One of the controversial points in Amino concerns his treatment of the emperor. Here I won’t enter into the debate on the role of Go-Daigo’s failed “restoration” in the transformation of Japanese society in the late Middle Ages (which I have treated elsewhere).
Instead I will focus on Amino’s equally controversial thesis of an ancient link between the emperor and the idea of muen on which “non-agriculturalists” depended for their freedom of movement. As he himself tells us in an interview, his writings on this link once led him, to his utter surprise, to be accused of being an “apologist for the emperor system” by a critic (Amino 2002:164, 172).
There are two things that make Amino’s thesis on the link between non-agriculturalists and the emperor controversial. Firstly, by portraying the emperor system as “rooted” in the life of the “common people”, he appears to deny any easy possibility of abolishing it. Secondly, by “contaminating” the idea of muen through a link to the emperor, he makes it appear as part of the emperor system and thus much less appetizing as a principle of resistance. A solution to these problems depends of finding a way of extricating the emperor from the “common people” or from muen.
In what follows I will suggest that the problem is not as intractable as it is sometimes made to appear. A careful reading of what Amino writes will reveal that he never in any single work portrays the “partnership” between emperor and non-agriculturalists as harmonious or “natural”, but rather as the result of an ongoing power struggle or tug of war which in turn suggests that the partnership itself is an instable and contestable edifice. Recognizing this will at least be a helpful first step in solving the above problems.
The emperor and the non-agriculturalists
In his major work on the relation between emperor and “non-agriculturalists” – Nihon chûsei no hinôgyômin to tennô from 1984 – Amino starts off by positioning himself in relation to an early postwar debate between two famous historians, Ishimoda Shô and Tsuda Sôkichi, the former a Marxist and the latter generally regarded as conservative. Against Tsuda’s view of the emperor system as a cultural construct resting not on force but on spiritual authority and the people’s acceptance of it as a “natural” phenomenon, Ishimoda argued that this amounted to a “depoliticization” of the emperor system which stemmed from Tsuda’s “fear of revolution”. While sharing his mentor Ishimoda’s Marxist approach to history, Amino states that “the illusionary nature of the revolutionary movement” of the times (in which both Ishimoda and the young Amino participated) must be recognized as a fact. Although critical of Tsuda’s silence in regard to the sufferings brought by the emperor system on the countries occupied or invaded by Japan peoples, Amino defends Tsuda from Ishimoda's attack, stating that he appreciates the former's willingness to lend an ear to the common people and that he wants to learn from Tsuda’s attitude (Amino 1984:5-9).
Amino’s work on the relation between “non-agriculturalists” and the emperor system is indeed a long probing investigation into the deep roots of the latter in the common people. As he shows in his writings, the “non-agriculturalists” – itinerant traders, artisans, fishermen, outcasts, and entertainers – often strove actively for official appointment as kugonin, imperial servants. Why did they feel that they needed the emperor-system and how crucial was this system for upholding their “freedoms”? That is a question which is central not only to Nihon chûsei no hinôgyômin to tennô but also to Amino’s work as a whole.
Before going on, let’s note that Amino gives his own, very special slant to the question debated by Tsuda and Ishimoda. What Amino discusses is not the emperor system as a whole, but one of its two pillars: its support among non-agriculturalists. One of the most interesting points in the picture of the emperor system provided by Amino and other historians working at the same time is its two-fold structure. Apart from being a structure of rule based on the domination of land and the collection of land-tax from the agricultural population, it also rested on a direct rule over people engaged in non-agricultural occupations such as fishermen, traders, artisans and entertainers. In return for offering up their services or “divine gifts” to the court, these non-agriculturalists would be granted a title (usually that of kugonin) along with privileges such as the exemption from taxes and freedom of movement without being hindered by barriers or toll-gates - a system Amino refers to as the kugonin system.
This twofold structure is reflected in the ambivalence of the image of the emperor, who - as Amino writes - had "two faces". On the one hand there is the old mythical association of emperor with rice and fertility, the agricultural monarch ruling the abundant land of luxurious rice (Mizuho no kuni), but on the other hand there is the very different but no less ancient image of the emperor as the ruler of mountains and seas extending imperial protection to traders, artisans and other non-agriculturalists.
