Posts Tagged ‘tokugawa 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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The University of Hawaii Press had a crazy massive clearance sale a month or so ago. I bought a bunch of books for super cheap that I would normally never be able to justify paying full price for (upwards of $50 each). I also bought some other books for my collection; who knows if I’ll ever find the time to read them, but somehow it just feels good to have them.

*Okinawa Prismed (沖縄・プリズム) is a catalog from a Museum of Modern Art Tokyo exhibit, covering Okinawan art from 1872-2008. (Not a U Hawaii Press book)

Somehow, I had never come across this catalog before in my research. I’m really glad I found it. The book divides Okinawa’s modern history into three periods: 1872-1945, when Okinawa was incorporated into the Japanese Empire; 1945-1975, when Okinawa was under US Military Occupation (which actually ended in ’72); and 1975-2008, when there was a resurgence in Okinawan culture and identity. The majority of the book is taken up by 1-4 page sections on each of a great many artists, both Okinawan and (mainland) Japanese, including both text and images. There are also a number of brief essays on each period of history, and on various themes within those periods. Being a Japanese publication, the vast majority of the book is in Japanese; however, the list of images, and Introduction essay are provided in English in the back. There are a lot of excellent pictures in here, both photos of Okinawa at various times in its history, and images, of course, of artworks; I look forward to reading about certain artists about whom I have heard of before, including mainland Japanese artists Yamamoto Hôsui and Tômatsu Shômei, but am also excited for the possibility of discovering native Okinawan artists about whom I might want to investigate further.

*The Man Who Saved Kabuki is a book about Faubion Bowers, translated and adapted by Samuel Leiter from a book by Okamoto Shiro. Bowers (1917-1999) was apparently Japanese-language interpreter and “aide-de-camp,” as Wikipedia puts it, to Gen. MacArthur during the Occupation of Japan. Having spent time in Japan in 1940-41 and been exposed to kabuki previously, Bowers fought to rescue kabuki, and to see it continue, when Occupation authorities pushed for it to be banned for its display of feudal values.

The history of kabuki in the modern period is something I know extremely little about, but as a fan of kabuki, I suppose I owe a great debt to Bowers; I look forward to someday finding the time to read this book, and learn a bit more about kabuki history beyond the “core” periods of its high points, i.e. in the Edo period.

*Which brings us to the four volume set Kabuki Plays on Stage, which I absolutely cannot believe I was able to get for so cheap. Each of these hardcover volumes normally goes for around $50 cover price, so to get them for literally 95% off was an absolute windfall victory. Books I never thought I’d own now sit prettily on my shelf.

The four volumes, edited by James Brandon and Samuel Leiter, consist primarily of translations of kabuki plays by Brandon, Leiter, and others, 51 plays in total. In this alone, they are an unbelievable resource, since the majority of other translations out there are scattered between books with titles like “Five Classic Plays” and “[Overview of] Traditional Japanese Theatre.” These are, of course, excellent books as well, but when one is looking for the translation of a particular play, or is just skimming through to find a variety of different plays, a selection of 51 cannot be beat. Of course, some of the longer jidaimono plays, long enough to take up over 250 pages in their own separate publication, are not included. Each play translation includes pictures of performances, ukiyo-e prints, and the like, providing a visual element to help bring the play to life in the mind of the reader; introductions before each play explain literary references, historical origins of the play, and other interesting and important aspects. Lengthy introductions in each volume provide detailed overviews of the history of kabuki, and I expect will serve as an extremely useful basis for if/when I ever write out a summary of kabuki history for the Samurai-Archives Wiki – these could also serve as excellent readings to assign to students, I expect.

The only thing I have noticed in these volumes that I think stares out at me as a strong potential negative is that the translations are not annotated. I appreciate that these are meant to be clean and easy to read, and I am sure there are some very valid arguments for keeping them clean this way. However, kabuki plays make countless references to historical figures, historical events, and famous poems, as well as featuring, contemporaneous for their original writers/actors and audiences but not for us, countless elements of traditional/historical Japanese architecture, objects, garments, and the like. I’m not saying that we need to have a full paragraph on the history of the kiseru taking up a good 1/5th of the page, but a sentence or two the first time it appears, explaining that when the translation refers to a “smoking pipe,” they are talking about a long, thin, piece of bamboo with metal ends, used to smoke tobacco, and introduced around the late 16th or early 17th century by the Dutch. That said, on the positive side, the explanations and translations include a lot of specialty theatre terminology, such as keren and tachimawari, and a glossary in the back, not obscuring meaning through over-translation or through omitting terms such as hanamichi that very directly and clearly refer to what they refer to. I am glancing through the book, flipping pages, trying to see if the translations tend to use words like geta, kiseru, and noren instead of clogs, pipe, and curtain, conveying directly the Japanese flavor (and more specific referents to specific objects), but I can’t seem to find it…

I cannot wait to delve into these books.

