Monday, 31 May 2010

Amino Yoshihiko (9): "Igyô no ôken"

Just a few brief notes on Amino's Igyô no ôken (The heteromorph monarchy), a gem-like work from 1986. Especially the first chapters have a wonderfully light touch and capture interest. However, the last chapter – an analysis of Go-Daigo’s ”monarchy” – may be a bit problematic. I won't go into that here, since I’ve already treated Amino’s theses on this in a previous post along with Uesugi Satoshi’s criticism (here).

Igyô as fashion

The highlight of the book is the discussion of the heteromorph (irui igyô, a word connoting the inhuman, abnormal, or extraordinary) as fashion and its stigmatization in late medieval times as the dress of outcasts.

The word ”irui igyô” becomes frequent in the Kamakura period and is at first mostly used about devils (oni), goblins (tengu) or monsters (yôkai). Near the end of the period it starts to be used as a term about human beings (”Irui igyô ni shite yo no tsune ni arazu”). Interestingly, this derogatory term was often applied to people dressed in an outfit originally worn by people close to the sacred, such as pilgrims and yamabushi (mountain hermits and wandering monks).

This outfit could include wearing the forbidden dyed silk (suriginu) clothes, straw hat (minogasa), white headcloth or a veil, and persimmon-colored robes (kaki-katabira), using a long staff or club, and not tying one's hair. Already from the beginning this outfit seemed to have signalled being outside society. Thus the yamabushi were thought to have absorbed the spiritual power of the mountains and were regarded as "sacred beings outside humanity" (”hito naranu sei naru sonzai”) and were often associated with tengu. Bandits (akutô) also adopted the persimmon color to show that they were not bound by the rules of the profane world (Amino 1993:133f).

We can see the persimmon-colored yamabushi outfit on the illustration below, where it is worn by a tengu.

Another part of the "igyô" appearance involved covering one's face (fukumen). This was common among outcasts and beggars, but was by no means limited to them. For instance, it was also a widespread custom to cover one's face when going to pray at a temple, to listen to a sermon, or atttend a biwa-performance. Again this custom had to do with closeness to the sacred. To cover one's face meant to turn oneself into another and temporarily enter a sacred space (ibid 28, 111). Amino shows that it was related to the custom of peeping through one's folding fan or to watch something from behind one's sleeve whenever one happened to witness something out of the ordinary (ibid 104-115). Women also adopted the custom of covering one's face and used it to mix in with men, and it also became popular among bandits and travelling prostitutes (ibid 37, 136).

We can see a person peering through his fan here:

The straw hat too was originally the outfit of wandering monks. The ethnographer Orikuchi Shinobu points out that since ancient times it has been used as a means of disguise and considered part of the dress of gods and marebito (visiting deities). It was also associated with defeated minorities like the hayato or devils (oni). Today, one sees it on the popular figurines of tanuki (racoon dogs) outside restaurants and private houses. As I have already mentioned earlier, the staff or club (saibô) was once used in religious festivities.

The striking thing about these facts is of course that all this way of dressing later became a mark of social discrimination and associated above all with the hinin or outcasts. The process of how this happened is interesting and is a good indicator of the broader social trends during the late mittle ages. Amino shows that during the upheaval of the late Kamakura period, when the irui igyô appearance becomes widespread, and the following Nanbokuchô period, the igyô people apparently did not feel discriminated at all, but on the contrary showed off brazenly or fearlessly in public. It even became a vogue in many classes and strata including many artisans and performers. As we have seen it affected gender relations too, since women began to wear the (male) veil and mixed in with the men.

The hinin appear to have played a pioneering role in disseminating this fashion since they were the first to break the taboos and dress code regulations. Other groups in society quickly followed suit and this developed into the extravagant basara style that flourished during the Nanbokuchô era. As Amino points out, the dissemination of irui igyô was thus a direct reflection of the weakening of the hold of authorities on society. The social and political upheaval was also an upheaval in dress code (ibid 20, 37).

What impresses me most about Amino's analysis of this phenomenon is that he interprets it as an early form of fashion. This is a smart, decisive move which enables him to explain some curious facts, such as for instance how the monklike headcloth could be seen as an expression of the extravagant basara. This also thows light on the fact that so many groups in society - outcats, traders, bankers, artists, performers - dressed in monk-like appearance (zôgyô): it was chosen since an appearance indicating holiness or freedom from social conventions was attractive. Today we have become used to think of the "veil" as an indication of oppression of tight social control, but it medieval Japan it appears that the veil spread in society not because of tightening controls, but on the contrary because controls had broken down. The political chaos meant the liberation of fashion.

The similarity in dress among groups like monks, outcasts, merchants and bandits is also interesting since it probably indicated social proximity as well. The outcasts were still not superated as harshly from the rest of society as they would later be.

However, as political and social order reasserted itself in the Muromachi period and outcast discrimination started in earnest, the dress once considered holy – persimmon robe, straw hat, white head-cloth and deer-staff – became stigmatized as the mark of outcast status (ibid 38, 136-140).

The hidden tradition

Just one more remark. In this work we can also see an interesting feature of Amino’s view of history. History doesn't just consist of the the outwardly visible currents that dominate society in ordinary, well-ordered times. History also consists of a hidden or suberranean revolutionary bank of cultural memory that emerges in upheavals when it is liberated and revived. Thus the culture of irui igyô may have been suppressed in the Muromachi period, but it never perished completely. Even after the medieval epoch it lived on among the common people and was activated at times of rebellions.

Thus Amino shows that it was common for participants in popular uprisings (ikki) to declare themselves outcasts or beggars and to adopt the outfit of such groups - often involving straw hats or white headgear or using the color orange. One famous early instance was the bashaku ikki of 1496, in which people engaging in horse transport rose up against and defeated the invading forces of the feudal lord Saitô Myôjun, going to battle in orange clothes (Amino 1993:126-132; also cf. Katsumata 1982:122-126). This tradition continued in the ikki of the Edo period and surfaced in the Meiji period in the Movement for Freedom and People’s Rights with its slogan of “using the straw hat as shields and hoisting the straw flag [mushirobata, a flag traditionally used in ikki]”. By dressing to a man in the clothes of the discriminated, Amino states, the rebels  expressed the “freedom” of their act and their determination to fight the oppressors (Amino 1993:138f).

Acts of resistance against power - such as breaking a law or decree or defying a superior enemy - often seem to inspire feelings of the sacred. We can recall that acccording to Amino, the dress of the outcasts indicated a leave-taking of the ordinary profane world, a status of "not being of this world". Revolts certainly involve a break with the order of everyday, profane life.

In revolts, then, and in the freedom in which human beings choose to revolt, they re-establish a link to muen, to the realm beyond the reach of secular powers, which in ordinary times is buried and forgotten.


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

Katsumata, Shizuo (1982) Ikki, Tokyo: Iwanami shinsho

Saturday, 29 May 2010


I'm a bit mystified by how Yamauba (Yamamba), the "mountain hag" of Japanese folklore, is portrayed. The Yamauba was feared as a man-eating demon who kidnapped children, preyed on travellers and sometimes deceived them by magic (for instance by taking on the appearance of a young woman).

In -theatre - which I take to indicate how she was imagined in pre-Edo period times - we usually find her with round eyes and slightly reddish color.

During the Edo-period she seems to have been portrayed in two very different ways. Although there are intermediate forms, she either tended to be a witchlike ogre (oni-baba), as on this illustration by Toriyama Sekien (1712-1788):

Or else she is an affectionate and loving mother, as on the paintings below by Utamarô (1753-1806) and Kawanabe Kyôsai (1831-1889). 

The child is Kintarô, a boy of superhuman strength who according to legend was raised by Yamauba in the mountains where he wrestled with bears (note the bear on Kyôsai's painting).

Earlier I wrote that superhuman beings in Japan were often portrayed with round eyes. They were also often associated with the color red (as tengu, oni, Bodhidharma etc). These traits recur in how Yamauba was portrayed in Nô-plays.

Strikingly, however, she looks almost "human" whenever she is portrayed as a mother. Her eyes are narrow and her color is white or pale, just as the color of women on Edo period paintings. The only thing that marks her off as associated with superhuman power is her long and disheveled hair

We also find the Yamauba-as-mother motive in these sweet figurines from the late Edo-period, where even the hair is tied up and her human character even more emphasized:

Kintarô, by contrast, has retained the attributes of the supernatural - round eyes and red color. The result is a striking combination in both the paintings and the figurines of white and red, narrow eyes and round eyes, human appearance and superhuman appearance.

In the motherly figure of Yamauba, we recognize an image of an ideal mother, not so far removed from Kishiboshin, the Buddhist protector of children. I suspect there must have been a tendency in folk belief to fuse Yamauba with Kishiboshin.