An interesting fact which Amino points out is that while the agriculturalist aspect of imperial power was often expressed in a paternalistic ideology stressing harmony and cooperation, the non-agriculturalist aspect had an affinity with despotism. This, he believes, was because policies designed to further commerce forced the state to assert its control over roads, sea lanes and rivers. Go-Daigo examplifies this despotic aspect of imperial power (Amino & Ishii 2000:173ff).
The great role played by the kugonin system in Japanese society in the Middle Ages means that Amino is uncomfortable with using terms like “feudalism” in a Japanese context. While the term “feudalism” may be applicable to the warrior-dominated society of eastern Japan, it is much less useful to understand the western parts, where the kugonin-system was more developed and in which the influence of the imperial court remained strong during the Kamakura period. Medieval Japan was thus a mixture between a land-based system of indirect taxation which resembled European feudalism and a direct rule over “non-agriculturalists” which had more in common with empires such as the Inca Empire, which had similar systems of “holy servitude” under the emperor.
What creates the violent tension in Amino’s works is a seeming paradox. His relentless attempt to relativize and “deconstruct” the nationalist imaginary of Japan as a homogeneous nation based on rice-agriculture means that he tends to view commerce, trade and itinerancy as liberating forces that help relativize the legacy of the agricultural ideology. As the kugonin system reveals, however, these forces for freedom were themselves allied to the most despotic aspects of imperial rule.
This is a point many critics have pointed to as a disturbing flaw in Amino’s historiography. The historian Miki Seiichirô, for instance, criticizes Amino for failing to clarify whether the kugonin achieved freedom by their association to the emperor or ended up in another kind of unfreedom (Miki 2009:25). Commenting on the thesis that the emperor was the lynchpin of the freedom of itinerant people, the religious historian Yamaori Tetsuo notes: “It must be noted, however, that this well known first thesis of Amino’s conflicts and overlaps with a second thesis: that the Japanese State is beleaguered by the autocratic nature of the emperorship. Between this countervailance and tension is hidden a tremendous abyss that cannot be crossed in a single leap. Perhaps it is within the deep fissure between these two theses that the dark and mysterious forces of the State are concealed” (Yamaori 1994:219).
In Amino’s account, then, the kugonin system comes forward as a place where extremes meet, as a vehicle for both liberation and despotism. Is there a way to “solve” this ambiguity?
Karatani and Amino
As a small aside, let me mention that Amino’s account of the dual nature of imperial power has probably been an important influence on Karatani Kôjin’s recent thoughts on the difference between empires and nation-states (e.g. Karatani 2004, 2006). While nation-states model themselves on the idea of a national community, empires are indirect structures of rule that seldom interfere directly with the governing of the various peoples or communities under its jurisdiction. According to Karatani, imperial rule instead consists in regulating the commerce and other forms of exchange that take place between the communities it has subjugated, in the gaps or interstitial spaces where people encounter each other as strangers. Empire, then, is the shared rules that allow strangers to engage in exchange.
With Karatani’s terminology, we could say that in the case of ancient and medieval Japan the “empire” consisted in the rule extended over what Amino calls the itinerant non-agricultural population and the lines of communication they used. Spaces in-between communities are exactly what Amino refers to as muenjo – riverbeds, mountains, the sea, beaches or cross-roads. Such spaces were inhabited and used by the non-agriculturalists – hunters, fishermen, traders, itinerant shamans or artisans. As Amino points out, the fact that in such spaces people encounter each other as strangers was why markets would spring up there. Pure, rule-governed commercial exchange simply couldn’t take place within a community where normally all exchange of things or services would lead to a strengthening of the bonds between the people involved. The similarities don’t end there. Karatani also seems to build implicitly on Amino when he argues that feudalism is born in the backward “peripheries” of the grand world-empires, such as the Roman or Chinese empires, to which they look up and on which they sometimes try to model themselves. This accounts for the feudal character of eastern Japan, while western Japan was an intermediate form, peripheral in relation to China but with strong ambitions to form a Chinese-inspired “mini-empire” of its own. As Karatani points out – again, probably under the influence of Amino – it is wrong to call Japanese premodern society as a whole “feudal” since Western Japan had more in common with “empire”. In Marxist terms, this means that Western Japan was less feudal than characterized by an “Asiatic mode of production” or what Wittfogel called a “hydraulic society”. If we compare Amino and Karatani, we can see that they provide the same picture – the former a historically contextualized close-up, the latter a generalizable theoretical birds-eye view model, but in essence the picture is the same.
