Posts Tagged ‘land and lordship’

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All photos (except book cover) my own.

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Another book review post.

I am currently in the process of reading Mark Ravina’s Land and Lordship in Early Modern Japan, a book ostensibly about shogunate/domain relations in Edo period Japan, the adaptation of warrior rule to mundane issues of economics and demographics, and related matters, using the domains of Yonezawa, Hirosaki, and Tokushima as case studies. Ravina is one of the leading scholars in promoting the attitude that Tokugawa Japan was not a state, a single unitary country made up of provinces or domains, but rather a compound state, in which each feudal domain enjoyed great degrees of autonomy. A fascinating argument, and one that opens the door to closer analysis of the affairs of individual domains.

I was taught in my MA Historiography class not to write formal book reviews (i.e. for formal academic journals) which criticize the book in question for what it is not. That is to say, we should be critical based on the author’s intentions, not based upon the reader’s expectations. A fair guideline to be sure, but this is not a formal book review.

I am truly disappointed in this book. I was hoping for something that would treat these domains in such detail that it could substitute for a proper narrative “History of Tokushima” just as you’ll easily find numerous “History of Japan” books on the shelf at any major bookstore. I want to learn who the Uesugi clan of Yonezawa were, what succession disputes they had, what political challenges they faced, and I want to learn it in such a manner that I can come out of it with a specific understanding of individual daimyo, individual events in the history of the domain, and a solid overall picture of the domain’s history in a well-rounded, thorough fashion. In short, I wanted out of this just the same as one would expect from a “History of Japan”, only focusing on a smaller political entity.

Instead, I find a book excessively detailed on economic matters, with less treatment than I would have expected of shogunate/domain relations and of attitudes towards autonomy & identity, and less than I would have liked of the personality or politics or narrative biography of individual daimyo (lords). For what it attempts to do, I am sure it succeeds, and serves a valuable role in expanding our understanding of Edo period domainal economics, etc. While the title “Land and Lordship” certainly does imply what the book actually is – discussion of the political involvement in agricultural economics, i.e. the lordship over the land – I really expected, not solely based on the title, a book dealing more with the role of the lord, succession practices and succession disputes, the gain and loss of territory due to relations with the shogunate and perhaps even with other domains…

I think that while historians like Ravina do the field a great service in all that they do, they also do a disservice by continually publishing books like these which serve as the only professional academic treatment we have in English of the history of X domain or province or region, and which ultimately fail completely to be anything approaching a comprehensive treatment of that region’s history. This is not a book about the histories of Tokushima, Hirosaki, and Yonezawa. It is a book which merely uses those places as examples, as case studies, to illustrate points about the way political economy functioned in Edo period Japan.

I suppose I should look on the bright side: this means that when it comes time for me to start writing professionally, there’s plenty of room for proper treatments of the histories of just about every domain, every province, every region of early modern Japan, because so many historians do this sort of thing – making the historical narrative subservient to the argument, rather than the argument subservient to the evidence.

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Journeyed to Books Kinokuniya, at their new location just off Bryant Park, having moved within the last year from their Rockefeller Center location. The new shop is gorgeous – a very open, airy feeling, with large glass windows facing the street and the park, and a café upstairs that I’ve yet to take a look at (I’m presuming it’s expensive, and how good could the food possibly be?).
I do wonder about their assertion that they’re “by far” the largest Japanese bookstore in the US. After all, only one of the three floors is devoted to Japanese language books, the rest to English language books about Japan and further afield (i.e. Asia), English-language manga, English-language art books and the like, DVDs, CDs, and the café.
In any case, here are my acquisitions:

Okinawa: The History of an Island People by George Kerr.

Surely the most extensive, definitive English-language survey text of Okinawan history, from prehistory to the present. Kerr’s writing style is pleasant and informative, and he does not allow pet theories or his “argument” to get in the way of conveying the facts of the historical narrative. This is the kind of history I enjoy reading, where you’re not poking around trying to extract the objective historical facts and narrative from a text written with the intent of arguing a subjective theory or point.

Originally published in 1958, Kerr also provides an interesting perspective, writing at a time when Okinawa remained under US military occupation, the Occupation in Japan having ended only six years previous. Kerr passionately and eloquently expresses concerns about the unknown future – when will Okinawa return to Japanese sovereignty, if ever? Will it instead become a US territory or protectorate? How long will this military occupation continue?

While one must certainly be careful about reading this book, now exactly 50 years old and outdated, patently incorrect on some points, I find Kerr’s approach, his writing style, quite refreshing, as he basically says it how it is, and is not tripped up by conceptions of political correctness or (what’s that term?) cultural equivalence. He goes a bit overboard in his inaccurate depiction of the Okinawans as being purely peaceful, innocent people, just as writers of the past romanticized the peacefulness and innocence of the Native Americans, Hawaiians, pretty much every other Native group the world over. But in any case, the Afterword by Sakihara Mitsugu written in 2003 clarifies Kerr’s mistakes and offers an updated view.

Land and Lordship in Early Modern Japan by Mark Ravina

I have not yet begun reading this, but I get the impression that it’s a fairly essential text for the kind of research I might end up doing in my PhD. I am currently thinking along the lines of two or three different possible threads – (1) studying one particular domain across the Edo period, and hopefully finding one particularly interesting aspect, such as the narrative of economic development, or the efforts of a single given daimyo to focus on, (2) building upon my MA dissertation to do something with maritime trade in the Edo period and Japan’s relations with SE Asia, probably focusing upon southern Vietnam, (3) working Okinawa into the mix somehow. If I go with (1), “Land and Lordship”, which deals with political structures and processes in three particular domains of Edo period Japan would be somewhat essential I think. I’m looking forward to reading it.

Jews in the Japanese Mind: The History and Uses of a Cultural Stereotype by David Goodman and Miyazawa Masanori.

Not even vaguely related to any research I might ever do. And I generally avoid sociology/anthropology topics, particularly those related to discrimination or race. Too touchy. But as a Jew interested in Japan, I simply cannot avoid this topic. People are constantly asking me what the Japanese think about Jews; particularly older members of my congregation who have some fairly racist views of the Japanese, who believe the Japanese in turn to be quite racist. So I get asked a lot, and would like to have a more informed answer. It’s an interesting topic in any case.

Finally, the catalog for the Japan Society exhibit Making a Home: Japanese Contemporary Artists in New York

I think I may have to return this, or resell it on eBay or something. It seems an interesting topic for an art catalog, and some of the essays inside about what Japanese artists think about living in New York, how NY influences their art, etc could be quite interesting. But as I realized too late (after buying it and bringing it home) the profiles on each individual artist are far too short to really be worthwhile. I hate artist profiles that make reference to works without describing what those works are. Why bother spending so much money on this book if all it’s going to be is a pile of keywords that I need to search online (or in other books) to get anything more about?

Art books are damn expensive. I think I would very much like to get my money back for this somehow, and to buy something else, maybe a catalog of Chinese contemporary artists. One that gives deeper profiles of the artists and their work, while still offering a good number of different artists.

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