The legends about Kishiboshin make this similarity even more striking. For simplicity's sake, let me quote Wikipedia:
Originally, Kishimojin/ Hariti was a cannibalistic demon. She had hundreds of children whom she loved and doted upon, but to feed them, she abducted and killed the children of others. The bereaved mothers of her victims pleaded to Śākyamuni Buddha to save them. Śākyamuni stole Aiji, youngest of Kishimojin's sons, and hid him under his rice bowl. Kishimojin desperately searched for her missing son throughout the universe. Finally, she pleaded with Shakyamuni for help. The Buddha pointed out that she was suffering because she lost one of hundreds of children, and asked if she could imagine the suffering of parents whose only child had been devoured. She replied contritely that their suffering must be many times greater than hers, and vowed to protect all children.
Just like Yamauba, Kishiboshin was once an ogre or demon, but, again like Yamauba, she is depicted in human form as soon as her motherly aspect is foregrounded.

Why are  Yamauba and Kishiboshin "humanized" as soon as they are portrayed as mothers? Probably because it was impossible to portay ideal mothers in any other way. In order to portray them as good mothers they had to be portrayed as human.

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Fox eyes

There is much that puzzles me in Japanese art.

In my last entry I discussed the round eyes of supernatural beings like tengu. Let me show a piece of complicating evidence. Look at these two depictions of Commodore Perry made in the in the aftermath of his arrival to Japan in 1853. As historians like Gregory Smits (see this online lecture) or John Dower (see this online essay) point out, Perry is portrayed as a tengu.

Tengu came in two kinds: either bignosed goblins with glaring eyes or birdlike beings with wings. The "tengu" on top is of the former kind and the one below of the latter kind.

What strikes me is that the depictions show Perry with narrow and slanted eyes rather than the round eyes usually associated with tengu. Neither did Perry "in reality" have very narrow eyes. So why are the eyes narrow?

Interestingly, the portraits show that this time it is narrow eyes, rather than big round ones, that inspire fear. Could it be that these portraits reflect the emergence of a new cultural convention, common today, that associates narrow eyes with evil and round eyes with goodness? That's a tempting hypothesis, but I don't think it holds. Narrow eyes continued to be standard in portrayals of human beings in the Meiji period. Instead, we can note that there is something inhuman and fox-like in Perry's eyes.

Foxes (kitsune) are of course famous as tricksters in Japanese folklore, widely believed to be able to possess human beings, cause madness and conjure up hallucinations. As far as I can tell, foxes have always been portrayed with narrow slanted eyes.

But why do these fox-eyes emerge in the Perry portraits? And how do the narrow, slanted eyes of foxes relate to the round eyes of other beings with supernatural or superhuman powers?  

Clearly, I need to have a closer look at foxes and at how foxes have been thought about.

A hypothesis

Considering that round eyes become "cutified" in the course of the Edo period, could it be that Perry had to be given narrow "fox-eyes" in order to convery the proper sense of dread?

This is an attractive hypothesis.

Let us first look at some corroborating evidence.

First, let’s recall that Perry’s arrival was something extraordinary - the first time Westerners had a major impact on Japanese society. The Dutch in Dejima harbor or the Portuguese missionaries in the 16th century were never portrayed with anything like the same monstrous features, probably because they were never felt as a threat to Japanese society. Despite being referred to as "red-hairs" (kômô), or "southern barbarians" (nanban) the Portuguese and Dutch were surprisingly little exoticized in most pre-modern Japanese illustrations. As Smits writes, "they are clearly 100% human, with no monster-like features".

It is possible, however, to find pictures of foreigners with monster like features, both in the Edo period and in the modern times.

To the left is a detail of picture from around 1830 by Yanagawa Shigenobu. To the right is a wartime cartoon depicting president Roosevelt burning democracy with the torch of dictatorship. Both pictures use big round eyes to convey a sense of monstrosity.

We can note, however, that this "monstrosity" is no longer fearsome. While Yanagawa's picture purports to depict the bed room chamber of "southern barbarians", the male character is reminiscent of a Buddhist guardian god. Yanagawa being famous as a producer of shunga (erotica), his aim may very well have been to surely to suggest, under cover of portraying foreigners, the titillating motif of Buddhist deities engaging in sacrilegious sex. The round eyes, rather than inspiring fear, have become a comical sign of spiritual weakness and depravity.

Roosevelt is depicted as a devil (oni). But note how comical and desperate he looks. The cartoon is clearly not intended to show the allied leader as fearful, but rather as ridiculous.

These examples suggest that round eyes are no longer sufficient if you want to convey a real sense of threat or evil. While round eyes can still be used in illustrations to suggest a likeness to the traditional idea of devils or guardian kings, the beings equipped with such eyes seem to have lost the force to inspire dread. If fact, they've become powerless. The guardian deity is no longer in a reliable guardian against evil and Roosevelt clearly looks as if he's losing the war. The round eyes, then, have become signs of the very opposite of what they once used to signify: power.

So why aren't foxes cutified?
But why choose fox-eyes for the Perry portraits? For some reason, the "cutification" of monsters or other beings close to superhuman or sacred power during the Edo-period doesn't seem to apply to foxes. Why? Is there any discernable reason for the narrow, slanted fox-eyes to have been more dreadful than the big, round eyes of other monsters?

Let me suggest three reasons:

First, there are the inherent traits of foxes in popular imagination which may been hard to "cutify" - their association with deception and night, a time of day for which respect lingers on even in modern societies.

Secondly, one can move outside such inherent traits to search for broader and more general explanations. Superhuman beings of the round-eyes type seem to have been closely linked to Buddhism (think of the old association between Buddhist monks and mountains, tanuki, tengu etc). Foxes too once shared this link through their association with Dakini, but over time they came to be more closely linked to so-called Shintô though the Inari-cult (and through the cult of the mountain god, which which they were also associated). Now the Edo-period was a time when the revival of Shintô began (kokugaku) and Buddhism lost vitality, being institutionalized and ”tamed” by the state. This is probably the most important factor that explains why “round eyes” cease to be feared while foxes continue to be awed as carriers of sacred powers.

Finally, one might add the basic difference between the primary objects of worship in Buddhism and Shintô. As Motoori points out, the kami have nothing to do with good or bad. The only requirement is that they inspire awe. Even today, one finds Japanese who say that they are not afraid of going to Buddhist temples at night, but going to a Shintô shrine is another matter. Buddhas, by contrast, are benevolent, guiding all living beings towards liberation and peace. Even the most fearsome beings in the Buddhist pantheon – like Deva kings and tengu (who came to be regarded as protectors of Buddhism) – ultimately served this aim.

These factors help explain why foxes resisted the trend to the ”cutification” and why round eyes would not have conveyed the proper level of fear on the Perry portraits.

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Big eyes: Cuteness and the domestication of the wild during the Edo period

Just a brief thought. Today in Japan round eyes are considered cute. That's an expression one hears all the time and it is also evident from anime and manga, where likable characters have round eyes and the baddies have narrow eyes. But when did this positive view of round eyes start?

If we look at premodern Japan, we find round eyes in depictions of devils (oni), goblins (tengu), Deva kings (niô), hannya-demons, animals such as tigers and lions, and warriors in battle. Round eyes seem to have been regarded as something terrifying and perhaps related to the supernatural.

These round eyes do not seem to be just a sign of agitation. Supernatural beings (yôkai) usually have the same round eyes even when they are relaxed and at ease. To the right is Itô Jakuchû's famous Tsukumogami-zu (painting of spirits inhabiting things one has used for a long time) from the 18th century.

Or take the Hyakki yagyô-zu (Pandemonium painting) below, which is from the Muromachi period:

By contrast, everyone who's ever seen a -mask or ukiyoe-print knows that ordinary people were usually depicted with narrow eyes. Benevolent deities (think of Ebisu or Daikoku) or buddhas also usually have narrow eyes. When did things change?

First lets consider what may look as an anomaly: depictions of Bodhidharma (Daruma-san). As far as I know, Bodhidharma has always been depicted with big round eyes in Japan. Many who are familiar with the popular Daruma-san dolls would object to what I've just written by pointing out that these dolls are often very cute. But when did they become cute? Might it not be a very late phenomenon? Let us have a look at some earlier depictions of Bodhidharma.

To the left is Sesshû's from the mid Muromachi period (1333-1573), to the right is Hakuin's from the early Edo period (1600-1868):

The portraits seem very different. Only in the later one is there anything resembling what we today would call cuteness (a subjective judgment of course). Wouldn't it be possible to say that originally, the round eyes of Bodhidharma signified not cuteness at all but rather a closeness to terrifying supernatural forces, similar to what we find in depictions of dragons and so on? That would fit the well-known gruesome anecdotes about him - tearing away his eyelids to stay awake during meditation, meditating until his legs fell off, and so on.