*Southern Exposure, edited by Michael Molasky and Steve Rabson, is a collection of Modern Japanese Literature from Okinawa. It includes a number of poems, and 12 short stories, in translation into English, ranging from 1922 to 1998. Having not yet read any of them, I cannot say for sure, but I would think it a safe bet that none of these pieces (with the exception of a single verse from a set of translations of Old Poems) describe or refer back to the time of the Ryukyu Kingdom, and that all of them address more modern issues.

There is certainly a certain appeal to be found in the complexities of Okinawa’s modern history, political issues, and identity politics. From the overthrow of the kingdom, assimilation policies, and suffering under the control of the Japanese in the 1870s to 1940s, to the devastation of the Battle of Okinawa, 27 years of American Occupation, the continued American military presence today, and issues of identity, diaspora, and cultural decline or revival, there are certainly a lot of touching, powerful, complex, issues to be addressed. I, personally, am still sort of coming around to any interest in these sorts of things. I think being in Hawaii was good for me, surrounding and immersing me in those kinds of politics; now that I’ve been removed from it once again, perhaps I’ll go back to feeling distanced from it. Or perhaps I will continue to sort of grow into being interested in such issues.

For one reason or another, literature has never really interested me, even as my interests in art, music, theatre, and various other fields have grown. But, as an Okinawan Studies scholar, it certainly never hurts to have more Okinawa-related books on my shelf. There are so few in English that to avoid buying something like this feels like it would have to be a very conscious, intentional, and obvious choice; an obvious gap in my collection to anyone who skimmed my shelves and knew what they were looking at/for.

*Prisoners from Nambu is a book I have seen countless times before, on shelves, and have always passed up. It explores a very particular incident in Japanese history, involving the capture of a number of Dutch seamen by people of Nambu (in the far north of Honshû). Being that it is such a specific incident, and not one that I am myself researching, I never gave this book much thought. But, then, after glimpsing over the ideas behind Luke Roberts’ new book “Performing the Great Peace,” and struggling with the issues of secrecy and deception in the Satsuma-Ryûkyû-shogunate relationship, I realized that, given the subtitle of this book, “Prisoners from Nambu: Reality and Make-Believe in 17th century Japanese Diplomacy,” it could be of some interest and some use. We’ll see if I ever get around to actually reading it at all.

*Flowering in the Shadows is a collection of essays on “women in the history of Chinese and Japanese painting.” Not exactly a topic particularly related to my research, but certainly of interest, at least to the extent that it might cover female ukiyo-e artists such as Katsushika Oi. In the end, it doesn’t. One brief chapter addresses “women in traditional Japan” in general, speaking mainly of the Edo period; another, by Stephen Addiss, focuses specifically on Ike Gyokuran, her mother, and her grandmother. To those who are interested in Gyokuran, you’ll have to pardon me for feeling like I’ve heard/read about this before, as if she seems the only woman artist everyone immediately leaps to mention & discuss. Personally, and this is just personal preference I suppose, I’m much more interested in female ukiyo-e artists, and women Nihonga painters. After so many centuries of art production being dominated almost exclusively by men, Kyoto Nihonga (and in Tokyo, too?) suddenly saw numerous very prominent women artists. I wonder how that happened, what challenges they faced, or how easily they were welcomed into artists’ social circles. How were their perspectives or messages about women in society perceived and received? I’m sure there are good essays on this out there somewhere – but not in this book. Still, of course, I’m sure it’s still a very interesting and useful book for those with a slightly different focus…

*Shelley Fenno Quinn’s Developing Zeami seems to be a somewhat more practical guide to the use of Zeami’s writings as guidance for one’s performance of Noh – as compared to some of her other work I have read which seems to focus more on Zeami’s writings as writings, as literature, as historical documents useful for us scholars in understanding and interpreting Noh.

This is still a very dense, serious book, not light-reading by any means. But, judging from chapter titles like “Developing Zeami’s Representational Style,” “Zeami’s Theory in Practice,” “Actor and Audience,” and “Mind and Technique: the Two Modes in Training,” it would seem that the book could be useful for the serious, philosophical, aspiring practitioner of Noh. One day I hope to teach a course on Traditional Japanese Theatre – maybe some selections from this book will prove useful. Or maybe I’ll skip this dense conceptual stuff and stick to things we find in slightly more survey-oriented books like Brazell’s “Traditional Japanese Theater.”

