Sunday, 18 April 2010

Amino Yoshihiko (2): "Muen Kugai Raku"

The first of Amino's works that I will bring up for discussion will be the famous Muen-Kugai-Raku: Nihon chûsei no jiyû to heiwa (Muen Kugai Raku: Freedom and Peace in Medieval Japan, first published in 1978; references below are to the expanded Heibonsha edition of 1996).

Being relatively early, this is also one of his richest and most complex works. It was also one of his most controversial, inviting a barrage of criticism at the time of its first publication. Remarking on its boldness and radicalness, Nakazawa Shin'ichi writes: "Among Amino’s remarkably many works, this book stands isolated, being almost the only one that still has not been accurately understood. Amino hurled Muen Kugai Raku to the future, a future with which our age has still to catch up” (Nakazawa 2004:105).

This is the work where Amino introduces the concept of muen, which has since become popular among medievalists, ethnographers, historians of religion and even political activists as a concept related to asylums or sancuraries in early Japan. Literally it signifies a state of being cut off from all bonds. The term originated as a Buddhist term for freedom from secular ties and was used, among other things, for temples and places that were considered off-limits to secular power. Amino calls these places muenjo (a term originally used for temples that didn't rely on the support or patronage of feudal lords or their vassals). Today muen is used as a term for loneliness and isolation. A muen-botoke is a person who dies without kin to arrange for her grave or pray for her soul, while muen-shakai, the title of a recent NHK documentary, is a desolate society in which people live and die in isolation. Interestingly, in muen Amino sees an early, medieval form of the freedom and equality we today associate with the public sphere. Through muen, discriminated people or people of low status were able to come together and form communities where the norms and hierarchies of the surrounding society were no longer in force. ”People who had a master were not allowed to dwell there. Converesely, the moment you entered, all ties of subordination were cut off” (Amino 2001:27f).

To illustrate the principle of muen, Amino starts with an example that was probably familiar to many of his readers: a children's game called engacho. This is a tag and chase game where you escape the chaser by shouting "en ki-tta!" (I've cut of my ties or broken my relations). In an alternative form of the game you would escape by touching a tree or entering a circle drawn on the ground, thus creating a sanctuary where you would be safe from pursuers.

In the following chapter Amino works his way back into history, turning first to the enkiri-dera (temples for cutting off relations) of the Edo period. These were temples where women who had managed to escape their husbands could get protection and obtain divorces. He then shows that this was a legacy of a much vaster array of freedoms possessed by temples in medieval times, before their military power and economic independence was crushed by the warlords who unified the country during the 16th century. During medieval times, when the religious prestige of temples was buttressed by military might as well as political clout with the imperial court, they would often function as sanctuaries in a very broad sense, providing asylum not only to the old and sick but also to criminals or people escaping debts, and in many cases possessing explicit rights to refuse entry to secular authorities (funyûken). Amino himself compares the muenjo to the asylum of Germanic tradition, mentioning for instance the principle in Western Europe that serfs were freed if they reached the city and managed to live there a year and a day without being caught (Amino 1996:25f, 91). Near the end of the book Amino offers a few speculations about the origin of the principle of muen in the most ancient strata of history in what he calls a primordial muen (gen-muen).

One of the reason that the book was considered such a sensation was simply that very little research had been made previously about asylums in Japanese history (an early work by the historian Hiraizumi Kiyoshi from 1926 being a rare exception).

Another reason was that Amino managed to make these medieval ideas of freedom, peace and equality sound peculiarly relevant to our own age. As Nakazawa points out, Amino appeared not only to be writing history but also to be creating a new "theory of freedom" that touched on something fundamental in human nature, even as he was seemingly working with nothing but the tools of  empirical historical science. "Although not clearly stated on the surface of his texts, which were written as historical articles, I understood very well from the conversations we had at the time that he conceived of his theory of the asylum as a theory of human essence” (Nakazawa 2004:94).

A third reason for the attention the book gathered was surely that the idea of freedom which the book presented was so different from how we think of freedom today. Above all, it appeared to depend crucially on the strength of religious sentiment. The muenjo were "exits" from the mundane order into another world in which people were equal in the face of the "Gods and Buddhas". To enter them meant to leave the profane, secular world of the everyday with its rules and differences in status and political and military power. To be sure, places where this principle was realized were not limited to temples. By looking in turn at different groups or places that were associated with muen (or the related qualities kugai and raku), Amino puts together an impressive list comprising among other things: prisons (Amino 1996:29), graveyards (ibid 145ff), outcasts and their organizations (shuku, ibid 29f, 137ff), prostitutes and brothels, markets (ibid 136ff), finance and banks (ibid 168ff), free cities, trees, riverbanks, crossroads, mountains (ibid 125ff), the world of arts (such as -drama, renga-poetry, tea, travelling entertainers and gambling), and popular uprisings and federations (ikki) (ibid 2001:27-32). The freedom or protection offered to these groups or by these places varied from case to case. It could be freedom from secular power, from marriage, from taxes and debts, from violence or freedom of passage. However, common to them was that they at least partially offered a refuge from the mundane order, most of them though a direct or indirect link to the sacred.

