Friday, 7 May 2010

Amino Yoshihiko (3): "Akutô to kaizoku"

Akutô to kaizoku (originally published 1995) is a book with a popular subject matter – the bandits (akutô) and pirates (kaizoku) of the late Kamakura (1285-1333) and Nanbokuchô (1337-1392) eras. This is not a major work, like Muen Kugai Raku, but it is still a work I like: there’s an appealing seeming simplicity in it, and – why hide it? – an equally appealing scent of salt water! Part of the book’s appeal is the skill by which Amino breathes life into a world which must have been familiar to many of his readers, namely the world of the Taiheiki, a popular epic from the late 14th century about the fall of the Kamakura shogunate and the failed attempt of emperor Go-Daigo to restore imperial power. Let me stress a point here about what the secret of making history come to life is. It doesn’t reside in a convential ”history of events” focusing on battles and heroes (a kind of historiography which can be very dry and lifeless indeed), but rather in making the reader glimpse or sense patterns and links which help him or her make sense of the events. This is something Amino achieves here and this is what I mean by the expression ”salt water”.

Against the agricultural bias

Part of the book’s interest consists in how it shows how Amino positions himself in regard to two of his mentors, the Marxist historians Ishimoda Shô and Matsumoto Shinhachirô. This positioning shows how he tries to break out of the conceptual framework of the dominant forms of Marxism and the view of pre-modern Japanese society as a predominantly feudal society based on agriculture. This view was shared by both Ishimoda and Matsumoto, although they disagreed on how whether to evaluate the medieval ”bandits” (akutô) as ”depraved” or ”revolutionary”. Amino rejects both views: there was nothing desperate or decadent about them – indeed they had the future on their side – but he also states that it is absurd to see these coldblooded murderers, who did not hesitate to ally themselves with the powerholders whenever it suited their interests, as revolutionary.

Amino’s move is to challenge the very framework within which his mentors were working, arguing that Japanese medieval society was far more pervaded by ”non-agricultural” forms of production and trade than is usually thought. As he often points out, the word hyakushô didn’t yet mean ”peasant” (as it would later, during the Edo period) but also included fishermen, artisans, producers of salt, timber, cloth and iron, traders and other itinerant peoples making their living on the roads, the rivers, the sea lanes and mountains. Importantly, all these groups had close links to trade and played an important role in the emergence to trade networks and commerce. Some were granted ranks as jinin or kugonin, direct servants of shrines or the court with privileges and exemptions that facilitated commerce. Amino argues that it is from the ranks of these ”non-agriculturalists” and early capitalists that the ”bandits” emerged, rather than from the settled peasant population. This is also why he insists that we must think of the ”bandits” in conjunction with the ”pirates” (kaizoku), who shared the same background (Amino 2007:263, 278, 281, also cf Amino 2001:498f).

Amino’s idea helps us see how tendencies within the hyakushô stratum itself led to the emergence of trade and market towns, something which must remain a riddle as long as we are too stuck with the image of a self-sufficient agricultural society. It is when these tendencies ripen and a full-fledged commercial economy develops in the the 14th century that ”banditry” and ”piracy” too reach their ”golden age” in Japanese history.

Irui igyô, stones, clubs

Amino is clearly fascinated by the extravagant and exuberant (irui igyô or simply igyô, a term David Bialock translates as "heteromorph") style and demeanor of these bandits, which bears a close resembles to the basara style popular in late medieval Japan. In contemporary texts like the Taiheiki they are described as fierce people with enormous swords or clubs and extravagant clothing, capable of walking up steep mountains as easy as if it were plain ground, and often fighting with unconventional means such as throwing rocks or rolling down trees from wooden fortresses.

"Honjôbô tied back the sleeves of this robe, easily picked up immense boulders, such as a hundred men might not move, and tossed them out like balls..." (The Taiheiki, 1959:74).

That Amino sees a relation between this extravagant appearance and the quality of muen is clear from many of his works, such as the following passage from his Higashi no nishi no kataru Nihon no rekishi:
Covering their heads with bamboo hats, wearing orange-colored robes like the mountain-priests or hinin and probably enveloping their faces in white cloth, the appearance of these bandits was igyô – the appearance of people not belonging to this world – and by that they signalled their freedom from the ties of the profane world. (Amino 1998:256)
The link between this outfit and the quality of muen is also treated at length in works like Igyô no ôken, and I will return to that later in my discussions.

