Thursday, 15 April 2010

Notes on Amino Yoshihiko (1)

One of the most interesting historians in Japan and, I would say, the world for the last decades has been Amino Yoshihiko (1928-2004). A Marxist historian, he has done more than anyone else to transform the face of Marxist historiography in Japan, outflanking established frameworks by introducing new vantage points, concepts, and whole new fields of research.

Famous for his research on marginal groups in medieval society such as outcasts, prostitutes, bandits and pirates, he controversially showed that many of these groups were not simply "outside" society but at the same time linked by relations of protection and mutual support to institutions embodying the sacred, such as temples or the emperor. Demonstrating the importance of sea lanes, trade and regional autonomy throughout the middle ages, he contributed to the "deconstruction" of the idea of a unitary Japanese nation-state based on rice cultivation which had long been dominant among nationalistic as well as Marxist historians. Despite his reluctance to engage in explicit theory, his introduction of new concepts - such as the famous muen - and the sheer force of his empirical material, which throws an entirely new light on phenomena such as Japanese "feudalism" or the emergence of a capitalist market economy, had an enormous stimulating effect on theory. The most drastic break with previous Marxist historiography was perhaps his introduction of the idea of a universal principle of freedom, muen, that had more to do with the sacred of ancient societies than with the comming of communism.

Unfortunately, despite the towering influence of his ideas in Japan, almost nothing of his output has been translated into English - only a few papers, but none of his books.

I plan to let this be the first of a series of entries on Amino and his work. I hope to be able to use them to:

(1) Introduce some of his works to readers unfamiliar with Japanese

(2) Discuss the debate around them and introduce some of his critics.

(3) Show how influential his views have been, not only among historians but also as an inspiration to activists and intellectuals in social movements among young Japanese today.

Unfortunately, I am not a student of history and I have to admit that I have so far read only a tiny fraction of Amino's output (which is said to include 486 published titles). I am still in the process of reading his works, and these notes will therefore by necessity have a preliminary character. They are taken from an ongoing process: please join it and give me a hint!


  1. have you read Yoshihiko's "Nihon to wa nani ka"?

    i can't find the book anywhere

  2. Thanks for the tip! Unfortunately I haven't read it yet. I got it from Amazon last week.


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