A forth reason for the book's popularity was that it offered a novel way of thinking about the emergence of capitalism in Japan. This was a problem to which Amino would ofter return in later writings (and which I will refer to as the problem of the "origin of capitalism" in future entries). In this book, he suggests a strong link between muen and commercial activities. As he put it later in an interview, things were only able to become commodities or means of payment by being "offered up to the Gods and Buddhas" and thus freed from their specific local ties. In fact, early means of payment before the development of a monetary economy usually consisted in rice or other products (usually the from the "sacred" first harvest or first catch) offered up to local rulers who stored them in storehouses where they were administered by priests. Temples too controlled storehouses and played an important role in medieval society as banks and gradually also in the birth of money and early financial papers. Markets usually sprang up in front of temples. With their vast networks for collecting contributions to the building of temples or bridges or for public welfare, temples also catalyzed the emergence of long-distance commercial networks.

Finally, the book was also one of the first to trace the origin of the discrimination of outcasts back into the middle ages, a theory which today is widely accepted but at the time was considered very marginal (this is a point to which I hope to return in connection with Uesugi Satoshi's criticism of Amino).

We can note that the "freedom", "peace" and "equality" offered by muen was usually obtained by exit or withdrawal, rather than by protest or revolution. However, they were not necessarily quietist places of withdrawal. According to Amino, the idea of muen helped inspire riots, uprisings, and the autonomous popular federations (ikki) of the late middle ages. They were moveable anticipations of Utopia that inspired revolts and served as anticipations in popular consciousness of a Utopia of peace, freedom and equality.

To take an example from another of Amino's works, here was a custom called "pulling bamboo grass" (sasa o hiku) among commoners who engaged in resistance against a feudal lord during the Warring States period. It was a symbolic form of resistance. By using the magical power of the bamboo grass they transformed the house or village into places for muen, into "mountains and forests off-limits to secular power" (sanrin funyû no chi) (Amino 1993:138f).
Importantly and suggestively, to Amino these exits were not exits from the “public” so much as from a world of feudal power-relations and private interests. To him it is indeed the muenjo that anticipate or realize a true public – as suggested by the related word kugai, written by the characters for "public" and "world". Travelling entertainers, mendicant monks, outcasts and travelling salesmen all part of this public. In his description of how words like muen and kugai were used it is clear that they represented not an escape from the public, but that they themselves were a public where everyone - priests, traders, money-lenders, entertainers and outcasts - were supposed to be equal and live in peace and impartiality.

As Amino makes clear, this medieval "public" was different from how we think of the public sphere today. The universality or commonality offered by muen was not expressed in terms of general rights. The rights they were endowed with were not general rights for “all citizens” as in modern publics, but local rights. They were bound to places or certain groups of people. Furthermore, some of these places or statuses were like “prisons”; once having entered them it was often difficult to leave them (Amino 1996:6, 26). As he himself recognizes, exit is not necessarily a gate to freedom, and exit can often be involuntary. At heart the essential issue is probably not whether they offered a possibility of “exit” or not. “Exit” is a possibility offered up to persecuted or discriminated people once these alternative “places” with their special rights have been established. The very existence of this possibility served to make society freer, since people were never caught up entirely within any single dominant system of power or hierarchical order. First and foremost, the precondition for muen is power – a power strong enough to assert itself against the surrounding power centers. Only then does the freedom for weak and help-seeking individuals to “exit” arise.

This leads over to a further important point. Amino shows that the proliferation of muenjo is only possible in a situation in which there is no complete centralization of power. It thrives only in a situation of multiple power centra, like in medieval Japan. He paints the picture of a porous and multipolar world in which "freedom" is not something that is vouchsafed in a shared and unified public space, but through a balance of power and the freedom of people to change place by exiting from one power-center to another. The recognized rights of the muenjo rested on the fact that secular power was not yet as all-encompassing as it would be during the Edo period.