Amino also finds echoes of old religious beliefs in fighting techniques like stone throwing or wielding clubs, which ”were rooted far back in the primitive magical world”.  For instance, the club or staff, saibô, was a weapon used by monks and people participating in religious processions, such as the inu-jinin (outcasts who participated with in the Gion festivals such staffs, using them both as weapons to uphold order and as instruments of "purification"). Originally, the saibô was a "symbol of yang", as Amino diplomatically puts it, that was related to the stone phalluses used a the festivals of the protective gods of the village, sai no kami, who were usually worshipped as round stones placed outside the village. To illustrate the phallic nature of the staff, Amino relates how children used to run around on the streets with a staff to hit the behind of young women, shouting "Crow-crow-crow, this is the mountain god's saitenbô" (”Kaa-kaa-kaa, yama no kami no saitenbô”). In a famous medieval scroll, the Ippen hijiri-e, one sees a scared woman running away from a stern monk walking briskly down a street carrying such a staff (ibid 264-67, also cf. Amino 1993:13f, 67-71; Amino 2001:33-38).

As readers of Amino will know, stone throwing (tsubute) has been a long-standing interest, not to say obsession, in his writings, where it makes its earliest appearance in a paper from 1972 (republished in Amino 1993). It is also extensively treated in Môko shûrai (The Mongol Invasions), a work from 1974 which opens with the following magnificent statement:
Stone throwing appears in historical sources already in the end of the 10th century, but during the Kamakura period it became common for shrines to use fierce stone throwing in their forceful appeals (gôso) to authorities. Not only in Japan, but in Korea too "stone wars" were flourishing, and Hideyoshi's invading forces were severely troubled by the resistance that the people put up by throwing stones (Amino 2001:18)
Amino then goes on to describe the stone-throwing of children in ritualized and game-like fights (ishi gassen), which were once common on river banks or across rivers, and which could still be seen in the early postwar years in the Iyo province on Shikoku. In medieval times, stone throwing had still not developed into a game but was still extensively used by hunters, by adults during festival processions or by monks as primitive forms of punishment against people, including warriors and nobility, who passed through temple ground without paying the proper respect. Anonymous stone throwing against the residences of officials (referred to as tengu-tsubute or stones thrown by goblins) was also used as a punishment by commoners against perceived injustices. Stone throwing was even systematically used in military encounters, and not only by "bandits" and guerilla fighters like Kusunoki Masashige. Later, during the warring states period, feudal lords like Takeda Shingen are even reported to have organized special stone-throwing companies of soldiers (ibid 25-29, Amino 1993:145-196).

Let me insert an illustration here which I happened to find. It shows ritual stone-throwers (injiuchi)  on the Rakuchû rakugai-zu, a screen sent as a gift by Nobunaga to Uesugi Kenshin in 1574. Some of the thrown stones are visible on the ground,

Trade and capitalism

However, despite their ”wild” and uncouth demeanor, the "bandits" were neither primitive hunters-gatherers, nor despised itinerants. As Amino also argues in other works like Muen Kugai Raku, it was from this stratum of people that capitalism sprang into being:
With mountains, moors, rivers and the sea as their field of action, these groups were already involved in non-agricultural production including communications, trade and manufacturing. By such means, not a few of them got hold of riches plentiful enough for them to be called men of wealth [utoku]. The depraved monk [akusô] wielding a club was, from the Heian times onwards, identical to the mountain priest [sansô] known for financing and wealth. Similarly, the kugonin and jinin who wandered around the country engaged in trade and manufacturing were absolutely not separate from the strone-throwing groups [tsubute o utsu shûdan]. (Amino 2007:267)
A note of explanation may be needed here. As Amino often points out, temples were early financial institutions. The akusô were low-ranking priests who were responsible for lending and collecting debts (often armed with clubs and threatening divine punishment to borrowers who were unable to pay back). As he points out elsewhere, they shared social background with the jinin and kugonin, groups subordinated to shrines, temples or the imperial court who enjoyed freedom of travel and often engaged in trade, and who were also exempted from the taxes levied on the settled farming population (Amino 2001:150).

In other words, according to Amino the ”bandits” were identical to the very groups who built up and managed the commercial networks, but who turned to banditry and sometimes even ”bandit uprisings” to increase their profits or defend their trade and their privileges in reaction to the tightening controls of the state. These controls increasingly became a source of resentment as the Kamakura bakufu attempted to secure control over transport lanes and ports in the face of the threatening Mongol invasions (the two major ones of which occurred in 1274 and 1281).