Itô Jakuchû (1716-1800) is to me a painter who has played an enormous role in the development of "cuteness" in art. Sharon Kinsella and others usually date the start of "cute" to the late 60's or 70's, but as Itô's paintings how this sensitivity goes back much further in time. Take this frog for instance!

If we look at one of his contemporaries, Takeda Shunshin (Baiôken Eishun), we find a painting of Bodhidharma together with a prostitute. The round eyes are cute rather than fearsome or uncanny. If anything, it is the prostitute, smiling and towering over him, who looks superior.  Recall that cuteness is a sign of the lack of power, of defence. Is this where we see the beginning of Bodhidharma's transformation into a cute mascot? Whether by coincidence or not, the popularity of the Daruma-san dolls also dates from this period (the latter half of the 18th century).

So, something happens in the Edo period. Perhaps this is when round eyes start to appear cute?

This is corroborated by the example of the tanuki (raccoon dog), a classical trickster and evil-doer in Japanese folktales. The tanuki too is usually (but not always) depicted with big round eyes. Most people who've been in Japan are familiar with this comical-looking figure with the big belly who greets visitors at the entrance of restaurants or private homes. This "cute" tanuki, however, seems to have been an invention of the Edo period. In folk tales from the middle ages, like Kachikachi-yama, the tanuki is depicted as gruesome and man-eating. Just like "Daruma-san", then, the tanuki developed from a feared into a cute character, and it seems to have happened during the Edo period.

Incidentally, people of the Edo-period felt that there was a similarity between Daruma-san and the tanuki. There's a woodblock print by Kuniyoshi (1797-1861) showing a tanuki being dressed up as a Daruma-san by a gang of other tanuki. This motive also seems popular today (as in the ceramic figure above).

The kappa is a similar case. This originally Chinese river deity (hébó, pronounced kahaku in Japanese) was imported to Japan in the 6th or 7th century. At that time it was fearsome enough to be thought to demand court sacrifices. Today, however, it is pictured as a rather cute, green and childlike being with turtleshell, a bowl on its head, and round eyes. When did the change take place? The Edo-period.

But why did round eyes become regarded as cute? That's anybody's guess, but the process is probably related to the domestication of nature. Remember that big round eyes were once associated with animals, with the "wild", with terrifying inhuman powers. As mountains and forests became viewed less and less as a threat during the Edo period, its inhabitants too - like the tanuki, but also hermits and "mountain priests" (yamabushi) - started to be regarded as harmless or inferior to the inhabitants of settled society, as cute and defenseless rather than fearsome. That would explain the "cutification" of tanuki as well as of Daruma-san. Probably, it's no coincidence that it's in the Edo period that we see the appearance of "cute" Zen monks like Ryôkan, famous for having loved to play games with children. So in that sense, the "cute" eyes of manga characters today reflect the domesticated forces of the wild!


Addendum 1: How about ghosts?

But wait a minute, if big round eyes were once a sign of closeness to the supernatural, then how come ghosts in the meaning of spirit of dead people (yûrei) usually never have round eyes despite their uncanniness? Here's a ghost from the Muromachi period (from the Eikokuji temple):

So how should we account for the narrow eyes of ghosts? Look at this post (and the follow-up here) for a discussion of how to solve this riddle!

Addendum 2: The word "maru"

Speaking about the cutification of round things, let me mention one more instance - the word "maru" (round). It's well known that many ships in Japan have names that end with "maru". The first example of this in the sources is from 1187, so the explanation that this has to do with the Portuguese mare (sea) falls. "Maru" was also a common postfix in children's names. Research based on Edo-period sources has shown that  "maru" was also used in the names os swords, helmets, armours and musical instruments. Amino Yoshihiko rejects the interpretation that such things were favorite or beloved objects. Instead he argues that "maru" was used for things not quite belonging to the human world or that were thought to possess magical or supernatural powers. In medieval times it was used in the names of hômen, former convicts employed as executioners who were regarded as outcasts and who probably wore a hairstyle similar to that of children (kiyome-maru was a name used for them as a group). Children were considered close to the sacred, as seen in the proverb that children belonged to the world of the gods until the age of seven, and were believed to possess superhuman abilities that helped them control animals (Incidentally, I wonder if this might not be the reason why some of them used "hôshi", Buddhist priest, as a postfix in their names, like Oda Nobunaga whose child-name was Kichibôshi). Musical instruments were used to call forth gods and hence were considered sacred or magical. Ships, swords - here I recall the "Onimaru" in Taiheiki or the "Azamaru" mentioned in Shinchô kôki - and other pieces of warrior equipment were things to which one entrusted one's life or that were used in extreme or liminal situations. Although "maru" may have come to indicate cuteness in the Edo period, originally it would have evoked feelings of dread or awe (Amino, Chûsei no yûjo to hinin, Tokyo: Kôdansha 2005:97-102). By the way, does anyone recall the robber Tajômaru in Yabu no naka? This explains why this decidedly un-childish figure has a child-name.


Sunday, 23 May 2010

Amino Yoshihiko (8): Uesugi Satoshi's criticism

Amino’s theses on the origin of discrimination of outcasts have been challenged by other historians, notably Uesugi Satoshi who devotes a long chapter of his 2008 work Tennôsei to buraku sabetsu (The emperor system and the discrimination of buraku) to a criticism of Amino.

Like Amino, Uesugi argues that the discrimination of outcasts was rooted in medieval society, a position that has become widely accepted today. Where they disagree is how to judge the situation of outcasts in the early middle ages. We have seen that to Amino the 14th century was a watershed marked by the retreat of the sacred, a process which he argues was a crucial cause of the fall in the outcasts’ social status. Uesugi by contrast argues that discrimination is evident as early as in the 10th century and that the outcasts at that time therefore cannot have been regarded as associated with the ”sacred” as Amino claims.

Let me summarize Uesugi’s criticism. Among Amino’s works, he is especially dismissive of the popular Nihon shakai to tennôsei and its thesis that Go-Daigo’s defeat was a turning-point that transformed the hinin from being awed or respected as ”sacred” to being despised as ”polluted” or ”defiled”. To Uesugi, this theory ”exculpates the emperor” since it makes the outcasts’ hope for liberation rest with a victory for Go-Daigo. To Uesugi, such a position is perverse since it overlooks that the outcasts were discriminated during the early middle ages as well, and that this discrimination had its roots in the very emperor system which Go-Daigo tried to resurrect (Uesugi 2008:245-250, 272).

When, according to Uesugi, does outcaste discrimination start? The Chiribukuro from 1280 is an important document, famous for being the first text where the derogatory appelation ”eta” (a word for the outcasts that literally means "much defilement") appears. Discrimination, however, probably started much earlier. Another passage in the Chiribukuro states that the words ”rôsô” and ”tosha” correspond to ”hinin” and ”eta”. Now, ”rôsô” and ”tosha” appear already in the Engishiki from 927, where they refer to groups of people who are ordered away from the triangular river bank south of Shimogamo Shrine where the Kamo river is joined by the Takase River (see the photo below). The words appears to have referred to monks or people who had adopted the appearance of monks or people who killed animals for a living. The reason for their expulsion was the centrality of ”purity” for the Shimogamo Shrine, which was the imperial family's ubugami and protector of the imperial palace. That evictions and exclusions in the name of ”purity” occurred already in the 10th century is thus a fact, although Uesugi acknowledges that it is uncertain whether these groups yet constituted an identifiable ”outcaste” group or if they ceased being discriminated as soon as they left the river bank (Uesugi 1997:190-193, 2008:44-51).

Uesugi then goes on to challenge the views on the subject of outcaste discrimination in Amino’s later writings, where, Uesugi states, Amino has changed stance. Thus in Nihon no rekishi o yominaosu, a work from 1991, Amino writes:
Around the 10th century and great change starts to occur in the relation between humans and natue. In tandem with the so-called ”civilization” of society, the dread of ”pollution” [kegare] retreats to the background, and shifts instead into something close to our view of ”faeces”, to our modern commonsensical view that things that are dirty or filthy must be avoided (quoted in Uesugi 2008:251)
Here the thesis that Go-Daigo’s failure brought about increasing discrimination has disappeared. No reference is made to any abrupt ”reversal” from awe to contempt in the 14th century. Instead, Amino explaines the increasing discrimination of hinin in the late middle ages by referring to a long term process of ”civilization” which starts already in the 10th century. In particular, the weakening of the dread or awe associated with ”pollution” meant that the hinin ceased to be respected for their superhuman powers. As Uesugi, points out, a clear change has thus taken place: Amino no longer believes that the discrimination of outcasts is rooted in the belief that they were ”polluted”, but on the contrary that discrimination sets in because such beliefs had weakened (ibid 252).

