Japan Before Perry

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

This book is a useful addition to histories of traditional Japan intended for beginning college students or interested laymen. Conrad Totman, well-known among Japan scholars as a Tokugawa (1600-1868) specialist, takes an innovative approach to periodization as he defines and explains the essential characteristics of three great ages: the classical, medieval, and early-modern. This treatment of Japanese history in large segments stresses continuities by ignoring some of the traditional political boundaries. Totman, however, skillfully describes the political elites of each era and shows how society, ideology, and religious structure sustained them.

The geographical setting and the prehistoric Jmon, Yayoi, and Tomb eras are only touched upon. These periods, with the Yamato Age—after the ancient name for Japan—are quickly covered in fourteen pages, although the Yamato elite’s joint claim to political and religious authority is well described. The difficulty facing the early Japanese polity—here Totman acknowledges the interpretation of Yale’s John Whitney Hall—was the problem of maintaining patrilineal governance over the long term. Despite periodic breakdowns in authority throughout subsequent Japanese history, the Japanese political elite never stopped trying to uphold this principle.

Classical Japan (A.D. 650 to 1150) is the first of Totman’s three great ages. He typifies the period as “an age of aristocratic bureaucracy,” which nicely delineates the characteristic political institutions. Literacy and the massive influx of Chinese culture, especially that embodied in Buddhism, did not topple Japan’s indigenous aristocracy. The aristocracy managed, for the most part, to maintain their position by using newly adopted bureaucratic institutions for their own purposes and by sharing power with Buddhist monasteries. For example, the Confucian concept of the emperor ruling over a centralized state by universal ethical principles was used to reinforce the Yamato link to the Sun Goddess. The concept of centralized power, however, had a higher priority than ethical principles. Chinese-style bureaucratic ranks became a privilege of the existing aristocracy, without reference to a merit-based Confucian exam system. In this manner Japan’s political continuity was preserved, despite the basic transformation of Japanese culture under Chinese influence, creating a unique and highly aristocratic bureaucracy.

Buddhism and its artistic expression were the major vehicles for cultural change, but even this was narrowly limited to court and aristocracy until evangelical Buddhism reached out to the masses in the twelfth century. Buddhism and the aristocratic culture of classical Japan therefore served to maintain the enormous distinction between cultured aristocrats (kuge) at the court and the unworthy commoners who paid tax and rent to their literate betters. Totman argues that the core elements of Japan’s classical age—sensitivity towards the beautiful, irony, and melancholy—persist in Japanese higher culture today.

For the newcomer to Japanese history, it is important but difficult to understand the land ownership system which formed the economic base of society. Totman takes special care in defining the shen not as “estates” but as “chartered corporate bodies,” which helps avoid confusion with Western concepts of land ownership. Shen were agricultural lands—paddies, dry fields, or forest—that were usually scattered about central Japan. The holders of shen could manage their land without state interference, and this came to exclude even the right of taxation. Eventually local and regional managers, often rough and ready samurai, began to keep a larger share of shen revenue, and this process led to a new age.

Medieval Japan was “an age of political fluidity,” yet Totman shows that it was simultaneously a period of great cultural achievement. The aristocratic court-bound elite was ignored, and a vigorous new leadership...

(The entire section is 1652 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 14)

Choice. XIX, November, 1981, p. 426.

Library Journal. CVI, August, 1981, p. 1539.