The thesis that “bandits” arose from trading jinin-kugonin stratum is of course not a denial of the fact that they were also warriors. As he argues elsewhere, warriors belonged to the same stratum. At this time there was simply not yet any strict separation of the warriors from other classes (as there would be from Hideyoshi and onwards).

Piracy similarly started to flourish as a consequence of the spread of trade and finance. Sea trade was also developed by the jinin and kugonin, many of whom were also engaged in the production of maritime products like salt, seaweed and of course in fishing. Possessing the right of freedom to travel without being hindered by toll barriers, Amino suggests that they probably regerded themselves as having the right to set up their own barriers for others and punish those who tried to pass without paying. Conversely, they would guarantee safe passage to those who paid. From this, he writes elsewhere, it was but a small step to the robber behavior that later developed (Amino 2001:130f).

Just as many traders and other itinerants shifted to ”banditry” in response to tightening bakufu control, people who were engaged in sea trade turned to piracy around the time of the Mongol invasions as a reaction to bakufu attempts to control the sea lanes along the coast and across the sea with Korea. The result was the flourishing of piracy in the late middle ages and the start of the many attacks on Korea and other regions in east and north-east Asia by pirates referred to in Korean and Chinese sources as wakô (Japanese evil-doers).

Reading this, I think of Somalia. So much of what he is saying seems to hold true there as well. Piracy thrives where there is trade. The lack of a neat dividing line between pirates and fishermen is just as striking here as in the Japanese middle ages. Both are part of a broad stratum of peoples living of the sea.

Interestingly, as Amino points out (and develops in greater length in other works such as Igyô no ôken) the resentment of these groups engaged in trade, finance and transport and banditry was later utilized by emperor Go-Daigo in his successful attempt to topple the bakufu. Many of his most well-known supporters, such as Kusunoki Masashige or Nawa Nagatoshi, are described by Amino as ”bandit-like” partisan warriors expert in fighting methods such as throwing stones and rolling down logs at enemies (and that is of course also how they are portrayed in Taiheiki, which btz is also frank in stating that the imperial forces included great numbers of "outlaws", Taiheiki p187). Go-Daigo's brief reign stood out by the laws and ordinances favouring trade and circulation which he promulgated to to gain the support of such groups, ”making an effort precisely to base his regime on trade and circulation” (Amino 2007:284).

Amino sees Go-Daigo’s coup and the following Nambokuchô period as a dividing line in the fates of ”bandits” and ”pirates” in Japan. While the word ”bandit” (akutô) came to acquire more negative connotations (being used for mountain robbers or simply as a synonym of a bad or wicked person), "pirates" (kaizoku) acquired a more positive ring, perhaps reflecting the importance of the sea in Japanese society. Thus pirate organizations during the late middle ages became part of the official fleet under the name ”kaizoku-shû” and the word "pirate" itself become a virtual synonym of ”fleet” (suigun) (Amino 2007:233f, 253).


Amino closes the book by asking what was ”bad” about the bandits. Today the character ”aku” in the word akutô means ”bad” or ”evil”, but in medieval times it did not necessarily imply not a moral judgment. Sometimes it was even used with a nuance of respect or celebration to refer to abnormal strength or fierceness (reading Amino one almost thinks of the "bad" of contemporary black American culture!).

Looking at how the word was used, Amino shows that it often connoted uncouthness, disobedience, and "pollution” (kegare). To kill living creatures (sasshô) was considered "aku", as in the case of hunters, fishermen, criminals, executioners and soldiers. To gain profit from trade and finance was also ”aku” (as in the aku-sô, the "bad priests" responsible for the early forms of banking) (Amino 2007:285). On the other hand, such activities could be made perfectly legitimate by being linked to the ”gods and buddhas”, as in the case of jinin and yoriudo or the financial operations of the temples.

In religious langue too, "aku" had far from onesidedly negative connotations. Religious reformers like Shinran or Ippen actively sided with ”aku” against the religious establishment – as in Shinran’s famous saying that no one was more assured of rebirth in the Pure Land than the ”bad person” (akunin) or in Ippen’s preaching that everyone would be saved by Amida Buddha, regardless of purity or impurity, goodness or badness - and as a result gained wide support among the merchants and artisans, the outcasts, gamblers and prostitutes, and even among the "bandits" (Amino 2007:286f). As Ippen travelled through the Owari and Mino provinces, his safety was guaranteed by the local "bandits" who problaimed that they would punish anyone who disturbed or bothered him (Amino 2001a:478; also cf ibid 2001:98f, 155, 236).).