Amino states in the book that he hopes that the “principle of muen” will be revived (ibid 7). Let me add a few reflections on the prospects of this. Today, it is big transnational corporations or finance capitalists rather than "sacred" institutions that most obviously have the power to establish alternative power centers. While temples may have been willing to offer havens to the subalterns and marginals of medieval society, corporations are usually not. This shows that it is not enough to simply have a plurality of competing power-centers. The power-center to which one exits must also try to be a better, freer and more egalitarian one than the rest. To establish such centres is surely an important task for social movements today. Sometimes Amino is unclear concerning whether it is power-plurality per se that provides the exiters with freedom from competing powers (like when a refugee escapes to another country) or if the freedom stems from the fact that the temples and markets were built on principles that were freer or more egalitarian, but in my view it is safe to say that both of these ingredients are necessary.

What can movements do today? Firstly, they too can utilize the rivalry between existing power centers. Secondly, and more importantly, they must contribute to the establishment of better - more egalitarian, open and open-minded - alternative places to which the weak can exit. Thirdly, they can do what they have always done – confronting power and protesting. To use “exit” for movements, then, does not mean that the movements themselves should escape from power. It means that they should fight for the establishment of alternative places and power-centers.

Let me end with a bit of criticism. When Amino contrasts the “private” power struggles of the feudal lords to the impartiality and universality of muen, and when he goes on to argue that markets, priests, finance institutions and even magistrates (ibid 173ff) were realizations of this principle, then the difference between muen and the state becomes blurred.  The state too, with its central bureaucracy, claimed to be impartial and above all private interests. A fact to which he will often refer in later works as well was that many muenjo or groups of people associated with muen enjoyed the special protection of the emperor. Muen was thus part of the establishment – the emperor, temples, free cities, finance, the bureaucracy. This is problematic, for how can muen offer any “exit” from this power? Muen may have offered some freedom from feudal or patriarchal power, but their relation to the state appears to have been far more ambiguous. Where would the person who tried to escape from the temples or imperial rule find asylum?

This idea that the muenjo and peoples associated with them enjoyed a special protection by the emperor points to an important, recurring ambiguity in how Amino views imperial power or the Japanese "emperor system" (tennôsei), an ambiguity creating a thrilling, uneasy tension in his work which critics and commentators have loved to discuss. As he himself has stated, some critics even accused him of being an apologist for the emperor system. This accusation is unfair, but to show why is going to require some intricate argumentation which I am not going to delve into here. In future blog entries I will refer to this as Amino's "emperor problem" as a shorthand.

A further point where I believe Amino is unnecessarily vague is in regard to the question of what the crucial element supporting the autonomy of the muenjo really was. Was it the strength of religious sentiment in society or the political, economic and political might of the religious institutions that made secular power respect the muenjo? This question has some important implications. As Amino himself points out, the strength of religious sentiment and the authority of the "sacred" in society appears to have started to dwindle already in the 14th century (with the Nanbokuchô period as a tipping point). The military and economical independence of the temples, however, continued to be vibrant until the late 16th century, when it was crushed by warlords like Nobunaga and his successors. Amino himself often talks as if he believed that the decline of the sentiment of the "sacred" in the 14th century was the decisive watershed, and this also fits in with his thesis that the prestige of outcasts, gamblers and prostitutes - groups associated with muen - started to decline around the same time. However, how are we then to explain phenomena such as the rapid growth of the Ikkô ikki (a popular religious federation of the Pure Land Buddhist faith which actively tried to reach out to groups of low social status such as women or outcasts) during the late middle ages? Examples of outcasts achieving wealth and prestige as late as the 16th century also don't seem to be rare. At least to my untrained eye, it seems that the ability of temples to function as rivalling power-centers to the power of the feudal lords may have been more important in supporting the muenjo than the alleged decline of religious sentiment in the 14th century. Then there is also the evidence quoted by Amino himself: the letters of priviliges granted to temples by sengoku-daimyô (warring states period feudal lords), the fact that the greatest realization of raku came in the form of Nobunaga's "rakuza-rakuichi". I am of course no historian and all I can state here is that I wish Amino would have been clearer about his position in regard to this issue.

There are also other controversial points in his book - for instance his thesis that the idea of muen was a crucial premise for the birth of commercial exchange and capitalism in Japan or his speculations about a primordial muen operating as a universal principle of all human societies - but these I will return to later in connection with my presentation of the debate around his ideas.


Amino, Yoshihiko (1993) Igyô no ôken (The heteromorph monarchy), Tokyo: Heibonsha.

Amino, Yoshihiko (1996) Muen-Kugai-Raku: Nihon chûsei no jiyû to heiwa (Muen, Kugai, Raku: Freedom and Peace in Medieval Japan), Tokyo: Heibonsha.

Amino, Yoshihiko (2001) Nihon chûsei toshi no sekai (The world of medieval Japanese cities), Tokyo: Chikuma shobô.

Nakazawa, Shin’ichi (2004) Boku no ojisan Amino Yoshihiko (My uncle Amino Yoshihiko), Tokyo: Shûeisha shinsho.

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