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.

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