Seppuku: A Samurai Suicide Miscellany

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 2:20 pm

For a little entertainment this Thanksgiving, I read Andrew Rankin’s Seppuku: A History of Samurai Suicide (Kodansha, 2011).1 Since I’m teaching both Samurai and Early Japan this semester, seemed like a good supplemental read, and this is the first thing resembling a lull I’ve had all semester. This is an attractive little book, substantially researched, but not much of a history. It’s more like a miscellany, a collection of materials in search of a thesis.

  1. It helps to have friends who are journal editors: my colleague at Midwest Quarterly passed it on to see if it was worth a review, shortly before the journal gave up reviewing. []


The Three Stages of Ninja

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 10:49 pm

The ninja question came up last week in my Samurai class — we were talking about possible writing projects — so I had to do my ninja spiel, which has become a bit of a set piece. The history of ninja in three stages: Sneaky samurai, literary device, and school.


Dinner first, then dessert

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 5:53 pm

I was going to post about it here, but Another Damned Medievalist raised the question of how to deal with primary sources in a class where students lack important background concepts, and so I’m going to share the comment I made over there and then expand on it a bit:

I’m not sure if I’d call it a ‘brilliant’ idea, but I faced a similar dilemma in my Early Japan course: rich primary sources, but weak general knowledge. The way I handled it this time was to break the semester up into two units: in the first, we went through the textbook and political/economic source reader, covering the basic narrative, political and economic and religious history in a fairly traditional fashion; in the second half of the course, I went back over the same history through the primary sources — Genji, Heike, etc. — with a big secondary work on mentalite at the end. The goal, obviously, was to give the students the context first, along with some basic skill-building, then to delve deeper into the material that they were now more comfortable with, without all the “you don’t know it yet, but this is important because…” stuff that drove me crazy. The class size wasn’t big enough for a definitive result, but I think it worked pretty well. Our second-half discussions, in particular, were much better informed than I’d gotten in the past.

As a side benefit, by the way, we’d gone through the entire history before students got into their end-of-semester research projects, so they actually could pick topics they were interested in with some level of informed judgement and without a bias towards the early stuff (or pop culture-privileged topics in the later stuff).

This is something which I’ve considered doing for a long time, but not all of my courses break down quite so neatly in terms of the material I use. On the whole, as I said, I think it was quite successful. One of my students suggested a change which makes a great deal of sense: instead of putting Mary Beth Berry’s Japan in Print at the end, after the primary sources — I was using it instead of any particular 17th century reading — she pointed out that it would be a good transition reading. That made a great deal of sense: it introduces a great deal of theory about reading and audiences, and the argument creates a tension between classical/medieval and early modern culture which would be give more focus to the primary source discussions. I would have to add another 17th century reading: Given the rumors of a Chushingura movie in the works, maybe it’s time to bring that back into my syllabi!


Mystery Circles on Early Armor

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 12:10 pm

Mongol Invasion Scroll Screen Capture

What is that circular disk which early medieval samurai wear over their swords? Is it a weight, to keep it from flopping around while horseriding?

That’s my best guess at this point. I’ve done a little research on this, but haven’t come up with answers, but my collection’s a bit thin on armor parts.

I’ve seen it in the Heiji Scroll, and a few other pre-Warring States images, but I don’t recall seeing it after about the Onin War.

I get this question every time I show my students the War Scrolls, but I’ve never had a good answer. Help?


A bounty of medieval symposia

Filed under: — Morgan Pitelka @ 9:40 pm

Premodernists, particularly those who focus on history, sometimes feel gloomy about the state of premodern Japanese studies in the U.S., where a number of large graduate programs have shrunk, disappeared, or fundamentally changed in emphasis in the past two decades. Some of us have even been known to eulogize the field, as if the heart of our collective endeavors had already stopped beating. Is the field more like a rotting corpse, or perhaps a mummified one? Have we been subject to cremation, leaving behind only bone fragments to be buried in an urn? Or was the corpse of the field left lying on the banks of the river, food for the crows and source of anxiety for locals, known as “wind burial”? (Thanks, PMJS!)

Two upcoming events prove that the rumors of the death of medieval Japanese studies were greatly exaggerated.