*Critical Perspectives on Classicism in Japanese Painting is an edited volume which came to my attention because of my use of essays by Elizabeth Lillehoj in attempting to understand how paintings might have served as visual records of official ritual events. Her essay in this volume focuses on a series of fusuma-e (paintings on sliding doors) in the palace of Tôfukumon’in, depicting the Gion Matsuri. Much of Lillehoj’s work focuses on Tôfukumon’in, on issues of patronage, and on fusuma-e and the like in the empress’ palaces.

Other essays in the book discuss different aspects of the phenomenon of the use of classic themes – e.g. references to the Tale of Genji, or Heian period poetry – in early Tokugawa era painting. There are, as to be expected, several essays on Sôtatsu and Kôrin – interesting artists who produced beautiful works.

*Tokugawa Japan: The Social and Economic Antecedents of Modern Japan is another book that’s not from UH Press, but which I recently obtained. The idea of approaching Tokugawa Japan as an antecedent, and not as a subject worthy of attention in its own right, is troublesome, I think; but, at the same time, the idea of Tokugawa Japan as a vibrant, active, complex society with its own “traditional” equivalents to banks, mass media, postal service, highways & tourism, etc. is a valuable one, highlighting what makes Tokugawa Japan so exciting.

This is an edited volume of essays by Japanese scholars, translated by a number of scholars overseen (“edited”) by Conrad Totman. In my MA thesis, I made use of an essay from this book on “Urban Networks and Information Networks” by Katsuhisa Moriya. The article focuses chiefly on the hikyaku (飛脚) couriers who transported messages and packages along the major highways between the major cities of Tokugawa Japan; but what was most important for my purposes was simply to have something to cite to support the idea that Tokugawa Japan was well-interconnected, and that provincial towns would not have been totally disconnected from a sort of collective cultural consciousness. In any case, the book also contains essays on the bakuhan (shogunate + domains) system, on rural industry, the spatial structure of Edo, and the structures of Edo period society. Combined with certain other essays, I can see this being a good core for readings for a course on Edo period Japan as “early modern.”

*Finally, we have Challenging Past and Present, a volume edited by Ellen Conant, which, like Lillehoj’s “Classicism” volume, focuses on a specific period and set of themes within Japanese art history, in this case, the “metamorphosis of 19th century Japanese art” as Western influences poured in, and as societal pressures pushed artists to explore ways of being more “modern” in their art-making.

Though I should like to see more essays more explicitly addressing the origins and development of Nihonga, the volume focuses more on topics such as Yokohama-e prints, Meiji tourism & photography, the Rokumeikan, and “Imperial” architecture. Fortunately, all of these are plenty interesting topics as well. Prior to going to Hawaii, I had little interest in the Meiji period, thinking of the Tokugawa period as the real “height” of “traditional” Japan – by Meiji, everything from kabuki to ukiyo-e, to the worlds of the geisha, the samurai, etc. were in decline. And why should I want to study something in decline? But. Having now studied the issues of modernity more extensively, with a professor who specializes in this period, and these topics, I have come to see Meiji not as a period of decline, but one of interesting and exciting cultural clashes and cultural meldings. People negotiated with their past, with their identity, struggling to advance face-forward into modernity, without losing their distinctive Japanese identity. Besides, the further we get from that period ourselves, the more this world of 100+ years ago resembles its own “tradition,” its own distinctive romantic(ized) aesthetic. So, whether it’s the Rokumeikan, or Japan at the World’s Fairs, it’s not a Japan that’s in decline, but rather simply another Japan, a different Japan, with its own separate appeal.

A few of the early essays in the book address the historical background and historical development of Japanese art at this time in a broader sense, and could hopefully be interesting and useful for understanding these shifts in a broad, overall sort of way. One of the later articles I am particularly interested to read is by Martin Collcutt, and discusses “the image of Kannon as compassionate mother,” the subject of a pair of oft-cited and very interesting paintings by Kanô Hôgai (as well as one later copy by Okakura Shusui). I’ve been fortunate to see the Smithsonian’s copy of the painting in person, as well as the Okakura copy at the MFA, and the one in Tokyo virtually/digitally, and would be interested to see what Collcutt has to say about the differences between the copies, and the prominence of this particular composition; other scholars, including Chelsea Foxwell, have written about the same set of paintings, so it would be interesting to see how their approaches or conclusions compare.

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