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Early modern Japan

Because the majority of this book deals with Japan's early modern era, some background concerning relevant features of society is necessary for making sense of later discussion. The following material does not attempt systematically to describe early modern Japanese society. Instead, the focus is on points that contextualize the analysis in subsequent chapters.

Social and Political geography

Tokugawa Japan was a patchwork of semiautonomous territories governed by some 250 warlords, commonly known as daimyō (literally “big names”). Interspersed among these daimyō domains were parcels of territory belonging to the shogun (shōgun, “general”), whose capital was the city of Edo, modern Tokyo. The government of the shogun (bakufu, shogunate) controlled approximately one-fifth of the land of the Japanese islands, including major cities and mines. The bakufu also conducted foreign relations,
typically with the assistance of strategically located daimyō. Although daimyō enjoyed a high degree of autonomy, they were subordinate to the shogun. One manifestation of this subordinate relationship is that daimyō spent half of their time resident in Edo, technically in attendance on the shogun. Therefore, daimyō maintained mansions in Edo and in their home domains, the main reason that until the 1860s approximately half of the population of Edo was military personnel (samurai). The modern term for daimyō domains is han, and the polity consisting of the bakufu and daimyō domains is often called the bakuhan state.

Some larger daimyō domains included parcels of territory long governed by locally powerful families. In such cases, a relationship obtained between these families and their daimyō overlord similar to that obtaining between daimyō and the shogun. In internal discourse, many daimyō domains and even some sub-daimyō territories referred to themselves as kuni (-koku in compound words), a term that now means “country” in the sense of a national state.[1] Today, there is only one kuni in the Japanese islands, but in early modern times, depending on the context, there might be many. It is in part for this reason that Mark Ravina has characterized Tokugawa Japan as a “compound state.”[2] Early modern Japan consisted of countries within countries, with the shogun's government either directly administering or exerting hegemony over the largest of these countries, Japan (Nihon, Nippon).

Militarily, the shogun's government was the most powerful political entity in early modern Japan, but its roots in the symbolic realm were shallow. When early modern Japanese spoke of Japan as a whole, they often imagined a political geography based on the classic sixty-six provinces (occasionally sixty-eight), with the imperial court in Kyoto at its center. Similar to larger daimyō domains, these provinces were also known as kuni (-koku in compound words). Although individual emperors tended to be obscure and possessed very little personal political power during most of the Tokugawa period, the imperial institution had deep roots in the symbolic and temporal fabric of Japan. The prestige of the imperial court was high in many academic circles, especially during the latter half of the Tokugawa period. Popular perceptions of the imperial court tended to be vague, but the Ise Shrine complex became a major focus of popular mass pilgrimages during the latter half of the Tokugawa period. The inner shrine at Ise housed Amaterasu, the solar deity from whom the imperial family claimed descent. In part because they shook wide areas, major earthquakes transcended prevailing political boundaries and often served as contexts for speaking of Japan as a whole or for speaking of large portions of Japan that transcended domain boundaries. The most common way of doing so was to employ the geographic vocabulary of the provinces and imperial court. For example, a work produced after the Sanjō earthquake begins by describing the geography of “our Echigo country” (Echigo Province).[3] Writing about the Zenkōji earthquake, a local scholar's discussion ranged seamlessly from “our Shinano country” (Shinano Province) to Japan as a whole, which he called “our country” and characterized as “a land of deities superior to all others, whose people possess superior wisdom.” Moreover, in Japan, “the five grains flourish, and we receive divine favor.”[4] These excerpts are typical examples of early modern discourse in which the boundaries of “our country” could expand or contract depending on the context. When discussing Japan as a whole, religious imagery was common. At least according to early modern earthquake literature, “Japan” was largely a religious construct, more likely to be called shinkoku than Nihon. Shinkoku, which we might tentatively translate as “land of deities,” is a term with a long and complex history. I examine it further in later chapters, but the point here is simply that earthquakes often brought a religious image of Japan to the fore.[5] Moreover, this deity-filled land was the domain of a human emperor, whose court, honchō (our court), was another common metonym for Japan. There was, of course, a pragmatic reason for a geography of imperial provinces when speaking of earthquakes. The classical boundaries of Shinano, for example, encompassed several daimyō domains and several parcels of bakufu land in early modern times.[6] It was simply more convenient to describe the interactions of earthquakes and geography in the relatively broad terms of provinces. Moreover, the provinces frequently appeared in other forms of popular discourse, especially the many guidebooks that circulated widely from the late seventeenth century onward.[7]

Status categories were the basis of social organization in Tokugawa Japan. The precise number of these categories and their boundaries differed from government to government and with local circumstances. A category such as courtesan, for example, would only have applied in urban areas with licensed quarters. Most jurisdictions recognized the categories of aristocrat, cleric, warrior (samurai), townsperson, farmer or peasant, fisher person, and outcast. Writing around 1816, Buyō Inshi, a warrior from Edo, organized his account of society largely along the lines of status categories: warriors,
peasants, clerics, physicians, blind people, townspeople, prostitutes, actors, and outcasts.[8] Formal status categories corresponded to the occupation of a particular household, but individuals might pursue other ways of making a living. A person born into a well-to-do farming household would be a peasant in terms of status. If he received a good education and his labor was not needed on the farm, he might make a living as, for example, a teacher. Intellectuals and artists were not status categories, yet academic and artistic activity flourished during the Tokugawa period because people from a variety of status groups pursued these activities as either amateurs or professionals. To take one example, the Confucian scholar Nakae Tōju (1608–1648) began life as a low-ranking samurai with time on his hands for study. As a young man, he resigned his post as a warrior, settled in a rural village, made his living operating a brewery, and earned a reputation as an intellectual. The point is that there was permeability at the borders of status categories, and a person's status did not necessarily correspond to how that person made a living. Social boundaries in Tokugawa Japan were sufficiently flexible to accommodate a high degree of complexity.[9]