Uesugi believes that this new stance – which he claims Amino adopts under the influence of the research of Yamamoto Kôji – is partly correct. That the discrimination of the outcastes did not necessarily rest on any belief in ”pollution” becomes evident in the Edo period, when heredity and juridical status are far more important in deciding a person’s status than whether or not his or her occupation involved contact with death or other forms of ”pollution”. Again, however, Uesugi disagrees with Amino’s lingering tendency to portray the 14th century as a watershed. The belief in ”pollution”, he argues, was weakened already in the Heian period, although it was bolstered ideologically to strengthen imperial authority and to support native kami worship in the face of its rival Buddhism, something which in turn help trigger the emergence of discrimination (ibid 256).

An interesting question here is, if the discrimination of outcasts didn’t rest on pollution, then on what did it rest? Unlike in the Edo-period, when discrimination became hereditary and officially enforced, in medieval society discrimination had no juridical backing and neither had it anything to do with descent. Instead it stemmed, Uesugi suggests, partly from the state’s political use of the ideology of purity and partly from the simple and totally non-religious revulsion people felt at the ”cruelty” and ”killing” that many outcasts were engaged in because of their occupations, for instance by slaughtering animals and selling the meat or producing leather or serving as executioners (ibid 268f). He refers to a famous illustration in the Tengu zôshi (late 13th century) of a young man referred to as eta who is seen killing a bird on the Kamo riverbank next to a piece of leather put out for drying on the river-bank

As mentioned, Uesugi disagrees with Amino’s portrayal of the hinin of the early middle ages as ”sacred”. Uesugi argues that no sources support such an interpretation. Some outcasts may have been directly subordinated to the emperor, but that didn’t mean that they weren’t discriminated. He then goes on to demolish three of Amino’s proofs, turning first to the expression inu-jinin. Uesugi rejects the idea that the inu-jinin had the same ”sacred” status as other jinin (”god-people”, traders and artisans in the sevice of Shinto shrines), and argues that the fact that they were called inu (dog) instead signalled discrimination (ibid 259). Next he turns to Amino’s ”misreading” of a passage from Tengu zôshi, in which the ”gut cutting of the much polluted” is cited in a list of things feared by the tengu (goblins) together with for instance Buddhist spells. Uesugi argues that this list is no proof of the sacrality of outcasts, since the full list also includes other things, such as rusty swords, that can hardly have been regarded as sacred (ibid 260f). Thirdly, Uesugi scrutinizes the source used by Amino to claim that the hinin felt ”pride” in their occupation as ”purifyers” or ”removers of defilement” (kiyome), a letter from the early 13th century in which the hinin of Narazaka refer to the dignity and importance of their task as ”purifyers” of the head temple. However, Uesugi points out that this letter was a complaint lodged against the Kiyomizuzaka hinin. Far from stating any general pride in their profession as such, the letter only expresses the superiority felt by the hinin of the ”head temple”, the Kôfukuji in Nara, over the hinin of a subordinated temple, the Kiyomizu (ibid 262f).

To further show that hinin were discriminated already at this time, Uesugi quotes a story from the Ima monogatari, also from the early 13th century, in which a court archivist sees a beautiful woman a moonlit night. Rejecting his advances, she disappears into a house belonging to a ”purifying” family on the riverbank, telling him in a short poem that they can’t meet since she is like a river plant, the flower and leafs floating on the surface but its roots tying it to the river bed. Here, Uesugi writes, is a document that shows how stigmatized the outcastes were aleady in the early Kamakura period.

Uesugi does concede, however, that the lingering importance of the belief in ”pollution” helped confer respect on the occupation of the hinin as ”purifyer” in the early middle ages. But although the occupation was respected, the hinin were despised as persons because of their ”cruelty” and the ”killing” they engaged, for instance by slaughtering animals and selling the meat or producing leather (ibid 268f). In other words, in the early middle ages their work was still respected as important since it removed ”pollution”, while in later times, when belief in ”pollution” had weakened, they were simply reviled tout court because of their cruelty.

My comments

So what do I think after Uesugi's salvoe? Let me add three comments.

Did Amino exculpate the emperor?

I don’t think Amino exculpates the emperor. Uesugi overlooks that Amino didn’t glorify Go-Daigo, but saw him as a "Hitler-like" forerunner of today’s right extremists. Neither does he exculpate the emperor-system as such. No matter what utopian hopes may have crystallized in the Kemnu Restoration, he clearly presents it as an aberration (a ”heteromorph monarchy”) and thus in no way representative of the Japanese emperor system as a whole.

On a deeper level, one can of course argue that the very idea of the outcasts depending on the emperor for their social status amounts to a partial side-taking with the former. Here we touch on a controversial problem in Amino, that of the close links between emperor and "non-agriculturalists". This is not a problem I can treat fully here since it concerns a much longer period than the Kemmu-Nanbokuchô period. However, if we look at the latter period, the problem can be formulated as the problem of whether the defeat of Go-Daigo was really decisive in bringing about the shift towards increasing discrimination or if there were also other processes at work which had nothing to do with that defeat. Let us know look at this problem.

Was the Nanbokuchô period a decisive turning point?

In texts from the late 80's - such as Nihon shakai to tennôsei or the articles collected in Igyô no ôken or Chûsei no yûjo to hinin - Amino often states that Go-Daigo's failure and the following Nanbokuchô period constituted a "decisive turning point" in the shift towards discrimination. For instance, in a text from 1988 he writes: "I am sometimes criticized by people who ask if I am really asserting that Go-Daigo’s defeat caused the discrimination of the hinin. But it is a fact that the weakening of the power of emperor and ’gods and buddhas" was the flip side of the stabilization of discrimination of the hinin is a fact” (Amino 2007: 421). In an earlier text from the late 70's, he even writes that ”absolutely no systematic discrimination appears against the hinin in the Kamakura period” (Amino 2005:44),

Against such drastic statements, Uesugi's criticism seems warranted. However, in view of what Amino writes in other texts I believe it would be grossly simplifying to claim that he sees the increasing discrimination as caused only by Go-Daigo or by the defeat of the bandits.

Uesugi's statement that Amino shifted towards a “new” explanation in terms of a retreat of the sacred and a new relationship to nature in his later works appears wholly wrong to me. That explanation is in fact not new at all, but is presented already in Môko shûrai, a work published long before Nihon shakai to tennôsei. As Amino himself states in Môko shûrai, Go-Daigo and the bandits only effected a final but ultimately fruitless counterattack on the long-term trend to increasing discrimination. The narrative about Go-Daigo is thus placed squarely within the framework of larger historical processes such as the development of commerce and the victory of ”civilization”. In my view these processes also form the implicit framework within which the narrative unfolded in Nihon shakai to tennôsei and Igyô no ôken should be seen.

Admittedly, there is a problematic passage in Igyô no ôken where Amino appears to reject or revise the framework developed in Môko shûrai. After asserting that the Nanbokuchô upheaval - when imperial power fell and with it the prestige of the established religious institutions, the jinin, the kugonin and the outcasts - constituted a ”decisive turning-point” that caused a great transformation in Japanese history, he adds that this was what he had earlier tried to express with the ”immature expression” of a turn from primitivity to civilization (Amino 1993:242). Here Amino reinterprets his old framework and drastically contracts the entire ”civilization” process to the ”turning point” of the Nanbokuchô.

However, a careful reading of Igyô no ôken and other works of the same period shows that he can hardly have believed this contraction to be tenable himself. Look for instance at the attention he pays in these works to the economic development in the late Kamakura period, which leads to an increasing competition for the status of jinin or kugonin and to monks becoming even more heavily engaged in finance, trade and industry, thus setting processes afoot that, as he writes, will ultimately "shatter the framework of the jinin-kugonin system” (ibid 2007b 426). Here Amino is clearly implying that the erosion of the "sacred" and the onset of discrimination also depended on forces antedating Go-Daigo, such as the developing monetary economy. This fits in with the fact, which he also points out in several of his works, that early forms of discrimination indeed seem to set in already by the late Kamakura period (when terms like eta start to appear in works like Tengu zôshi).

