PERFORMING THE GREAT PEACE: Political Space and Open Secrets in Tokugawa Japan, by Luke S. Roberts. University of Hawai’i Press, 2012, 263 pp., $49.00 (hardcover)

“…a daimyo could be both dead and alive at the same time…”

One of the rewards of studying Japan’s past is the chance to imaginatively enter an environment so different from our own that the very words we use to describe it easily become misleading. How can you even begin to discuss a different time without recourse to terms like “country,” “government,” “power,” “submission,” “justice,” “identity” — to say nothing of “dead” and “alive”? Elementary as these concepts are, a Japanese of the Edo Period (1603-1867) would have been as mystified by the meanings we give them today as we are by what they conveyed then.

That, briefly stated, is the theme of “Performing the Great Peace.” Let’s start, as the book does, with “dead” and “alive.” Luke Roberts, University of California professor of early modern Japanese history, records his astonishment at discovering castle documents pertaining to a succession ceremony that took place in 1792 in the domain of Tahara, in present-day Aichi Prefecture. The daimyo was dying, and the law required that he name his heir in the presence of a representative of the ruling Tokugawa shogun, who would certify that the daimyo was of sound mind.

Everything went smoothly. The succession was finalized. Hours later the daimyo died, and his younger brother inherited his authority. So far so good. But “so far” is not far at all, for the ceremonial narrative was pure fiction. The “dying daimyo” had in fact died 55 days before — as everyone knew. Nor was the heir his younger brother, or the age he was purported to be. This too was well known.

“When I first read the castle diary and the letter recorded within,” writes Roberts, “this incident and the letter itself that blithely reported in two paragraphs two conflicting versions of the lord’s death puzzled me greatly.” His bewilderment launched the research that resulted in this book.

The Tokugawa regime was “one of the most stable governments of the early modern world.” It was much praised on that account by contemporaries sick to death of centuries of civil war. It is less admired in our time, which emphasizes the “dictatorial,” “feudal” and “reactionary” aspects of Tokugawa rule. Partly at least, Roberts argues, this is due to misunderstandings arising from our tendency to view the past as if it were the present. Tokugawa Japan was not a “country” in our sense of the word; Tokugawa rule was not “government” as we understand it; the shogun (who was rarely called that) did not “govern” in a manner readily comprehensible to us.

Thus, “A lord might profess total compliance with an order from the Tokugawa government and yet ignore it back in his realm” — without being disobedient or insubordinate. It is puzzling indeed, to the uninitiated. What this book seeks to do is initiate us into some basic underlying attitudes of the time that are starkly at variance with modern thinking.

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.

Ritual omote subservience toward superiors was everything, and samurai accorded it willingly. It was part of being a samurai. Ritual turns humility into pride, submission into nonsubmission, disobedience into compliance. This accounts for much of Tokugawa’s remarkable stability over 2½ centuries.

We see the process at work most clearly in the numerous “inspections” undertaken by the 17th-century shoguns. These took shogunal inspectors all over Japan, supposedly “to survey conditions of rule in all provinces.” Were the anti-Christian edicts being duly enforced? Were high prices causing hardship? Were speculators and hoarders going unpunished?

It sounds like a central government’s conscientious exercise of authority in the provinces. If it had been that, the vaunted “Great Peace” would have been very fleeting indeed. Domain records detail the advance preparations: “Bridges, roads etc. should be repaired, but make sure they do not look like recent repairs.”

Roads were to be swept, but the broom marks erased. And so on. “The ‘deceptions,'” Roberts explains, “were open secrets negotiated informally according to mutually acceptable practices.” Deception which does not deceive is theater — hence the title’s reference to “performing.”

Tokugawa “feudalism” was one extended performance whose overriding goal, superseding every other consideration, was stability. Performing turned persons into actors, personalities into roles. Even people’s names changed depending on the situation one was in, or who one was with. The daimyo of Okayama was Ikeda in his domain, Matsudaira in his dealings with the shogun, and Minamoto vis-à-vis the imperial aristocracy — and so it went throughout the hierarchy. A man who might legitimately claim samurai lineage in his native village had better keep his pretensions to himself outside it, for there he was a mere peasant.

“Performing the Great Peace” ushers us into the thought processes of one of the most idiosyncratic regimes in world history. It does more. Implicitly, incidentally, it provokes a question: Are those thought processes really dead? Does the notion of deceptions that are not deceptions, lies that are not lies, help explain some of the murkier aspects of Japanese politics today?

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