depictions of Ryukyu and its people in Japanese visual culture of the Edo period.

The Ryukyu Kingdom, then semi-independent, ruled over the territory that today constitutes the Japanese prefecture of Okinawa. The kingdom enjoyed a great degree of independence in its domestic affairs, but had been invaded in 1609 by forces from the Japanese domain (han) of Satsuma, and was throughout the remainder of the Edo period subject to Satsuma’s control in certain respects. I am still working out what are precisely the right terms to use when discussing this. Should we say “subject to” and “Satsuma’s control”? Should we say it was “subordinate” or a “vassal state”? In any case, Satsuma dictated Ryukyu’s foreign relations, and exacted tribute, or taxes, from Ryukyu. Ryukyu also sent occasional “tribute” missions to the shogunate, processing through the streets of Edo in colorful parades.

Above: Kanō Shunko, Procession of an Embassy from the Ryūkyū Kingdom, a pair of handscroll paintings (detail). c. 1710. British Museum.

Getting to the point, I think that in these parades, and in many other facets of Ryukyu’s interactions & activities in this period, there was a great degree of precisely the kind of “performing” that Roberts talks about. Ryukyu’s relationship with Satsuma was one of these “open secrets”, and a big one. At this time, China refused to engage in any formal diplomatic or trade relations with Japan, because the shogunate refused to pay tribute or formally acknowledge the Chinese Emperor as suzerain over Japan. Thus, in theory, China should have cut off relations with Ryukyu, if Ryukyu were controlled by (or part of) Japan. Instead, it was somehow in Beijing’s interests to look the other way and pretend that it didn’t know about Satsuma’s control of Ryukyu. And so, it played out like this: Ryukyu played the part of being a wholly independent & loyal tributary to China, performing all the proper ritual obeisances, and making efforts to hide Japanese influence in the islands, while continuing “under the surface” to pay taxes/tribute to Satsuma, to send missions to Edo, and to otherwise serve as a vassal, or subordinate, or whatever we wish to call it, under Satsuma (and by extension, the shogunate). At the same time, despite the Japanese influence in Ryukyu (the extent of which is still debated by scholars), Ryukyuans traveling to & in Edo on these missions were encouraged to play up their foreignness, and to hide their knowledge or understanding of things Japanese. What the commoners thought about Ryukyu remains largely unclear, but I think it not unreasonable to think that many shogunate officials would have been well aware of the Japanese cultural influence upon Ryukyu, yet all played the game of pretending that Ryukyu was more fully foreign and exotic in its ways – in short, the fact that the Ryukyuan ambassadors (to some extent) spoke Japanese, observed (to whatever extent) Japanese customs, and were aware (to some extent) of Japanese culture, was another one of these “open secrets.” Everyone knew, but everyone pretended not to know, for the benefit of “performing” the proper relationships. Finally, there is the matter of the actual economic & political relationships between Ryukyu and Satsuma & the shogunate. I know very little, actually, as to the fine details of this relationship, but it has been made clearer to me that in Ryukyu’s relationships to each Satsuma, and the shogunate, the “performing” of proper rituals of obeisance was paramount. The tribute missions to Edo were not diplomatic missions in which any serious policy discussions took place – it was all about ritual performance of subordination.

It is my hope, and my expectation, that Luke Roberts’ new book, Performing the Great Peace, will help illuminate these interactions, as they took place between the daimyo and the shogunate, and that it will help me to better understand, and articulate, how “open secrets” and omote/uchi functioned in Ryukyu’s relationships in the early modern period. Once I have finished the book (hopefully by the end of the summer), I shall post a more proper book review.

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Once again, the open tabs in my browser have piled up, and it is time to write a bit about each, sharing them with you. Today, I’d like to share with you two blogs I strongly suggest and recommend, and which I’ll add to my Blogroll.

*Steffen Remvik, a recent graduate from a Masters program at the University of Oslo, has begun posting a wonderful blog entitled “Naruhodo,” in which he writes chiefly about Edo period visual culture and popular publications. The subjects he chooses to address – from setsuyôshû to the Kidai Shôran scroll – are so wonderfully niche, truly informative and intriguing for someone like myself with a background in Japanese art and history, but who is only just starting to really delve more deeply into the realms of Edo period publishing. His writing is clear and accessible, but detailed and informative, including the kanji for Japanese terms, beautiful pictures or videos, and thorough historical detail. I envy his professionalism and knowledge, and eagerly look forward to his future posts.

*The next blog I’d like to share with you is called Grits and Sushi.” It is written by Mitzi Carter, a PhD candidate at UC Berkeley, whose research (and my sincere apologies if I mischaracterize it) focuses, in part at least, on perceptions of Okinawa among members of the US military, and conceptual/discursive interactions otherwise between the US military and the Okinawan people, on a level of personal interactions, perceptions and conceptions of one another, etc.

To take just one example, in her latest post, she explains that “A large part of my academic work on Okinawa is “social/cultural mapping.”” She then goes on to talk about how foreigners in certain parts of the island might be automatically assumed to be associated with the military, while elsewhere on the tiny island of Okinawa, the possibilities are more open. What particularly intrigues me is perceptions, conceptions, and memories of a place, and the way that a single place can take on so many different identities for different people. Many (some? most?) Okinawans will apparently use the phrase honma Okinawa, or something like it, meaning “real” Okinawa, or “authentic” Okinawa, differentiating it from the military bases, which are not honma Okinawa. And I can certainly understand why; yet, for many members of the military, their experiences on base define for them what is Okinawa. And especially (I get the impression) for those who served in the US Occupation of Okinawa from 1945-1972, the whole island was essentially theirs (ours) – one single military-occupied place known as “The Rock.”

I could go on and on, just regurgitating the impressions and ideas I’ve gotten from “Grits and Sushi” and elsewhere.. I find it really kind of fascinating. But at the same time, this is hardly my specialty, and I fear that the more I write, the more I risk mischaracterizing or misrepresenting something. So, I invite you to read the blog, and see for yourself what it is Mitzi is talking about.

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