Clearly there was an ambiguity in how ”badness” was thought about in the middle ages, which Amino claims reflects the fact that the viewpoint of "agriculture" had not yet achieved hegemony over that of the "non-agriculturalists". What appeared to be "bad" from the viewpoint of the settled farmer population was valued as quickness, strength and mobility among people who made their living in non-agricultural trades: hunters, warriors, traders, and robbers.

Final comments

It is impressive to see Amino at work patching together his own brand of manichaeism, a dualistic view of history in which his sympathies can clearly be felt to be with the forces of the ”bad” (aku) against the ”good”. On the one side are the ”agriculturalist” ideologues and Hôjô rulers, and on the other is the motley crew of bandits, pirates, traders, prostitutes, outcasts, religious reformers and the eccentric emperor Go-Daigo. This tendency to affirm the ”bad” runs through much of his writings, creating a tension which probably explains some of the fascination it exerts.

Making a choice to affirm the good is always a simple commitment, but how about affirming the bad? A work which I feel may be close to this spirit is the Water Margin, the Chinese classic about the robbers in the Liangshan Marsh, a work which is splendid, I think, in portraying almost all of its heroes as horrendously “bad” people and yet affirming them wholeheartedly. In general, I think that we can agree that affirming the upholders of order and dignity is straightforward and never very interesting. The ”bad” people, by contrast, are highly ambiguous and "risky", and opinions about them are often sharply divided, as in the case of Go-Daigo. Since an affirmation of the bad can hardly ever take the form of a simple approval, what forms does it take then? Criticism against the narrowminded moralizers who can’t see further than the length of the word ”condemnation”? Criticism against how duped we often are by power-holders when they tell us that someone is ”bad”, a ”terrorist” or a ”criminal”? Sympathy for people as people, and curiosity at the world, at how the world looks when who try to look beyond our moral categories?

To be sure, Amino never says explicitly with whom he is siding. The accusation that he is romanticizing his subject matter may be close at hand. Of course, as I hope to show in my discussions of his other books, he is far from neglecting the dark, unpleasant and cruel side of the ”non-agriculturalist” way of life. We have also seen that he rejects romanticizing the "bandits" as a "revolutionary" force. As he explains in one of his early works, “the bandits were but one movement" that occurred as Japanese society passed through a great transitional period in the 14th century, a time when the agricultural and nonagricultural worlds and world-views collided and the old “wild” spirit was finally subdued by civilization. Against the advance of civilization, the "primitive" launched a counter-attack in the form of the bandits and pirats, but in this struggle the primitive was bound to be defeated and in the bandits and pirats themselves the "primitive" spirit was soon transformed into a mere desire for wealth (Amino 2001:499).

But how, then, should we explain the vividness and lustre his writing acquires in his treatment of these outrageous and ”basara” peoples? Let me try dropping the word ”freedom” here. The bandits and pirates were neither free nor noble. Still, in dealing with this subject, Amino perhaps felt himself to be in the presence of a possible answer to what freedom could mean and that he was exploring this freedom. To understand this we need to take a closer look at his discussion of "non-agriculturalists" in general.


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

Amino, Yoshihiko (1998 [1982]) Higashi to nishi no kataru Nihon no rekishi (Japan’s history as told by east and west), Tokyo: Kôdansha gakujutsu bunko.

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

Amino, Yoshihiko (2007 [1995]) ”Akutô to kaizoku” (Bandits and pirates), pp 125-348, in Amino Yoshihiko chosakushû Vol. 6, Tokyo: Iwanami shoten.

Amino, Yoshihiko & al (2002) ‘Nihon’ o megutte: Amino Yoshihiko taidan-shû (About ‘Japan’: Collection of conversations with Amino Yoshihiko), Tokyo: Kôdansha.

Oguma, Eiji (2002) "Minshu" to "Aikoku": Sengo Nihon no nashonarizumu to kôkyôsei (The “people” and “patriotism”: the nationalism and public sphere of the postwar era), Tokyo: Shinyôsha.

The Taiheiki: A Chronicle of Medieval Japan (tr. H. McCullough) (1959) Tokyo: Tuttle Publishing.

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