Relationship between Modern and Pre-modern studies

Filed under: — K. M. Lawson @ 3:06 am

The relationship between modern and pre-modern studies in history is the source of lively debate and often much mutual misunderstanding. I’d like to welcome a guest posting on this issue that I hope will generate a productive conversation in the comments and future postings in response here and elsewhere. The author, Michael McCarty, is a graduate student at Columbia University doing a PhD in pre-modern Japanese history, focusing on early Kamakura and the relationship between courtiers and warriors. The following is the opening he gave to a very informal discussion on the pre-modern/ modern divide in East Asian studies at a combined (Korea, China, and Japan) history study group meeting at Columbia last week.

The essential problem in the relationship between pre-modern and modern studies is a question of dependency. The “relevance” of pre-modern studies is essentially dependent in its contribution to modern studies—pre-modern studies is forced to position itself against modernity either as a foil or a precursor to modern development. The only other recourse for pre-modern studies seems to be to posit a timeless, unchanging pre-modern world (which, in the end, falls back into a kind of foil to the modern world).

On the other end, modern studies chooses to define its existence and its relevance precisely by how different its subjects and issues are from what came before. This reinforces the dependency of pre-modern studies.

Attempts to do modern history, at least to me, thus seem to be framed upon hyperbole: “This is the first time (non-elites had a voice, etc),” “Here we see the creation of the first real (nation-state/ modern bureaucracy/ national consciousness, etc),” “Modernity has seen the highest level of (popular participation in government/ violence/ global interconnectedness, etc).”

Since the inherent teleology of modern studies is the way things are now, analysis of institutions and patterns tend to center on crediting certain individuals, processes, or events that were more or less influential in shaping the modern situation. This can be seen in the preponderance of the template “So-and-so and the making of the modern such-and-such” i.e. this institution, person, event was key in changing such-and-such situation to its modern situation.

But the universality of the template only belies the relativity of such claims: almost any person, institution, or event can be said to shape a situation closer to our modern situation than what came before. Can the books Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World and The Cold War and the Making of the Modern World really be talking about the same thing? Since modernity’s teleology is the present, and nothing goes beyond the present, in some sense everything is leading up to modernity. It borders on meaninglessness.

Because of the dependency dynamic and the historian’s (publishing?) desire for relevance, there is a kind of power play between modern and pre-modern studies; but in all cases modern studies takes the lead and pre-modern studies is reactive.

For example, in the Japan field we saw John Hall through the 1960s and 70s taking the field backward from the modern period in a search for precursors (the so-called “modernization” school), first to Early Modern Japan, then the Sengoku period, then Muromachi. Nor has this dynamic disappeared with the breakup of the postwar “modernization” consensus. First come modernist claims that such-and-such an event, institution, or person was responsible for the rise of a modern phenomenon (the nation state, or the rise of capitalism, or the rise of modern concepts of rights, etc). Then the pre-modern reaction: Actually, two-hundred years earlier, changes were happening that set the groundwork for the eventual rise of (the modern state, etc).

One example struck me from Harootunian and Sakai’s dialogue in Positions—in which they clearly dismiss pre-modern studies in general, but this is a diatribe for a different day. The example was studies of “Kamakura law” that treat their subject as if it were no different from modern property law. Harootunian suggests this is ridiculous, and his claim is valid and important. But it bespeaks a kind of possessiveness in modern studies: “This idea is only in the modern period, you can’t have it.”

Such studies of “medieval law” are indeed misguided attempts to restore relevance to pre-modern studies by looking for precursors to modern phenomena. Clearly medieval “law” is NOT the same as modern law. But is this claim based on close understanding of what regulations and prohibitions really meant in the medieval period and how these are different from modern legal institutions? Or are they based on quick assumptions about the pre-modern period from the necessary act of difference (the pre-modern as foil) that defines modern studies?
In the end I feel that if the key to relevance is proximity to (and explanatory power toward) the way things are now, pre-modern studies is in a doomed game.

What the hell is modernity?

To illustrate the frustration I and many pre-modernists feel toward the omnipotence of “modernity,” I’d like to illustrate some instructive variations in terminology. The following is abridged from an abstract from the recent grad conference at Columbia:

“This paper more broadly investigates the way modernist fiction engages modernization… and [embodies] aspects of modern experience. As a study that focuses on modernism’s critique of modernization, it also shows the ways in which literature can be used as a sophisticated means to explore and understand Japanese modernity.”