Strikingly, if we look at the essays in Nihon chûsei no hinin to yûjo, many of them written at exactly the same time as Nihon shakai to tennôsei or Igyô no ôken, the idea of discrimination being triggered by Go-Daigo’s failure and the ensuing respect for the sacred is absent or downplayed. In some texts it is not even mentioned and even in the others it is never the main explanation of discrimination. Instead he relies on a bundle of factors, such as the increasing mastery over nature, the ongoing internal social differentiation of the artisan stratum, tightening state controls, the further suffusion of the belief in ”pollution” in society and above all the increasing hegemony of the values of the settled, agricultural population which leads to contempt for itinerant peoples like the outcasts, entertainers, traders, gamblers and prostitutes (Amino 2005:44f, 48f, 116). Neither does he refer to Go-Daigo in explaining the increasing discrimination of women and prostitutes, but to Buddhism and the spread of patriarchal values (ibid 239ff). In the final concluding chapter, Amino summarizes these factors as manifestations of an ongoing ”civilization” process. Go-Daigo is but briefly mentioned and he seems to put more emphasis on how the development towards a monetary economy undermines the prestige of magic and the sacred (ibid 272-278)

Without really clarifying it, then, Amino is in fact using at least two major and quite separate explanations of the turn towards increasing discrimination – broad socio-economic processes on the one hand and Go-Daigo’s defeat on the other. He thus cannot possible have thought the latter to be the sole explanation. As Uesugi points out, Amino seems to change his explanation in later works, playing down the role of Go-Daigo and putting more emphasis on the increasing mastery over nature and the increasing weight in society of money and military might as factors behind the erosion of the sacred. However, what happens is not that Amino shifts towards an idea of a long term "civilizational" process, for that idea has been present in his writings all along. What fluctuated was merely the weight of the role he accorded Go-Daigo and the Nanbokuchô upheaval, a weight that culminates in the works of the late 80s and early 90s.

Were the outcasts of the early middle ages regarded as sacred?

Uesugi's criticism that there is no evidence proving that the hinin were considered ”sacred” even in the early middle ages may be valid, but basically I think that what Amino wanted to convey was exactly what Uesugi says: namely that the hinin were in some measure respected for their work during the early middle ages and that this had to do with their power to remove ”pollution”. This view indicates that Uesugi too sees some form of turning point separating the early and late middle ages. Unlike Amino, however, I cannot see that Uesugi anywhere tries to explain that turning point. Besides, I am unsure of what to make of Uesugi’s claim that the belief in ”pollution” lost force already in the Heian period. For instance, he himself claims that the rôsô and tosha were evicted from the Kamo riverbed because they were considered ”polluted”, meaning that the belief in pollution obviously had some social efficacy.

As for the interpretations of the source material quoted by Amino and Uesugi, I am unable to offer a judgment. For a fairer judgment concerning one of the pieces of evidence, however, let us have closer look at Amino's interpretation of the Tengu zôshi and the bird-flaying "eta" boy. The Tengu zôshi is an attack on religious degeneration in the form of the dancing Nenbutsu practitioners and wandering Zen monks, which puts the blame for this degeneration and confusion on the malicious workings of tengu, supernatural beings depicted as kite-like goblins capable of flying through the air. That the tengu are depicted as kites is of crucial significance in interpreting the "eta" boy, who is depicted wringing the neck of a kite and plucking its feathers. Amino then quotes the list of things that the tengu are said to fear, which includes rusty swords, Shingon Buddhist magical practices and "liver-cutting eta". That the tengu are depicted as fearful of having the liver torn out by the gruesome eta, Amino asserts, demonstrates the awe people felt for the latter, who were ”directlyly subordinated to gods and buddhas”. He adds, however, that the text is ambivalent since this respect is already accompanied by the discriminatory word ”eta” (Amino 2000:199ff). Without making any judgments on the correctness of this interpretation, we can note two things. Firstly, unlike what Uesugi implies, Amino quotes the list in full without hiding any items. Secondly, Amino clearly states that outcasts had already begun to be discriminated in the 13th century, before Go-Daigo. Clearly, he cannot have viewed Go-Daigo as the sole precipitator of the "shift from sacrality to discrimination".

Uesugi, then, seems right in insisting that discrimination existed before Go-Daigo, but that is hardly a fact which Amino disagrees with. The question remains how the outcasts were viewed in the early middle ages. That discrimination was not as harsh as it would later be seems like a reasonable guess. Whether or not they were regarded as sacred or close to the sacred (and in that case, "sacred" in what sense) seems more difficult to ascertain. I would like to add, however, that Uesugi fails to address a fact that reinforces the impression that at least some hinin may have been considered holy: namely that some of them were wondering monks or beggar-monks – for instance, the rôsô, whom Uesugi himself refers to as being driven away from the Kamo river bank. In addition, we have seen that many took monk names and adopted the appearance of monks, and that much indicates that were associated in the popular mind with other groups linked to the sacred (children, wandering monks, mythical creatures).

Finally, Uesugi does not adress one of the most striking arguments used by Amino to show that the hinin were not yet subject to any particularly harsh discrimination during the early middle ages, namely that rather than forming a distinct group separated from the ”rest” of society” they were part of a much broader social milieu of ”non-agriculturalists” and ”artisans” within which borders between different occupations were fluid and where there was much social mobility. Uesugi does state that he believes that the inu-jinin were not considered the equals of other jinin, but the passage is brief and I would have liked to see a fuller discussion of that point.

A solution?

I am no historian and have no access to sources. What I will do here is simply to try to arrange the arguments of Amino and Uesugi so that they will make the most sense, somewhat like pieces of a zigsaw puzzle.

The problems of whether Nanbokuchô constituted a turningpoint or not and whether the hinin of the early middle ages were discriminated or considered sacred are of course related, but that doesn't mean that they can be conflated. They are clearly two different problems. We can see that Amino and Uesugi agree on the prevalence of discrimination in the late middle ages. The problem, then, is how to evaluate the early middle ages (the Kamakura period) and, on the basis of that, how to judge the importance of the Nanbokuchô "turningpoint".

Statements that Amino make to the effect that discrimination hardly existed in the Kamakura period or that it depended solely on Go-Daigo's defeat seem untenable. The fact that Amino also advances economic transformations and the idea of a changed relationship to nature as additional explanations proves that he knew this very well himself.

In fact, if we look at how Amino portrays the hinin of the Kamakura period, the picture is very ambiguous. He certainly stresses their "sacred" prestige as "purifiers", their position as "artisans" with a status similar to that of other jinin and kugonin, and the ebullient self-confidence they sometimes  expressed which contrasts with the submissiveness of the Edo period outcasts. On the other hand, beggars formed an important part of their ranks and the hinin as such seems to have developed at least in part from destitute people who had previously in the Heian period received aid from the state in institutions like the Hiden'in - people like the sick, lepers, orphans and former criminals - but who with worsening state finances were either left to make a living on their own or recruited for public works such as taking care of the dead, performing executions or serving as a low-ranking policeforce. Even though they may not have been systematically discriminated, their social status was clearly not high.

Amino's own books contain much material documenting that some form of discrimination had already begun in the Kamakura period. Look for instance at the many hinin and beggars depicted in the Ippen hijiri-e, a famous picture scroll from the late Kamakura period which shows the life of the monk Ippen (1239-1289) and which is remarkable for the many hinin and outcasts it depicts (analyzed at length in Amino 2005:102-116).

While the pictures do show that many outcasts gathered around Ippen, they also often show hinin grouped together with beggars. Amino points out that the message of this picture scroll must have been that Ippen promised salvation even to the outcasts and beggars (Amino 2005:115). This interpretation only makes sense if we presume that those groups were also among the most despised in society. In passing, the same can be said about Shinran's famous statement that the "bad" are closer to salvation than the good - such as statement is no indication of the high regard people held for the "bad" but must rather be understood as a paradoxical statement aimed at shocking its audience by claiming that precisely the most despised were close to salvation. This means, I think, that the outcasts must already have been discriminated in the mid-Kamakura period when Ippen lived.

In his analysis, Amino contrasts the message of Ippen hijiri-e to the naked contempt expressed in another illustration from the same time, the picture of the young eta boy in the Tengu zôshi mentioned above (ibid). While these two illustrations certainly express diametrically opposed attitudes to the outcasts, they both express the fact that discrimination had already started in the mid-Kamakura period. It is precisely agains the background of the discrimination against people like the young boy that Ippen's activities make sense.

That risshû monks like Eizon (1201-1290) and Ninshô (1217-1303) also started to engage in the "salvation" (kyûsai) of the hinin, along with that of beggars and lepers, and the poor, old and desolate around the same time also indicates that the hinin were a group felt to be in need of "support". Such "salvation" consisted for example of taking care of the hungry and distributing food, and was thus not only a religious propagating of faith. Perhaps we could compare with the "support" activities directed a homeless peoples today? The presence of such support activities could well be taken as an indication of increasing discrimination, of a low social position calling forth contempt in some but compassion in others.

