Posts Tagged ‘luke roberts’

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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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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