But what if this were put in terms of the medieval period?

“This paper more broadly investigates the way medievalist fiction engages medievalization… and [embodies] aspects of medieval experience. As a study that focuses on medievalism’s critique of medievalization, it also shows the ways in which literature can be used as a sophisticated means to explore and understand Japanese medieviality.”

It seems discussion of any other time period in the same terms comes off as ridiculous. But what if we exchanged “modern” for synonyms?

“This paper more broadly investigates the way current fiction engages the way things became the way they are… and [embodies] aspects of recent experience. As a study that focuses on contemporeneity’s critique of the way things became they way they are, it also shows the ways in which literature can be used as a sophisticated means to explore and understand the current Japanese situation.”

As soon as the word “modern” is removed, things fall apart. Clearly no other synonym can withstand the multiplicity of meanings that “modernity” encompasses. I think the reason is that modern is both a time period and a set of characteristics.

But this relationship is circular: what is modern? The most recent period. What are the attributes of modernity? The attributes that have shown up in the most recent period. The profundity of “modernity” relies on its ambiguity as a term with a set of different meanings, meanings whose relationships are rarely explained.

Further, in East Asian studies there is no attempt to distinguish between modernity and modernization. Sometimes modernity is a natural process of global interactions that grows organically, sometimes it is a set of processes that people embark upon artificially.

For example, the phrase “Korea had a late experience with modernity” or a “Korea had a very contracted modernity” is permissible. But is it logical to say that “England had a long modernity” or that “England reached modernity before Korea”? In the case of England, modernity is natural. In the case of Korea, “modernity” refers exclusively to “modernization.”

In the end, I believe the circularity of modernity is related to its inherent teleology. If anyone said that countries in East Asia had “become medieval at different rates,” this would probably be laughable. But since the modern period has nothing after it for contrast and context, the circularity between time period and characteristics remains unexposed.


Only in Japan: Yakuza Sued

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 8:26 pm

The New York Times is reporting on tensions between the Dojinkai and the civilians living in the neighborhood of their headquarters. Two features of this are worth noting in the context of the Samurai course. First, the Yakuza are widely acknowledged to be one of the last, greatest bastions of feudal samurai concepts of honor and the utility of violence; comparing the modern yakuza to medieval samurai is shockingly fruitful. Second, the social order represented by the neighborhood association is a modern incarnation of the horizontal alliances described by Berry in The Culture of Civil War in Kyoto, the ikki as described by Ikegami, and the goningumi of the great Tokugawa order.

Even the appeal to law, civil authorities, is quite traditional: though the Japanese are considered “non-litigious” it’s really not true of the present or the past. In the present, a lot of disputes are dealt with through arbitration systems that aren’t that different from small-claims courts. In the past, of course, the petition to authority and the lawsuit were common enough to be one of our best historical sources. [crossposted to Japanese History]

Late Update: Going through old email, I found this McNeill Adelstein report on the current state of yakuza. I was surprised to see that the 1992 law had so little effect: when I was in Japan in ’94-95, it seemed like it had done some good.


The Soul of Japan

Filed under: — Morgan Pitelka @ 10:28 pm

I’m teaching a survey course on premodern Japanese history this semester. It focuses on medieval and early modern Japan, and I wanted the first paper to deal with a big question in the secondary literature and the second paper to deal with a similarly big issue by looking at primary documents (in translation). After perusing a range of materials, I decided to assign Donald Keene’s recent book Yoshimasa and the Silver Pavilion: The Creation of the Soul of Japan (Columbia University Press, 2003). The book is readable in its narrative and straightforward in its method, such as it is. The central argument of the work is stimulating but impossibly large. The New Yorker, surprisingly, put it best in its brief capsule review:

This enterprising account by the doyen of Japan studies demonstrates that the quintessential Japanese aesthetic—which characterizes Noh drama, sand gardens, monochrome ink painting, shoji panels, tatami floors, and the tea ceremony—was the creation of a staggeringly incompetent fifteenth-century shogun, Ashikaga Yoshimasa. His military record was dismal and his domestic life a shambles: his domineering wife abandoned him, his nanny (who probably doubled as his mistress) may have intrigued against him, and a favorite concubine took up with his dissolute son. While warfare destroyed Kyoto and the corpses of famine victims clogged the Kamo River, Yoshimasa squandered his treasury, bringing obsessive perfectionism to such matters as perfume blending. He ultimately abdicated to become a Buddhist priest, devoting himself to the development of the restrained, Zen-influenced style exemplified in his famous Silver Pavilion. Keene’s multifarious learning and engaging manner illuminate the improbable story of the fastidious aesthete whose taste has been so important in forming the look of the modern world.

