Monday, 17 May 2010

Amino Yoshihiko (4): "Kawara ni dekita chûsei no machi"

This is a picture book for children, with text by Amino and illustrations by Tsukasa Osamu. Enchanting. It is also a wonderfully brief and vivid summary of Amino’s thinking during the 80's, a period when he was preoccupied with the problem of muen.  In an appended interview, he states that working on the text forced him to think hard about what he really wanted to convey, because when you write for children you need to be honest with yourself.

Personally, I was drawn to the book because of my own fascination with riverbanks as a kind of no-man's-land. The book focuses on the riverbank as a place for muen - considered both sacred and outside human society - and on the role it has played in history as an early form of public space and as the birthplace of a market economy. Let me just note a few things that struck me as particularly interesting.

The dead

Before the Edo-period the dead were buried on river banks, on small river islands, on beaches, in valleys or on mountain slopes – places considered to be on the margins of the human world, border areas to the world of "gods and buddhas". Cadavers of dead animals too would be disposed there. Being a world beyond human power, it was thought that burying or leaving the dead there wouldn’t bring pollution to the human world (Amino 1988:44). This may come as a surprise to many who are used to the sight of the many temple cemetaries in Japan. However, in Kyoto during the Heian period (792-1185), people would be buried along the Kamo and Katsura rivers, and human bones were said to be littered on the river bank in such amounts that the government had to order them to be cleaned up. In Kamakura too, the capital of the bakufu, many remains of old burial grounds have been found along the sea (ibid 52).

Executions, hairstyles, children

Public executions didn’t start in Japan until warriors became dominant in society after the Heian period. They normally took place on river banks and were performed by former criminals, who were regarded as outcasts (hinin).

Here's an illustration showing an execution.

The executioner has a beard and long hair hung loose to the shoulders. We can compare with the following illustration (showing the execution of the monk Anraku) in Hônen shônin eden from the early 14th century. Again we see the executioners with their unkempt beard (although not visible, the hair is not tied but gathered up in the eboshi hats).

Hairstyle was in fact an important marker of belonging or not belonging to human society. Beggars and prisoners would have the same long and untied hair, and cutting off a person's hair-knot was symbolically the equivalent of his expulsion from society (During the Edo period this developed into the zangiri - short and roughly cut hair - of outcaste prison guards, a hairstyle which somewhat ironically become fashionable in Meiji era as a symbol of Western enlightenment or bunmei kaika, Amino 1993:120).

Amino explains that children would have the same long hair - the so-called kaburo hairstyle - and that the executioner's name in the illustration (Wakamitsumaru) is similar to a child's name with the typical "maru"-postfix. What was common to children and hinin was that they were considered close to the world of the gods. This was expressed in the proverb that children belong to the world of the gods until the age of seven (”nanasai made wa kami no uchi”) (ibid 1988:52). The postfix "maru" in children's names may also have been significative of magical or supernatural powers, since it was also used for things like ships, swords or musical instruments used to call forth the gods. As Amino points out elsewhere, this closeness to holy or magical powers meant that children were free to lead a remarkably unregulated life and that they were free to ridicule the adult world, thus playing an important role in criticizing power - a situation that continued at least until the Muromachi-period, when their association with the sacred started to weaken (ibid 1993:52-67).

Readers familiar with Nô or Kabuki will probably recognize this "child-like" hairstyle as a sign of the demonic, weird or mad. A famous instance in literature where the kaburo appears is the passage in Heike monogatari that tells of the corps of kaburo boys ("the Rokuhara Lord's page-boy cuts", in Helen McCullough's translation) organized by Taira no Kiyomori who would spy on the population and terrorize and arrest anyone who spoke ill of the Taira clan. To fill in the background, let me quote from David Bialock's discussion on the particular dress and hairstyle of executioners, low-ranking police officers, outcast priests (ransô) and carrion scavengers (etori) who provided food for hawk breeders in early medieval Japan: "Going hatless with unbound hair was a prohibited behavior for most classes of people in the medieval period, and its licence (as in the case of children but also etori and other outcast types) was a sign of liminal status, evoking under certain conditions an aura of the sacred" (Bialock 2007:274f).

Here I can't help associating to the samurai, who untied their long hair when going to battle - for the practical reason of the helmet, of course, but perhaps also in order to signal  the liberation of terrifying powers and the exit from the ordinary profane world. There is a word in Japanese, ôwarawa, which literally means "big child". Today it means "being engrossed" or "feverishly occupied", but an older meaning was having one's hair untied and disheveled like that of a child. The origin of the word seems to have been that warriors resembled "big children" when going to battle, since they had to let their hair loose before putting on their helmets. Being engrossed in fighting in turn led to the present meaning of being engrossed in general.