Using Karatani’s terms we can say that the ambiguity of the Japanese emperor system is that it combines the cosmopolitanism of a non-agricultural “empire” with the parochial nationalism of a settled agricultural “community”.
We can recall that during much of his career, Karatani has been battling the “closure” of discursive space in Japan, which he feels is the flip-side of nationalism. In the 80’s he tended to celebrate the logic of capitalist markets, with their link to exteriority and spaces in-between, as a tool for deconstructing the closure of national space (e.g. Karatani 1995a:182, 1995b:143ff). In this tendency, we recognize another interesting parallel to Amino, who similarly musters the non-agricultural multitudes engaging in trade against the stubborn Japanese self-image as a homogeneous, agricultural nation. However, since the early 90’s, probably under the impact of the victory of global capitalism, Karatani has been far more critical of capitalism and instead puts his hope in “associations” – open and non-hierarchical networks of the type long favored in anarchism – which he believes provide an alternative both to the nation-state and to capitalism (along with the latter’s tendency to favor the establishment of empires).
Karatani’s expositions of associationism is lacking in historical detail. The interesting question then becomes: can Amino help us make up this deficiency? Or will the close contact with historical detail which his works offers us instead pull us in some other, but perhaps equally interesting direction? Or is history with its love of detail fundamentally so complex that it must resist political theorizing?
The tug of war
Amino was not the first historian to be interested in the link between kugonin and the emperor. For instance, Nakamura Naokatsu had studied the practice of falsifying kugonin diplomas (nise-monjo sakusei) in the late Middle Ages which he saw as expressing the desire of commoners to idealize the emperor, to whom they looked up since they were tyrannized by the oppression of warriors (Amino 1984:36ff). The emperor had become the focal point of devotion and Utopian expectations precisely because he is one step removed from and unsullied by the repressive order which he has nevertheless sanctioned – just as during the late Edo period. Nakamura, however, saw the kugonin system primarily as a late medieval phenomenon and refused to recognize its existence in the early middle ages. Thereby, in Amino’s view, he missed the chance of explaining the origin of this system and roots of the attachment to the emperor.
To clarify the problem of the entanglement of liberation and despotism, we need to follow Amino’s explanation for why the non-agriculturalists turned to the emperor in the first place. This explanation requires Amino to go back in history to ancient Japan, to the time when the nascent imperial state made its first attempt to control the muenjo (ibid 44). In this, he follows Akamatsu Toshihide, who – against Nakamura – showed that the origin of kugonin system can be traces at least to the early 10th century, to the mikuriya, an office responsible for the fish and other food prepared for religious rites in ancient Japan, and niebito, people providing the fish or birds used in rites. In return for these goods, the niebito would be granted protection and privileges which they could use to strengthen their local power and prestige. By the 11th century, these people would be recognized as kugonin (ibid 1998b:26-29). Going back that far in time is important, because by doing so Amino can show that the formation of the kugonin-system is the result of a long power-struggle between commoners and the state.
Let us first look at the answer to the question of why traders and other itinerants actively strove for kugonin status. This was because the emperor was the guarantor of freedom of travel. In ancient times, fields and mountains, rivers and the sea were free areas where anyone could enter, but by the Kamakura period taxes and tolls were levied heavily at barriers, passes, and ports. The official recognition of the emperor was thus what enabled the itinerants to travel freely, something which was necessary for them in order to make a living. “That was the basic reason that traveling artisans demanded the title of kugonin and the guarantee of privilege” (ibid 2001a:373f). Conversely, the imperial court and officials would gain economic advantage by organizing the kugonin since that helped them secure control over the important trade lanes, waterways and harbors. Often there was fierce competition between court, shrines and temples about who would be able to organize them first (ibid 1998b:b30f, 2001a:372ff).