Particularly significant was the division between warriors, comprising about 7 percent of Japan's total population and roughly half of Edo's population, and commoners (townspeople, fisher people, and farmers), who comprised most of the rest of the population. Broad categories like “commoners” or “townspeople” encompassed a wide range of possibilities, especially in large urban areas. For example, a 1687 book of lists, Dappled Fabric of Edo (Edo kanoko), mentions roughly three hundred master artists in over forty categories, seven hundred master craftsmen and merchants in almost two hundred categories, and twenty varieties of wholesalers.[10] A similar diversity of crafts and trades flourished in Kyoto and other urban areas, and the cities became larger and more diversified over time. By the nineteenth century, “commoners” in Edo ranged from unskilled manual laborers newly arrived from rural areas to merchants of such wealth and power that some managed the finances of daimyō domains. Heads of villages and the city elders and neighborhood heads of Edo were de facto government officials. They sometimes wore swords in the manner of samurai when operating in an official capacity, yet they, too, were commoners.

Some earthquakes brought social tensions to the surface that might reasonably be called “class” divisions, even though all involved were commoners in a narrow legal sense of status categories (townspeople in the cities or farmers in rural areas). For example, Outward-Bound Ship of the Wealthy
(Marumochi kara no defune) is the title of a catfish print (namazue), one of the hundreds that appeared in the wake of the Ansei Edo earthquake. In the print, a catfish representing the earthquake forces a rich merchant atop a high point to vomit gold coins. Skilled laborers below scramble to scoop up the coins. In the text of the print, the wealthy man says that if only he had known he would lose his money so quickly he would have spent it earlier. The unsympathetic catfish points out that his actions have caused ordinary people much grief. The workers on the receiving end, citing the unexpected nature of the earthquake and the ephemeral nature of money, declare that they will spend their windfall profits at the temporary brothels, authorized after the earthquake destroyed the main licensed quarters.[11]

This print is one example of an earthquake functioning to redistribute wealth, in this case from prosperous merchants to skilled laborers, two varieties of townspeople. An implied point is that one should not hoard large quantities of money. Indeed, withholding large quantities of money from circulation and similar acts such as hoarding commodities to drive up prices were major complaints against elite merchants that sometimes resulted in violence. In the typical social theory of the day, the proper function of merchants was to circulate goods and money. Blockages in this process cause social imbalances, just as blockage of the flow of vital fluids in the body causes disease and blockage of yang energy within the earth causes earthquakes.[12] I examine these matters in detail in later chapters, but the main point here is to highlight that de facto divisions in social class based on wealth and modes of making a living did not necessarily correspond to the boundaries of formal status categories.

  • [1] Luke S. Roberts, Performing the Great Peace: Political Space and Open Secrets in Tokugawa Japan (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2012), esp. 43–52.
  • [2] Mark Ravina, Land and Lordship in Early Modern Japan (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999).
  • [3] “Chōshin hiroku, jōkan,” in NRJSS, vol. 3, 212
  • [4] “Eikan zasshi,” in DNJS, vol. 2 (otsu), 248–249.
  • [5] Regarding the history of the concept of shinkoku, see Satō Hiroo, Shinkoku Nihon (Chikuma shinsho 591) (Chikuma shobō, 2006) and Kitai Toshio, Shinkokuron no keifu (Hōzōkan, 2006).
  • [6] Regarding the significance of Shinano’s complex geopolitical circumstances, see Kären Wigen, A Malleable Map: Geographies of Restoration in Central Japan, 1600–1912 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010).
  • [7] On this topic, see Mary Elizabeth Berry, Japan in Print: Information and Nation in the Early Modern Period (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006).
  • [8] Buyō Inshi, Seji kenmonroku, Honjō Eijirō, ed. (Seiabō, 2001, originally 1816).
  • [9] For a thorough discussion of this matter, see David L. Howell, Geographies of Identity in Nineteenth-Century Japan (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), esp. pages 45–78.
  • [10] Fujita Rihei, Edo kanoko, Asakura Haruhiko, ed. (Sumiya shobō, 1970, originally 1687), 250–290. See also Jurgis Elisonas, “Notorious Places: A Brief Excursion into the Narrative Topography of Early Edo,” in James L. McClain, John W. Merriman, and Ugawa Kaoru, eds., Edo and Paris: Urban Life and the State in the Early Modern Era (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1994), 284–285; and Berry, Japan in Print, 163. See also pages 156–157.
  • [11] Print #90 in Miyata Nobori and Takada Mamoru, eds., Namazue: Shinsai to Nihon bunka (Ribun shuppan, 1995), 225, 299–300. To view this print, see–043/00001.jpg.
  • [12] For a discussion of the importance of free circulation in Tokugawa economic thought, see Mark Metzler and Gregory Smits, “Introduction: The Autonomy of Market Activity and the Emergence of Keizai Thought,” in Bettina Gramlich-Oka and Gregory Smits, eds., Economic Thought in Early Modern Japan (Leiden: Brill, 2010), esp. 12–17. Many of the articles in this volume also discuss the prominence of free circulation as a desirable social and economic situation. See also “Ansei itsubō jishin kibun,” in NJS, vol. 5, supplement 2, part 1, 460 for thoughts on those who hinder the circulation of gold and silver in society.
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