The word ôwarawa is also used to describe the appearance of the "Yase children" (Yase-dôji), who lived at the foot of Mt Hiei north-east of Kyoto and served the emperor as palanquin bearers from the Muromachi period onwards and who were also affiliated with the Shôren'in temple, although they usually made their living on forestry and selling logs and firewood. This was an interesting group of people who saw themselves as "descendants of devils (oni)" and who became referred to as "children" since those who did temple service didn't tie up their hair but let it hang loose, and also because their footwear (sôri) resembled that of children. In another book, Amino discusses these "Yase children" as part of the mountain people (yama no tami), which was regarded by the population on the plain with awe since mountains were regarded as populated by demonic beings like oni and tengu (birdlike goblins) (Amino 2001a:132f). He also believes that a reason for mountain peoples and others who were engaged in occupations involving animals to adopt the "child-like" (dôgyô) hairstyle  may have been the ancient association between children and the wilderness and the belief in their special superhuman power (”hinto ni araunu chikara”) to control animals (ibid 1993:63f).

Considering the link between this "childlike" hairstyle to the sacred, it is not surprising that monks too adopted a similar hairstyle. Not all monks were shaved. The yamabushi (wandering monks and mountain hermits) wore their hair uncut. Then there were the hôka no zenji, wandering Zen priests who would roam about without cutting their hair, wearing an eboshi hat and chanting. Interestingly, when these priests were criticized - as in the 13th century Tengu zôshi - they were portrayed as tengu who had consipired to infiltrate the human world to bring about decay and corruption (Amino 2001a:480ff). We can see these tengu conspiring on the illustration below. Tengu were in fact prototypes of the "heteromorph" (irui igyô), an epithet that would later be used to describe the extravagant and otherworldly appearance of bandits (akutô).

Speaking of tengu, many will probably recall the well-known legend about Ushiwakamaru (the young Minamoto no Yoshitsune, later famous as the general who led the Minamoto forces to victory in the Gempei wars; note the "maru"-suffix showing that he was still a child) seeking refuge in the Kurama Temple in the mountains north of Kyoto, where he was taught martial arts by the Kurama tengu. Again we see the association of childhood and the supernatural. Here's an illustration of the Nô play Kurama tengu. Note the wild hairstyle of the tengu and Ushiwakamaru's kaburo.

Finally another association pops up - that of Kintarô, a legendary child of superhuman strength said to have grown up in the mountains fighting with bears. In the illustration below, note the color red, the same as the color of devils (oni).

To conclude, hairstyle shows that medieval culture saw a link between outcasts, children, warriors, wandering monks and mountain peoples - all being groups outside the "civilized" life of settled society and all associated to a greater or lesser extent with disorder, liminality and the sacred.


Let's return to Amino. As he points out in this (and many other books), markets would usually be opened on river banks and beaches or other liminal spaces such as mountain slopes or under a tree or in front of temple gates. Following the historian Katsumata Shizuo, he argues that the reason is that commerce cannot arise within a community, where exchanging things will normally lead to a strengthening of human ties. Only by passing outside the community to a place where people met as strangers - recall that muen meant precisely the cutting off of human ties - could commerce become possible. Such places would play an important role, not only as the birthplace of a market economy but also as an early form of public space. When opening a market, people would celebrate with festivities and perfomances to "call out and bring happiness to the gods" (one example was Ichihime, a goddess thought to protect markets). Among the people buying, trading and begging, monks would preach and collect contributions, like the saint Kûya who was known as a ”market priest” (ichi no hijiri). ”In this way, the river banks and river islands where public squares [hiroba] where people would gather, discuss and do a variety of things” (Amino 1988:45; for some more details on the idea that things can only become commodities by being cut off from the community, through the mediation of muen, see also Amino 2001b:142ff, 2007b:400).


Many illustrations show itinerant people, a favorite subject of Amino's: wandering monks, fortune tellers, shamans, artisans, peddlers, dancers, puppeters, singers and prostitutes... Many of these artisans, traders and performers were regarded as linked to the sacred, as possessing "divine art" (kami-waza), and many had status as jinin, kugonin or yoriudo, meaning that they were guaranteed freedom of travel and exemption from taxes in return for using their arts or offering up their first catch to the emperor or the "gods and buddhas". Then there were the sick and destitute, abandoned children, criminals, lepers – people who began to be called hinin during the Heian period. Like other traders, artisans and artists, they would have their special way of dressing, covering their faces, wearing orange clothing, and letting their hair grow long. Such people would be avoided but also, he writes, respected as possessing the power to remove pollution and many would be proud of their role in society.

