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The Culture of Civil War in Kyoto.

The Era of Warring States is the most confusing period of Japanese history. It begins in 1467 with the Onin War - a civil war precipitated by a succession dispute between Ashikaga brothers for the office of Shogun. It ends in 1568 with the triumphant arrival in Kyoto of the warlord Oda Nobunaga who declares himself ruler of the realm. This century of war begins and ends in Kyoto; however, historians have routinely turned their attention to the activities of the powerful daimyo, regional warlords, in the provinces. The cleverest and hardiest of these warlords successfully unified Japan during the last quarter of the sixteenth century; hence, the century of convulsion that preceded unification is seen as "transitional" - the passage from the medieval to the early modern.

Mary Elizabeth Berry, in this remarkable and lively book on the culture of war in late medieval Kyoto, breaks with tradition. She focuses her sharp eye on events in the capital between 1467 and 1550, and takes as her subject the townspeople of Kyoto. She chooses to stop short of the unification effort led by Oda Nobunaga, leaving the townspeople suspended betwixt and between Japan's medieval and early modern worlds. The corporate hierarchies of the old order - "proprietorship, vassalage, patronage, and family," she claims, "retained a half-life." (p. xxi) Although these hierarchical arrangements could no longer provide the protections of the past, the entangled actors of the medieval order were unable to disconnect from one another to create new arrangements, lasting coalitions, and a new polity.

The inhabitants of the capital are portrayed with startling clarity. Their voices reach us through their diaries, accounts, petitions, and edicts, which reveal the ordinary (if extraordinary) events of the day; and through the author's skill (also extraordinary) which effectively weaves narrative, description, analysis, and commentary into a rich fabric that presents the period as one of great vitality and resourcefulness. The mayhem that follows the Onin War involves not only samurai bands, but children, women, woodcutters, farmers, and militant monks who alternately petition, burn, demonstrate, defend, organize, riot, and dance in the streets.

Although the author imposes neither purpose nor direction on what she calls "a culture of lawlessness," she does find pattern in the efforts of the townspeople to make life possible in a time of extreme uncertainty. Among these efforts were block associations formed by townspeople who banded together for mutual benefit. Made up of blocks of houses that faced each other across the main streets of Kyoto, these associations served to defend their blocks against violence, and to take responsibility for activities such as tax collection, labor corvee, the sale of property, and the organization of city festivals. Block associations cut across class and occupation, reconfiguring attachments among the townspeople. Such associations were unprecedented and they set new boundaries between rulers and ruled.

A chapter entitled "Play" juxtaposes two quite different developments: on the one hand, furious and forbidden furyu dancing that took place at night attracted great crowds with hundreds of participants and onlookers; on the other, understated and restrained tea parties co-opted from elite society by wealthy commoners transformed the tea ritual into a shared aesthetic experience that met the needs of affluent city dwellers. Each of these developments, Berry claims, posed social challenges: "Although the invasion of the streets by furyu dancers was a more public act of aggression, the flaunting of Chinese celadons by townsmen may have been more bruising to noble bones." (p. 279)

Other themes include the politics of public demonstration, popular insurrection, the rhetoric of justice, patterns of work, and artistic representations of wartime Kyoto. How do these themes connect with the early modern era? The author refrains from speculation, suggesting a major disjuncture between the era of warring states and the wars of unification that would benefit from scholarly investigation.

This excellent book makes a major contribution to historical scholarship on Japan, making accessible a wide variety of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Japanese sources in English translation. It should interest medieval and early modern historians of Europe and those who do comparative historical research. Perhaps best of all, Mary Elizabeth Berry writes with a commanding and elegant prose style. This book is often reminiscent of good theater and is a pleasure to read.

Ann Bowman Jannetta University of Pittsburgh
COPYRIGHT 1995 Journal of Social History
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Copyright 1995, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Jannetta, Ann Bowman
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 1995
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