To claim that discrimination started only after the Kamakura period thus seems untenable. But this doesn't mean that the outcasts of that period were only discriminated or that they were discriminated in the same way as in the late middle ages. The solution, I think, must be to think of the Kamakura period as one in which discrimination co-existed with a measure of respect in the eyes of the surrounding society, and with self-respect on the part of the outcasts themselves. What changes in the course of the middle ages - perhaps around the time of Ippen, Eizon and Ninshô - is not that discrimination starts, but that it ceases to be accompanied with respect. Insead of respect, the outcasts now start to inspire contempt or pity. This, perhaps, could be compromise with which both Amino and Uesugi would be comfortable.

We can see a similar mixture of respect and contempt in regard to many groups in society such as yoseba-workers in postwar Japan. As Aoki Hideo (2006) points out, the yoseba culture was until recently a universe characterized by a fierce tension between the two poles of "pride" and "misery". The mixture of fear and contempt can also be seen in the bandits or outlaws (akutô) with whom Amino compares them, or why not the yakuza in modern Japan or the car-burning migrant youth in today's Europe?


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

Amino, Yoshihiko (2000) ‘Nihon’ to wa nani ka (What is ‘Japan’?), Tokyo: Kôdansha.

Amino, Yoshihiko (2005) Chûsei no yûjo to hinin (Medieval prostitutes and outcasts), Tokyo: Kôdansha.

Amino, Yoshihiko (2007) “Kyôkai ni ikiru hitobito – seibetsu kara senshi e” (People living in the margins: from sanctification to discrimination), pp 397-422, in Amino Yoshihiko chosakushî, Vol. 12: Muen Kugai Raku, Tokyo: Iwanami shoten.

Aoki, Hideo (2006) Japan’s Underclass: Day Laborers and the Homeless (tr. by Teresa Castelvetere of Gendai Nihon no toshi kasô: yoseba to nojukusha to gaikokujin rôdôsha), Melbourne: Trans Pacific Press.

Uesugi, Satoshi (1997) Burakushi ga wakaru (Understanding the history of buraku), Tokyo: San’ichishobô.

Uesugi, Satoshi (2008) Tennôsei to buraku sabetsu – Kenryoku to kegare (The emperor system and the discrimination of buraku: power and defilement), Tokyo: Kaihô shuppansha.

Amino Yoshihiko (7): Go-Daigo, outcasts and prostitutes

Let's turn to Amino's views on the origin of the discrimination of outcasts (today known as burakumin) in Japan. I will focus primarily on a popular booklet – Nihon shakai to tennôsei (1988). This is a thin but influential tract about the relation between the emperor system and discriminated groups such as outcasts and prostitutes, and the role played by the upheaval unleashed by emperor Go-Daigo’s (1288-1339) attempt to restore imperial power. I will also refer to Igyô no ôken (1986) and Chûsei no yûjo to hinin (1994) which deal with similar subjects.

Before starting, let me point out two baisc and important moves that Amino makes:

1) He shows that discrimination is rooted not in the status society of the Edo-period or the policies of Hideyoshi, but in processes at work in medieval society and ultimately in the establishment of centralized imperial power through the ritsuryô-state in the 7th century.

2) He shows that what happened must be understood against the background of larger social developments affecting the balance of agriculturalists and non-agriculturalists as a whole. The increasing discrimination of the late middle ages didn’t just affect the groups which we today think of as “outcasts”, but also a whole series of other groups such as prostitutes, bandits, gamblers, itinerant monks and performers.

These are preparatory moves for Amino’s central and most controversial claim, namely that the outcasts were not only feared but also respected and that they even felt pride in their social position during much of the early middle ages. According to Amino, the crucial shift towards a one-sidedly negative view of the outcasts only took place in the latter half of the middle ages, with Go-Daigo’s failed restoration of imperial power as a crucial watershed. In this entry, I follow up my discussion here by looking at the criticism leveled at this thesis by the historian Uesugi Satoshi.

Part 1: Background

The outcasts

The reason that the outcasts were concentrated in Western Japan, especially around the capital region, was their link to the imperial court. This can be seen in the earliest form of outcasts mentioned in the sources, the so-called senmin (”base people”), many of whom belonged to the court and were charged with tasks such as taking care of the sick, burying corpses or guarding imperial burial mounds. In an account much influenced by Amino, Ohnuki-Thierney describes these groups as ”religious specialists” and claims that they had an important role as mediators between gods and humans. One example was the shaman-like asobi-be, who sang funeral songs and played music at funerals (Ohnuki-Thierney 1987:79f). As specialists in ”purification” (kiyome) these groups were indispensible to the court, the nobility and the great religious institutions for whom the removal of ”pollution” or "defilement" (kegare) – the ritual impurity associated with death and bodily fluids – was considered a necessity. However, with the weakening of imperial power and the court’s increasing financial problems in the course of the Heian period, these groups were released from court servitude.

The medieval hinin (non-human) had no direct links to the senmin of the ancient state except for the fact that they both engaged in occupations related to “pollution" (kegare). Unlike the senmin, who were usually tied to the court or various other masters in a slave-like position, the hinin were free and considered to live outside settled society.Although senmin and hinin were distinct as groups, there was a continuity in society's need for a category of people that could be charged with the task of managing "defilement".

The first traces of the emergence of the hinin as a group, according to Amino, can be seen among the inmates of the Hiden'in, a public institution located on the Kamo riverbank in Kyoto that was established to take care of the desolate, the sick and orphans, and which later turned into a temple (albeit a very special one, not only functioning as an asylum for run-away criminals but also as a place for executions and burials). Originally, the inmates of Hiden'in were not singled out as a special group (the orphans, for instance, would be adopted into ordinary families as they grew up and bore no stigma), but the institution as such seems to have been entrusted with "purifying" activities at least from the 9th century. In 842, inmates were ordered to clean up the sculls on the Kamo riverbed and burn them (recall that riverbeds in ancient Japan were used as burial places). Later the same century, they were ordered to patrol the streets and bring the sick and the orphans to Hiden’in. With the weakening and dissolution of the ancient state, the state was no longer able to maintain the running of the institution, and the sick and orphans were left to survive through begging and gradually they would be regarded as hinin. The same process occurred in the case of prisons, with convicts and hômen joining the ranks of the beggars and sick. These were also joined by beggar monks (ichi-hijiri or kawa-hijiri) who chose to leave society out of their own volition (Amino 2005:34-37, 70-84, 136). It is about these groups that the word hinin is used, when around the year 1100 it starts to be used about humans for the first time – earlier it had been a term for dragons, animals and other non-human followers of the Buddha.

In medieval Japan the word hinin thus had a broad range of connotations and gradually came to include a great variety of groups such as the sick, orphans, handlers of corpses, executioners, slaughterers, falconers, leather workers, healers, diviners, a variety of entertainers and artists, and mendicant monks. An important part of the outcasts was still comprised by ”purifiers" and "religious specialists".  As Amino points out, purification was itself a vague concept which could include a lot of things, such as ritual purification rites used when building houses. Even the use of music and other arts (geinô) were considered a way of purifying the world. That monks and children too were sometimes included in the hinin-category isn't strange. As we have seen, children too were considered close to the world of the gods, and children, monks and outcasts often had remarkably similar dress.

Amino emphasizes that hinin was not a negative or derogatory term during the early middle ages, despite its literal meaning ”non-human”. It had connotations of persons with superhuman ability capable of protecting Buddhism. Many hinin were affiliated to temples or shrines, calling themselves ”servants of gods and buddhas”, performing purification rites and leading the festival processions in the Kamo- and Gion-festivals in Kyoto. To attack them meant to invite divine punishment. Even though they also included beggars, they seem to have felt pride in their profession as ”purifiers” and in some texts they are mentioned with what seems to be respect.
To look at the medieval hinin as crushed by misfortunes and making their living solely by begging for alms is a great misunderstanding. Just recall the hinin appearing on the pages of Konjaku monogatari [collection of stories assembled after 1120] - former convicts (hômen) attempting robbery, beggars living in palatial mansions, or beggars assaulting women on mountain roads. Of course, they also included desolate, sick and poor people, but we shouldn't forget that as a whole the hinin still appear to have led free and independent lives, capable of warmly welcoming monks that had renounced the world while at the same time possessing a fierce vital force that sometimes made them appear cruel and depraved in the eyes of others. (Amino 2005:37)
Against historians like Kuroda Hideo, who had argued that the hinin were outside the medieval status-system (”mibungai no mibun”), Amino tries to show that they were part of the broad stratum of artisans (Amino 2005:31f, 41ff). He asserts that “nothing distinguished them from the jinin and kugonin” (ibid 2001a:146ff; jinin and kugonin were artisans or traders serving a shrine or the emperor). Like other artisans, they were organized in guilds (shuku) and liberated from taxes. Just like the kugonin, they were servants of the emperor, usually subordinated to the police (kebiishi). Sometimes they would be mobilized as armed troups or auxillary police forces by the court or the shrines. (ibid 1988:33f, 2001b:122-126, 2001a:487). One famous such episode is recounted in Heike monogatari. As Kiso Yoshinaka attacked the retired emperor Go-Shirakawa’s residence in 1183 his forces were met by ”rock throwers, young street loafers, and mendicants in monkish garb” (mukae tsubute, inji, iu kai naki tsuji-kajabara, kojiki-hôshi domo) assembled by the emperor as defense (tr. McCullough, Tale of Heike , p.275).