I asked my students to evaluate Keene’s proposition that the Silver Pavilion and its associated cultural practices represented the “soul of Japan.” Because we hadn’t yet studied late medieval or early modern Japan, I asked them to assess the argument in the context of fifteenth-century Japan, and the results were quite varied. Some were outraged that any scholar would claim that the cultural practices of the shogun and the capital’s aristocrats–even with their occasional plebeian origins and some signs of dissemination into the provinces–could be lifted up as the soul of anything other than elitism. Others dismissed all these cultural endeavors as Chinese imports that would only become Japanese with time. A few were regular Keene cheerleaders. One really stopped me in my tracks by noting that though Keene is happy to juxtapose Yoshimasa’s political failures with his cultural successes, he doesn’t ask the obvious question about the ramifications of this odd marriage of influence and abjection: does it matter that Keene’s soul of Japan is founded on staggering incompetence? Isn’t that worrisome?

Keene’s book is aimed at a popular readership and like most of his work avoids explicit theoretical questions, and in fact most engagement with secondary literature in English and Japanese, which is unfortunate. We do need a detailed, scholarly study of the Ashikaga shoguns and their cultural production in English. Still, I like the fact that the text is completely accessible to undergrads, unlike most publications on medieval Japan, with their panoply of specialized terminology and untranslated Japanese terms and titles. Keene has done us a favor by writing a book that opens some big questions about the nature of political failure and patronage in medieval Japan without really closing any doors. Maybe this book, with its lively depiction of a period that is less and less studied not just in undergraduate classrooms but in graduate seminars, will help bring more people back to the study of premodern Japan.


A brief rant at an easy target

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 1:37 pm

So I’m grading my latest World History quiz, and one of the terms is “samurai.” Being a two semester World History sequence, I didn’t spend a lot of time on the samurai — I had one day to cover pre-1500 Japan and Korea — so the answers were mostly based on the textbook (loosely) or people’s prior understandings of the term1 or on Wikipedia.2 At some point I got suspicious and looked up the glossary definitions at the back of the textbook.3 Most students don’t use it, but sometimes they think it’s a good short-cut for the short-answer identification quizzes I give. It’s a viable suspect.

Here’s what the book said:

Samurai (SAM-uhr-eye) A Japanese warrior who lived by the code of bushido (p. G-9)

Yeah, that’s it. No chronology, no economic or political context, and an undefined foreign term at the heart. A quick survey of the rest of the glossary reveals that most of the other definitions are: a) longer; and b) better. Not all, mind you.

Yeah, I had to check and see if they had, in fact, defined that foreign term.

Bushido (BOH-shee-DOH) The “way of the warrior,” the code of conduct of the Japanese samurai that was based on loyalty and honor. (p. G-2)

Aside from the proununciation error, it looks…. Oh, the Japanese samurai… as opposed to samurai elsewhere? “Honor” is a pretty vague term, too. Again, no chronology, no authorship, minimal context.

I know it’s a minor point, but this text is in its fourth edition and these textbooks go through what’s supposed to be exhaustive reviews by dozens of scholars. So why does the glossary read like a touched-up Western Civ text?

  1. ahem []
  2. the Wikipedia article has a note at the top begging for expert assistance and citations. Any of our readers already wikipedians? []
  3. Bentley and Ziegler and Streets, Traditions and Encounters: A Brief Global History []


Update on Honnôji

Filed under: — Morgan Pitelka @ 5:03 pm

Professor Matthew Stavros of the University of Sydney (seen in the third photo below) wrote in response to my post on the discovery of roof tiles from Honnôji at an excavation site in Kyoto. Matthew, who is a specialist in medieval Kyoto and has participated in archaeological digs in the city, reports that archaeologists have been excavating this site, which they were almost certain was Honnôji, for some time, but lacked definitive proof. The significance of this recent find is that the roof tiles are marked with a symbol that was only used at Honnôji.

Matthew kindly provided some images from the excavation which illustrate something of the excavation process and results (after the break).


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