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Following the paper trail to a modern Japan

by Florian Coulmas

JAPAN IN PRINT: Information and Nation in the Early Modern Period, by Mary Elizabeth Berry. Berkeley/Los Angeles/London: University of California Press, 2006, 325 pp., $45.95 (cloth).

The title of this book is to be taken literally. “Japan in Print” is not about Japanese prints or printing in Japan, but about printing and its impact on the making of Nihon.

Japan traces its history back to the mythical times of Jinmu Tenno, but when did it become a nation?

Many scholars treat “nation” as a quintessentially modern idea and reality closely linked with its ideological underpinning, nationalism. For many countries in Europe and North America as well as the postcolonial world this is surely an accurate description. In Japan, however, as historian Mary Elizabeth Berry argues, the emergence of a self-conscious collectivity that has all the defining properties of a nation can be found in early modern times, that is, in the 17th and 18th centuries of the Tokugawa Period.

Berry’s argument, convincingly presented in elegant prose, is based on a thorough analysis of what she calls the “library of public information” — an extensive body of reference texts. It includes documents of various kinds that were produced, some with large print runs, in Tokugawa Japan, specifically maps, travel guides, family encyclopedias, bureaucratic rosters of officeholders, and directories of all sorts such as lists of streets and wards, indexes of temples and brothels, famous places, traders and artisans, as well as annotated genealogies, registers of military officials and accounts of urban life.

These texts, many of which are no doubt repetitive and tedious if looked at in isolation become a treasure trove to the curious scholar who sees in them a key to common knowledge.

What did the people of Edo and Kyoto and other places under Tokugawa rule know? What were they expected to know? And what kind of common knowledge was taken for granted by the authors and compilers of the library of public information? It is to these questions that Berry seeks answers by studying the information texts that were commercially printed at the time.

The story she relates is one of expanding knowledge, culture and power. The Tokugawa transformed a multiplicity of rival domains into a unitary polity, and the explosion of printed matter that came with their ascent to power early in the 17th century played a crucial role in transforming unrelated local knowledge into information made available to a national audience. Commercial printing thus was the driving force behind the emergence of a public sphere in Japan. In conjunction with urbanization, it fostered both vernacular literature and the production of practical information texts eagerly consumed by a growing reading public.

Berry describes 17th-century Japan as a land of many domains involved, under Tokugawa domination, in the struggle of nation building. This process is reflected in maps, a favorite subject of her investigation. For maps are signs of social as much as geographic representation, witness to ideology and knowledge the mapmaker can assume the readers to have.

Reducing the space of a varied land to a two-dimensional map is an act of abstraction that requires both the conceptual division into a fixed number of categories and the grasping of a whole not actually experienced. Maps, therefore, incorporate and shape common knowledge. Strictly topographic maps of Japan were not produced prior to the 19th century. In earlier maps, Japan appears as a landscape of human construction. However, some of these maps, remarkably, offered a vision of the nation.

As the Tokugawa state consolidated and distances and transport connections between domains and the capital became an element of the hegemonic order, Berry shows, maps were instrumental in constructing a notion of Nihon as a geopolitical unit.

She invokes a wealth of other materials from the library of public information to demonstrate how territory, state and culture coalesced to establish a supraregional framework of references that orient readers in an identifiable and shared world. As much as military leaders who secured space through conquest were essential for engendering political unity, mapmakers, authors of information texts and storytellers contributed to making Nihon a country by declaring it a country.

“Japan in Print” persuasively demonstrates that cultural literacy as embodied in the library of public information and the community of knowledge it served became the foundation of the Japanese nation. This is an intriguing result not just because Berry takes exception to the established view that places the birth of Japan as a nation in the convulsive years of the Meiji Restoration that tried to shed the Tokugawa heritage, but also because the nation she detects in Tokugawa Japan is a nation without nationalism.

A case well made in a book well worth reading.