Females travelling alone

Surprisingly many females travelled alone, for the purpose of trade or pilgrimage. Women of high rank would bring along followers, but there were also many women who travelled alone or in all-female groups, usually concealing their faces with veils or straw hats (ichimegasa). Only women travelling for trade or prostitutes would travel with bared faces (Amino 1988:53f).

In the children-friendly picture book, Amino writes that women could travel in relative safety since they were protected by the link to the sacred. In other works, however, he refers to the custom of tsujidori (“taking a wife on the road") which appears to have been widely considered a right ("tenka no oyurushi", as it is put by a character in the Otogi-zôshi), although it was repeatedly subject to official prohibitions. In fact, the reason for the "safety" of female travellers, Amino asserts, may have been that sex was considered "free" or at least not morally reprehensible for travellers. He quotes Luis Frois, a Jesuit missionary in the 16th century, who writes that in Japan daughters go out freely and spend as many days they want away from home, that wives go wherever they please without letting their husbands know, and that in Japan women don’t value virginity in the slightest. Against the background of this tolerant sexual climate and this behavior of ordinary women, he claims, we can understand why prostitutes and female entertainers were subject to so relatively little discrimination (Amino 1990:328ff, 1993:86-95, 2005:20f, 194ff, 250-261)

The self-rule of markets and towns

The towns and villages that gradually grow up along the river banks were often considered autonomous or possessing "self-rule" (jichi). Amino explains that since old time, crimes and other occurences that took place on riverbanks, beaches or markets were regarded as having to be solved then and there. Thus if a person got hurt or killed during a quarrel, no revenge could be exacted after the marked closed. In the towns that later sprung up, the consciousness remained strong that ”what occurred in the town should be solved by the townspeople” and this was the basis for the autonomy of towns during the warring states period in the late middle ages, when people who escaped to a town or marketplace from servitude or punishment would be offered protection. That’s why the town Sakai could give the impression of peace and freedom to the visiting Portugese, despite the war raging outside town (Amino 1988:48).

Let me make a brief excursus here, since what Amino writes about violence in markets brings out how aware he is of the dark or cruel aspect of muen. As he shows in greater detail in other works, the idea that people not present at the scene of killings that took place on markets, beaches, river banks, mountains or roads were prohibited from demanding compensation or revenge was rooted in the belief that such place were asylums or sanctuaries where secular law couldn't interfere. Thus roads were considered "areas of peace" where arrests wouldn't take place during riots (Amino 1990:328ff).

These examples - along with the "right of taking a wife" - probably strike readers today as scandalous. If muen served as a guarantee of the freedom to fight, murder, or rape, is it really possible to see it as a kind of freedom at all? Isn't it absurd and outrageous to use expressions like "areas of peace" in relation to it?

The end of the middle ages

Like in Muen Kugai Raku, Amino closes on a gloomy note. Towards the end of the middle ages, the increasing importance of military power and money lead to a loss of respect for nature, for women and children, for the sacred and for the bearers of ”pollution". Despite the efforts of saints like Ippen and Shinran to reach out to outcasts and women by preaching that it was people like them for whom Buddhism was made, the discrimination they suffered increased. Through the long wars of unification waged by Nobunaga and his successors, religion was crushed as an independent force along with the free towns. With the Edo period (1600-1868) a new system came into being which was very different from that of the middle ages - with a systematic discrimination or outcasts and subordination of women, and a domesticated Buddhism held in thrall by secular power. Only faintly did the idea of muen and self-rule linger on in the Edo-period's "autonomy” for brothels and theaters, the ability of temples to function as shelters for women escaping unhappy marriages, and in the continuing role of riverbanks as public places. When Izumo no Okuni and her troupe of female actors founded kabuki through wildly popular performances on the riverbanks of the Kamo river in the early 17th century, they and their followers were given the deregatory appellation kawaramono - the same word used for outcasts living on the riverbanks - and suffered repeated suppression.

Despite the serious matters that Kawara ni dekita chûsei no machi touches upon, the text and illustrations combined to create a peaceful happiness in at least this reader. One day I hope my child will read it.


Amino, Yoshihiko (1988) Kawara ni dekita chûsei no machi – Henreki suru hitobito no atsumaru tokoro (The medieval town buld on the river bank: the place where itinerants gathered), Tokyo: Iwanami shoten.

Amino Yoshihiko (1990) Nihonron no shiza: rettô no shakai to kokka (A viewpoint on theories on Japan: society and state on the archipelago), Tokyo: Shogakukan.

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

Amino, Yoshihiko (2001b) Môko shûrai (The Mongol Invasions), Tokyo: Shôgakukan.

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

Bialock, David T. (2007) Eccentric Spaces, Hidden Histories: Narrative, Ritual, and Royal Authority from The Chronicles of Japan to The Tale of the Heike, Stanford: Stanford University Press.

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