The two largest guilds, Kiyomizuzaka in Kyoto and Narazaka in Nara, were centra of a network of provincial guilds, an organisation which also mirrored the guilds of other artisans. Amino mentions the war between the Narazaka-hinin and the Kiyomizuzaka-hinin as an example of the independence and self-confidence of hinin during this period. A fascinating detail – at least for me – was to learn that all the names of the hinin who participated in these fights were Buddhist monk-names (“hôshi”) and that they all wore monk clothes.

An interesting group were the so-called inu-jinin (dog-jinin) who were organized by Kiyomizuzaka and who were both jinin affiliated to Gion-sha (today’s Yasaka Shrine) and yoriudo (artists or traders serving a temple) of the Shakadô temple at Enryakuji (Amino 1988:33f). Living in southern Gion near the Kenninji Temple, they manufactured bowstrings and footwear, took care of corpses and participated in the Gion festival processions, both as staff-bearers and as cleaners of the road in front of the festival floats during the Gion festival. Here are a few pictures of these inu-jinin wearing their typical garb: orange clothes and veil (signalling the status of "not being of this world").

Note how assiduously Amino tries to demonstrate how closely linked the hinin were to other ”non-agricultural” groups, such as jinin, kugonin or monks. What he wants to show is how the important social borderline in medieval society was not between a narrow group of outcasts and the rest, but between the settled population on the one hand and a very large and amorphous population of people outside settled society on the other. This latter group would include not only the hinin, but also traders, itinerant artisans, monks, travelling performers, prostitutes, bands of warriors, lepers, beggars, the sick and the disabled. The latter were often the object of hostility and sometimes of awe from the point of view of the settled population, but they were not yet necessarily considered to be their social inferiors. As Ohnuki-Thierney points out, the norm systems of residents and non-residents "coexisted side by side without any hierarchical relationship between the two” (Ohnuki-Thierney 1987:87). Rather than being subordinated to the settled population, the non-residents enjoyed many privileges such as freedom of travel and freedom from taxes, and some would even be highly favored by the court or temples as gardeners, artists, or performers. As is well known, many of the famous temple gardens in Japan were created by hinin, and so were theatre forms like Sarugaku and Nôgaku. Borders between hinin and other categories of ”non-agriculturalists” were also fluid. Note the fact that hinin were dressed as monks. Such a monklike appearance (zôgyô) was in fact also common among many other people in this ”non-agricultural” stratum, including traders and merchants, tea masters, poets, and artists.

However, according to Amino, by the end of the Kamakura period the status of the hinin started to sink. Crude and derogatory terms like eta (much pollution) started to appear, for the first time in the Chiribukuro of 1280, and grew increasingly common. The outcasts were now clearly on the way to becoming the despised and discriminated group they would later be in the Edo period (Amino 1988:34f).


Interestingly, a parallel fall in status also befell other groups at roughly the same time. One example is the prostitutes (yûjo), whose status Amino argues wasn't low in the early middle ages.

A note of caution: the word "prostitute" might not be the best translation of yûjo when we are talking about the Heian period or early medieval Japan. The yûjo of that period were entertainers and performers in addition to providers of sex, servants rather than sellers. Sex was not even the distinguishing mark of their profession, since in terms of sexual availability they didn’t differ much from other women employed at court – such as court dancers, puppeters, or court ladies in general (Amino 2005:231-235). Neither, according to Amino, did they differ much from ordinary women in society. Women were far more independent - both economically and in regard to their own bodies - than they would later be, especially in the more patriarchal Edo period. I've already mentioned the sexual freedom enjoyed by both men and women on the road in the early Middle Ages. In addition, one can point to the economically strong position of women, who managed their own property independently of their husbands. Often they played an important role in finance and many were jinin or kugonin. Even when they lacked such official titles, many worked independently as skilled artisans such as the Ôhara-women (ôharame) or Katsura-women (katsurame) in Kyoto (ibid 22f). As Amino points out, it is against the background of this relatively strong social position of women in general and this tolerant sexual climate that we can understand why prostitutes and female entertainers were subject to so little discrimination. The lifestyle of the latter reflected that of other women to a surprisingly high degree.

Prositutes and female entertainers were organized in ways that closely paralleled that of other artisans like the kugonin. Many were directly subordinated to the imperial court, where - as the historian Gotô Norihiko points out - they learned music and dancing in a court conservatory (the naikyôbô or utaryô). Periodically they would be summoned to the court to perform dances. Poetry by prostitutes was included in imperial poetry collections and many highly placed nobles were born by prostitutes. Like other artisans they were organized in far-flung "guild"-like organizations (shuku). These guilds had a female head, often from a powerful family in the locality, who was subordinated to the court (Amino 2005:204f, 232).

However, during the late Kamakura period and the Muromachi period their status sinks, something that is reflected in the stricter views on sex developed in established Buddhism. The status of women in general also falls and with the spread in society of the patriarchal values of the warrior class they become more strictly subordinated to the "house" (ie). As one reaches the Edo period the prostitutes are clearly discriminated. With the establishment of licenced prostitution, the yûjo became prostitutes in the modern sense, providers of sex, often sold to brothels and confined to an unfree life in the entertainment quarters. In 1629 female performers are banned from the stage (ibid 1988:28ff, 2005a:238).

From Hônen shônin eden (late Kamakura period). In Western Japan prostitutes often worked in boats (Amino 2005a:236).

Commercialism and religious reformers

With the increasing monetary economy of the late Kamakura period, piracy and banditry become common. The growth of a commercial, non-agricultural society was also reflected in new religious movements. Conventionally, the new religious movements labeled as “Kamakura Buddhism” are described as representing a spread to the populace of Buddhism. Amino shows that this process had a special slant, with many of the religious reformers attempting to address in particular peoples who were considered “polluted” by the ruling elites and by the settled farming population. Against the view in established Buddhism that women were prevented from achieving Buddhahood and that they were subjected to "three subordinations" (to father, husband and son), religious reformers like Hônen, Shinran and Ippen actively reached out to both women and outcasts, preaching that they too would be saved by Amida Buddha's grace. They also reached out to merchants and bandits (Amino 1988:38, 2005:239ff). As a result the Ikkô-sect – various followers of Shinran and Ippen – became a largely urban phenomenon with strong support among women, traders and people making their living on the sea. As I’ve already mentioned, Ippen got a large following among outcasts, lepers and bandits – the latter even guaranteeing his safety on the road during his wanderings, warning that they would punish anyone who dared to disturb or bother him (Amino 2001a:236, 478).

Hinin (with covered faces) gathering at Ippen's deathbed (from the Ippen shônin eden, late Kamakura period).

Part 2: The Nanbokuchô era as "turning-point" 

The impact of the failed restoration

What caused this drop in status among hinin and prostitutes? In Nihon shakai to tennôsei and Igyô no ôken Amino points to the changes in imperial power during and following Go-Daigo's Kemmu Restoration (1333-1336) as one explanation. The new "Kemmu" regime (Kemmu no shinseifu) through which Go-Daigo tried to restore imperial power was a remarkably despotic regime in which everything was to be run by imperial decrees. This despotism was highly deviant in comparison with previous forms of imperial power and may have been inspired by Song China (Amino 1988:36, 50). However, in the period following this failed restoration - the Nanbokuchô period (1336-1392) when two rivalling imperial courts co-existed in Kyoto and Yoshino - imperial prestige suffered as precipitous decline.

In crude strokes, the picture Amino gives is the following. In his attempt to topple the largely agriculturally-minded Kamakura bakufu, Go-Daigo reaches out to the "non-agriculturalists", using their resentment against the increasing regulations imposed by the bakufu. He favors trade and relies on the help of "bandit-like" warriors like Kusunoki Masashige (1294-1333) and eccentric monks like Monkan (1278-1357), who belonged to one of the new schools of Buddhism that sprang up during the Kamakura period, the Shingon Risshû sect. As he battles the attacking Ashikaga army, he employs the "heteromorph" (irui igyô) forces mobilized by Monkan as military support - forces that likely included outcasts (hinin) as well as "bandits". As a further facet of his heteromorph rule, he personally participates in the tantric rituals of the esoteric Tachikawa-ryû, a heretical form of Shingon Buddhism revived by Monkan - the motive probably being a wish to summon the sacred forces of sex to his side (Amino 1988:42ff, 46ff; 1993:212-224).

