Yoshihiko Amino's Contentious History: Emperor and Outcastes in Medieval JapanSkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
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"The hottest Japanese history that schools don't teach!" — the Japanese characters almost leap off the book jacket on the fourth floor of Sanseido, a major bookstore in the heart of Tokyo's book selling district.
Japanese historians, in league with ethnologists, anthropologists, and archaeologists, are boldly proclaiming a new vision of social dynamics, a vision that questions the postwar historical constructions of ethnic unity and cultural homogeneity inscribed to two and a half millennia of imperial rule. In the last two decades, Japanese scholars have begun to take their work off the beaten path to deconstruct the frontiers of knowledge, explore new discursive objects, and remold historical representation. To discover the scholar who identified this uncharted territory one could enter most any Japanese bookstore, there to be confronted by the works of Yoshihiko Amino. Unfortunately, given the paucity of Amino translations, one would also have to be able to read Japanese.
Born in 1929, Yoshihiko Amino has been a professor at Kanagawa University where, with the ethnologist Miyata Noboru, he is a principle member of the interdisciplinary Institute for the Study of Japanese Folklore. A scholar and teacher for 40 years, professor Amino is an innovative authority in the field of Japan's medieval history. Nevertheless, despite his broad scholarly achievements, Amino's works are largely unrecognized outside the world of Japanese-language scholarship. An autumn 1996 visit to the United States that will include lectures and seminars at the University of Michigan, the University of California- Berkeley, the University of Chicago, and Princeton University will serve as a belated introduction to a deservedly wider audience. In addition, the Center for Japanese Studies Publication Program at the University of Michigan is planning to publish a volume that will contain translations representative of Professor Amino's work.
Since 1959, Amino has authored 20 books, co-authored 19 others, and published more than 100 articles on the emperor system and a myriad other aspects of Japanese medieval history. A graduate of the University of Tokyo — one of Japan's most prestigious — he began his career as a high school teacher, then entered the college ranks as an assistant professor at Nagoya University. He joined the staff at Kanagawa University in 1980. In addition to his other projects he is a much sought-after guest lecturer at other universities.
Like many postwar intellectuals, Amino was influenced by Marxism and then distanced himself from it without completely denying it. In the early 1970s after re- reading the masterworks of Japanese folklore, he came to the conclusion that academic as well as Marxist histories failed to do justice to the wide spectrum of historical realities of the medieval period.
In the past two decades, Amino has initiated a reinterpretation of the entire history of Japan and literally transformed the field with a fresh approach and critical insights. Instead of the warriors and farmers, long the primary categories of historical analysis, Amino focuses on the non-agrarian population who lived outside the social norms formulated by Japan's dominant groups. Instead of Marxist methodologies emphasizing class division and conflict, Amino explores the social and conceptual spaces that were shaped by and gave power to non-dominant populations. His research has shown how the relationship between the social, spatial, and symbolic structures of medieval Japan had a profound effect on defining and linking two social groups: those formally representing a Japanese polity and those that remained on its margins. He demonstrates that the relationship between these two groups has a great deal of influence on constructing what came to be considered "Japanese culture."
Amino recalls his perplexity when, as a high school instructor, he was asked the recurring question: "Why did the emperor system persist, regardless of its diminished hold over political power?" He was able to satisfy the questioners with an explanation citing the manipulation of traditional charisma and lack of strong central power, but he was not convinced by his own reply.
Under the strong influence of Marxist temporality, the accepted structures dominating Japanese historiography had been a firm belief in linear development — history equated with the evolution of modes of production. Consequently, Japanese history, like many other histories, has been described according to stages in which agrarian society was commercialized and eventually reached industrialization. Amino's doubts led him to question a traditional historiography that automatically excluded elements which did not contribute to this particular evolution. Such elements were doubly at risk of occlusion in a Japanese medieval historiography as such studies relied heavily on extant documents primarily surrounding political structures and their perceptions of a rice-based economy. The relative wealth of these "official" documents and the degree to which they support a linear development of history substantively works to create a hermeneutic circularity of archive and theory in which "other" elements can be justifiably ignored.
