Heterodox views enter mainstream


RETHINKING JAPANESE HISTORY, by Yoshihiko Amino, translated by Alan S. Christy. Center for Japanese Studies, University of Michigan, 2012. 317 pp., $20 (paper)

It is a testimony to Yoshihiko Amino’s influential legacy that his once iconoclastic views regarding Japanese history have now become mainstream. This bad boy of Japanese historiography from the 1970s until his death in 2004 questioned many prevailing views about Japan’s history and in the process dispatched more than a few sacred cows. It is telling that the translator, who deserves special kudos for such an excellent rendering, felt obliged to provide a synopsis of exactly what Amino was arguing against precisely because his revisionist interpretations have prevailed.

Amino unflinchingly scrutinizes conservative assertions about the unbroken line of emperors and nature of the imperial system while also challenging the Marxist analysis of feudal Japan. Amino’s great contribution, however, is in convincingly recasting the role of those often marginalized in previous historical accounts of the pre-Meiji eras. By closely examining local historical records, he reveals a far more dynamic society than many other historians had assumed.

Peasants, for example, were often portrayed in a monochromatic, monolithic manner that belied the rich diversity in their lives and how they earned their living. Usually the term used in Japanese for peasant, hyakusho, meant someone living in an isolated village engaged in cultivating rice and struggling to maintain a bare subsistence living. Amino shows why such tropes of history are misleading, tapping a variety of sources from all over Japan that clearly demonstrate that hyakusho was a broad category that obscures considerable variation in living standards, how peasants made their living and the extent of their participation in trading networks. In doing so, he also subverts cliches about isolated, self-sufficient rural villages as repositories of timeless traditions.

The fundamental problem, according to Amino, is that recent mainstream history was based on stories that the mainstream in the past told about itself and passed on to future generations. The reliance on official written documents tends to exclude the marginalized people of the time since their stories were not often recorded or considered significant. In addition, there is bias in our understanding of the past because documents that have survived over the centuries were selected for preservation. Amino tries to overcome that bias by reading between the lines and in the margins, and by drawing on family and estate records rescued from dusty storage rooms in remote areas. He also recovers the discarded histories that were used as insulation, for example, in sliding doors, the detritus of past lives that provides insights today.

Our attention is drawn to the stories of pirates, bandits, wayward monks, gamblers, itinerant peddlers and outcasts, those who had been rendered invisible by mainstream historians focusing on ruling samurai and subjected peasants. We also see how robust commerce connected Japanese to the seas and waterways where transport was easier than by inland roads. Periodic famine is usually attributed to the hardscrabble life of isolated rural communities living on the edge of subsistence, but Amino argues that famine was associated with an exchange economy where people who did not grow their own food were vulnerable during poor harvests.

Were Japanese women as wanton, given to wanderlust, assertive and ruthless as one 16th century Portuguese missionary wrote? Brushing away the layers of moral condemnation, Amino asserts that he was largely correct. Readers learn that women had considerable agency in terms of initiating divorce, but because their husbands had to file a letter of divorce to make it official, these surviving records made it seem like only men had this right. Regarding sex, Amino suggests that society was not hung up on female chastity and virginity, and what seemed promiscuous to a missionary was customary and carried no stigma in Japan. So at festivals and in travels women enjoyed free rein and there was no shame attached to “night crawling” (yobai), the carnal custom of a man sneaking into a woman’s bed at night In this context of uninhibited sexual relations, Amino dismisses the missionary’s objections to abortion and infanticide as heartless practices, arguing that this is how women coped with penury and unwanted pregnancies. Women were also subject to rape and rapist monks were apparently given special dispensations for their sins.

Although no apologist for the subjugation of women, Amino argues that women were not as passive and oppressed as stereotypes suggest. He shows how women were often entrusted with responsible positions in commerce and operating estates, had a voice in high councils and often owned residences. In addition, many were literate and some organized into professional groups to better assert their rights.

This is an engaging book brimming with fascinating insights that delves into the details to make broader arguments about early modern Japanese history that stimulates readers to reexamine the nature of history and how it is represented.

Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies at Temple University, Japan campus.