As is well known, the Kamakura bakufu is defeated but Go-Daigo is in turn driven away from the capital three years later by Ashikaga Takauji, who reestablishes warrior rule. The collapse in imperial prestige following the failure of the brief Kemmu Restoration was also a blow to the traditional religious establishment in Enryakuji and Nara, whose prestige was bound up with proximity to the emperor. Failure and decline also awaited the new religious reform movements who attempted to renew the sense of the ”sacred” that had grown stale in established Buddhism. In the course of the late Middle Ages, Zen increasingly became allied to power, Risshû almost died out, and the Ikkô-sect, the Nichiren-sect and Christianity were suppressed by force in the 16th century. Amino believes that this institutionalization or suppression of popular religious energies explains the lack of religiosity in Japan today (Amino 1988:54).

With the failure of Go-Daigo and the religious establishment and the religious sects, the prostitutes and outcasts too sank deeper into discrimination since these groups had earned their prestige through closeness to the emperor and to the sacred. This thesis on the Nanbokuchô upheaval as a turning point in the development towards discrimination is surprisingly boldly put in both Nihonshakai to tennôsei and Igyô no ôken.

Let us have a closer look at Amino's explanation of this thesis in Igyô no ôken, which I find more interesting than the explanation offered in Nihon shakai to tennôsei since it shows that the fall in status affected not only outcasts and prostitutes, but also in various ways the entire stratum of itinerant artisants and traders who - as kugonin, jinin, or yoriudo, e.g. "servants" of the emperor, the gods or the buddhas - had all relied on the sacred prestige of the emperor or the religious establishment to prop up their own social standing and privileges. Parts of this stratum managed to avert the risk of social degradation by allying with warrior class patrons – like Zeami – or by building up wealth, helped by the developing capitalist economy. Because of the "nature of their work", however, large parts of this stratum - the outcasts above all, but also hunters, itinerant magicians and fortunetellers and many travelling entertainers - were unable to rely on either worldly power or great wealth, and their social status now dropped decisively, shifting ”from sanctification to discrimination” (Amino 1993:241, 2007:418).

Here, then, is part of the explanation of the drastic differentiation and internal polarization of the stratum of artisans. Strikingly, Amino suggests that the important factor in the origin of the discriminiation of hinin may not have been ”impurity” per se, since the fall in social status in various ways affected the entire artisan stratum. The important factor may have been that only parts of this stratum – such as the big merchants – managed to rescue their status by allying themselves with secular power and money.

Thus, broadly speaking, Amino explains the origin of the outcasts with the special needs of the emperor and the religious establishment in the capital in the ancient state. The discrimination of the outcasts, by contrast, is a later process caused by the the ascent of warrior rule which leads to a fall in social status of groups previously associated with the emperor or the religious establishment. An illustration of this process is provided by Jane Marie Law, who shows how the status of the Awaji puppeters fell with the shift from a ritual “theatre state” to a more militaristic model of government who no longer needed them for their statecraft. The puppeters were ritual performers whose well-known large puppets were believed to be animated by deities. They too, then, were once closely associated with the sacred but later became subject to discrimination (Law 1995).

Portrait of Go-Daigo in the Shôjôkôji temple, unique among imperial portaits in representing the emperor as a divinity.

Garden of the Tenryûji temple, set up in Kyoto after Go-Daigo's death to pacify his vengeful spirit (Goble 1997:115, 126).

The ambiguous emperor

Nihon shakai to tennôsei is not only a treatise on the outcasts but also on the emperor system. When we consider how Amino treats this system, we notice how ambivalent his stance is.

We must remember here that Amino is a Marxist and that even the slightest trace of a positive appraisal of the emperor system is more or less taboo among Marxists in Japan. Despite this, there is a slightly Utopian luster in his portrayal of Go-Daigo’s eccentric regime – the “heteromorph monarchy” (igyô no ôken), as he calls it – and in the movement of discriminated groups and popular religions to which it was allied. Despite its despotic traits - Amino even calls it "Hitler-like" in another of his works (Amino 1993:198ff) - Go-Daigo’s short-lived regime looks sympathetic in comparison with the warrior rule that ultimately defeated it, suppressed or co-opted the religious movements and put the final seal on the lid of discrimination. When he states that the victory of this secular, worldly power is why Japan lacks religion today, it almost sounds like an allegory of the defeat of the radical student movement of the 1960’s which led to the apolitical climate of the 70’s and 80’s.

At the same time he sees a danger in how rooted the emperor system is among the people at the bottom of society, a phenomenon which he writes can be seen in today’s Japan as well, its with right extremists (uyoku) and the widespread popular support for the emperor. The lingering Utopian luster of the emperor system, which was strengthened through the legacy of Go-Daigo, means that the people who are worst off in society even today are attached to the emperor and are willing to sacrifice themselves for him, even if it means going to war in another world war (Amino 1988:60). Here again it is easy to associate to phenomena in modern Japan – one thinks for instance of the young ”patriots” of the 30’s who appealed to the emperor as they revolted against the entire worldly establishment of government, big capital and conservative generals, and one thinks, of course, of Mishima Yukio. Nakazawa Shin'ichi in fact reports of a discussion he and his father had with Amino in which the latter agreed to their suggestion that what he had tried to show was that ”agriculturalists” and ”non-agriculturalists” both related to the emperor but in different ways – the former as today’s conservatives and the latter as today’s right-extremists (Nakazawa 2004:140). From this viewpoint, then, Go-Daigo was far from a symbol of Utopian hope, and rather a forerunner of the fascist leaders in modern Japan who co-opted and utilized the Utopian longings of the common people in order to topple the consevative establishment!

Putting things in perspective

Simply looking at Nihon shakai to tennôsei risks producing a picture in which the role of Go-Daigo in explaining the development towards increasing discrimination is exaggerated. To put in perspective, it needs to be placed within the larger narrative frame which Amino develops in works like Môko shûrai. In this work Amino accords a relatively minor role to Go-Daigo’s revolt, emphasizing instead that discrimination sets in with the “victory of civilization” (Amino 2001a:500). Go-Daigo’s age happened to be a great transitional period in which the “primitive” – in the form of the “bandits” and the return of the “sacred” in the new popular religions – launched a final counterattack against the advance of civilization but lost. “The emergence of bandits was but one movement that occurred in this process”, Amino writes (ibid 499), and the same could be said about Go-Daigo, who was nothing but a politician who attempted to capitalize on these primitive forces and use them for his own aims. If we look at Amino's later texts, this narrative frame is more or less intact. For instance, in a text from 2001, he writes that the fall in status of outcasts and prostitutes during the late middle ages reflects the “civilization” of society and the increasing distance it puts to “nature”. Thus the fall in status resulted from the lessened authority of the sacred. The “superhuman” power of the outcasts to purify pollution was thus no longer a source of prestige and respect and instead pollution and people regarded as polluted simply turned into something to be avoided (Amino 2001b:132). In assessing the role of Go-Daigo, we should therefore remember that even if he had been more succesful, his revolt would still only have been a minor ”counter-revolution” against the prevailing trend towards civilization. The defeat of his ”restoration” was therefore neither the single nor the decisive cause of the discrimination of outcasts, but at most a contributing factor.


Amino, Yoshihiko (1988) Nihon shakai to tennôsei, Iwanami bukkeretto No. 108, Tokyo: Iwanami shoten.

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

Amino, Yoshihiko (2001a [1974]) Môko shûrai (The Mongol Invasions), Tokyo: Shôgakukan.

Amino, Yoshihiko (2001b) Rekishi o kangaeru hinto (Hints for thinking about history), Tokyo: Shinchôsha.

Amino, Yoshihiko (2005 [1994]) Chûsei no yûjo to hinin (Medieval prostitutes and outcasts), Tokyo: Kôdansha.

Amino, Yoshihiko (2007) “Kyôkai ni ikiru hitobito – seibetsu kara senshi e” (People living in the margins: from sanctification to discrimination), pp 397-422, in Amino Yoshihiko chosakushî, Vol. 12: Muen Kugai Raku, Tokyo: Iwanami shoten.

Goble, Andrew (1997) ”Visions of an Emperor”, 113.137, in Jeffrey P. Mass (ed) The Origin’s of Japan’s Medieval World: Courtiers, Clerics, Warriors, and Peasants in the Fourteenth Century, Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Law, Jane Marie (1995) “The Puppet as Body Substitute: Ningyô in the Japanese Shiki Sanbasô Performance”, pp 251-288, in Jane Marie Law (ed) Religious Reflections on the Human Body, Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

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

Ohnuki-Thierney, Emiko (1987) The Monkey as Mirror: Symbolic Transformations in Japanese History and Ritual, Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.