This was a historiography that ignored or neglected peoples which Amino came to call the "defeated" of history: the marginal, the discriminated itinerants, dancers, acrobats and others, not to mention the social role of women. These were among the flotsam and jetsam of linear historiography, pushed to the periphery of scholarly scrutiny in both a theoretical and a very literal sense. In standard postwar historiographies these peripheries were presented as semi-barbaric and dangerous, something to be integrated into the order of civilization by central power structures.
In applying himself to ethnographic studies Amino demonstrated that there existed a type of local structuring which was ultimately similar to that which took shape at the level of the archipelago. In a country so mountainous that less than a fifth of it is level enough to even be considered for agriculture, the medieval village cultivators who inhabited the plains and the valleys, were somehow set in opposition to a menagerie of humanity that included inhabitants of the mountains — "untamed" people who hunted big game and fished the rivers — and people of the sea including fisherman, salt collectors, shippers, and traders. The inhabitants of the plains and the valleys tended to consider these others, whose practices, clothing, and knowledge were different, with a certain condescension tinged with fear. Sometimes described as ijin — "different people," these others remained distant from the people of the valleys and the plains. In a certain way they lived in a different if not marginal cultural universe as:
People who regrouped and created new spaces of sociability where exchange, notably commercial exchange, was possible. It was in these spaces that itinerant populations found one another and exchanged not only products, but also ideas...
What is important is not simply that Amino demonstrated the existence of these spatial ruptures, but also that he has shown that medieval social power held sway precisely because there was this communication, circulation, or exchange between the center, the median spaces, and the margins. His works posit that it was in the intersections between these constructions that what we commonly call "Japanese culture" came to be. In these marginal types, he argues, lie the origin of the Noh theater, the tea ceremony, the art of gardens, and more. In essence, the "traditional Japanese aesthetic" belongs to these populations who turned their backs on rice cultivation.
Amino's research eventually developed and supported the seemingly radical notion that the emperor's power base was derived from this population of "non-agrarian" people [hinogyomin], which included coastal people, mountain people, artisans, and performers. These groups represent a sector totally neglected by previous Japanese medievalists. The inclusion of the hinogyomin in the writing of the history of this period reveals that it was the process of settlement of the non-agrarian population in the cities which initiated the development of a commercialized society.
At the beginning of the 20th century, documents that would ultimately be utilized by Amino had been "discredited" by earlier scholars who pronounced them forgeries. For that and other reasons, including pre-war ideological constraints, these documents did not garner a significant amount of scholarly attention until Amino re-examined them in the 1970s. Based on his own reading of the existing documents Amino re-established as genuine some of those discarded as forged, and further, traced the historical significance of the forged documents. In Amino's re- evaluation, the emperor assumes a far larger and more active role in his relationship to these marginalized peoples. Here then lay the foundation for an answer to the question asked of him as a high school teacher.
In his determined pursuit, Amino's historical writings have come to engage the occlusive nature of writing history. Historians inevitably engage in the vagaries of hierarchical significance when winnowing out information documenting human experience. History, if it is to be digested, is necessarily reductive. Nevertheless, by presenting the role of Japan's non-agrarian society as crucial, a role which traditional Japanese scholarship had refused to acknowledge, Amino has challenged such exclusivity. In particular he acknowledges an intellectual debt to the discipline of ethnology as having diverted his attention from the presupposed field of history.
Historians, inescapably perhaps, build castle-like theoretical fortifications to describe and support depictions of the world. Amino, has discovered an "otherness" within these fortifications and thus poses serious questions for all historians.
Brett Johnson is a doctoral candidate in Theatre Arts at the University of Minnesota. In Summer 1996 at the University of Michigan he taught "From Genji to Godzilla and Beyond: Japanese Popular Culture."