But how did this system arise? In Nihon chûsei no hinôgyômin to tennô Amino looks at the ancient imperial right to rule ”mountains and fields, rivers and sea”, which probably originated as “the natural and original rights of the community” itself, which was impersonated in the person of the ruler. As the first centralized state emerges in Japan with the ritsuryô system as its legal backbone this right was used by the emperor to prohib commoners from hunting on imperial hunting grounds, but on the whole, mountains and rivers are left to the commoners to use freely in accordance with their age-old rights (ibid 1984:97f). While the ritsuryô laws codified the emperor’s right to all land, they also established that mountains, fields, rivers and the sea were places where anyone was free to enter, and that they would be administered by centrally appointed local governing organs and not handed out as fiefs (shôen) to the aristocracy (ibid 2001a:121). However, with the increasing partitioning of land into fiefs starting in the 8th century, regulations were gradually tightened. In tandem with that the ”original rights” start to be awarded as privileges to specific groups such as the niebito. Finally, they take the form of the freedom of travel granted to limited groups such as the kugonin (ibid 1984:97f).
But in the course of this process, there was struggle. Communities resist the increasing privatization of mountains and fields in the hands of the aristocracy with “a tenacious vitality which power-holders are forced to recognize”. That such resistance was raised in the name of the anger of "the god of the land” (jinushi no kami) shows that it was motivated not by a violated sense of collective village ownership (iriaichi) but by something more basic, ”the people’s fundamental right to ’lands and oceans’”. As examples of the assertiveness of non-agriculturalists in the late Heian period, Amino mentions the jinin of Ise Shrine storming into the residence of the minister Fujiwara Kanetada, and mountain priests and yamabushi threatening the court. In late 11th century the court responds to this both by tighter regulations and by trying to co-opts the non-agriculturalists, “organizing them within the system” by according them privileges as kugonin. In that way, the kugonin system is stabilized in the 12th century. Although increasingly regulated, these rights are also given official recognition and live on because of (ibid 1984:100, 2007b 407).
In this account, there is very little or no harmony between emperor and non-agriculturalists. What comes forward is instead the image of a fierce tug of war between those groups in society who want to make use of the freedom of movement and the state power that tries to subjugate them. The really important point is that Amino clearly shows that it was popular resistance, rather than benevolent imperial protection, that helped preserve at least a measure of freedom for the “mountains and fields, rivers and the sea”.
Clarifying the relation between emperor and muen
Even in our modern times, Amino writes provocatively in Nihon chûsei no hinôgyômin to tennô, many of us have had opportunity to grow attached to the familiar sight and characteristic calls of travelling salesmen. But we should be wary of nostalgia: ”In practically all of these people, we have now distinctly discerned the shadow of the emperor. That the shadow of the emperor and the gaze of discrimination are both present at the very heart of the life of the common people is an abysmal fact which we need to confront with steady eyes and ascertain with own hands” (Amino 1984:101f).
No doubt statements like this have contributed to the impressions that Amino presents us with a thesis of an indissoluble entwinement between emperor and non-agriculturalists. However, as I have shown, in reality his account shows that this entwinement is a contingent relation. The emperor is a secondary phenomenon, an external force that tries to control and regulate the movements, the trade flows and the markets of the non-agriculturalists and marginal spaces where they take place.
This is stated with all necessary clarity by Amino himself. In one text, he approvingly quotes an important statement by Ishimoda Shô to the effect that in Japan the state made its first appearance – starting with Himiko, the shaman-queen mentioned in Chinese sources – in the form of control over markets and foreign diplomacy. “The monarchial rule over the market was a secondary [kôhatsuteki] element, and the market is by origin [honrai] something rivaling and checking such rule”, Amino concludes (ibid 1998a:331f).
This statement is an important clarification in several respects. To begin with, it bears directly on the problem of the origin of the state – a problem which has been much debated (in Japan perhaps most famously by Yoshimoto Takaaki in Kyôdô gensôron) without any conclusive results. Amino uses his division of the population into agriculturalists and non-agriculturalists to suggest a theory that explains this origin. The state comes into being in order to control that which escapes the community – which is to say: the itinerants, the non-agriculturalists who make their living in the marginal spaces outside the settled community. In other words, the state in its very origin comes into being as what Karatani calls an “empire” that aspires to rule over the “traffic” or trade between or outside communities.
However, if the state comes into being precisely as rule over muen, is muen then really capable of offering any resistance or refuge from the state? That itinerancy and the wandering in marginal space can offer freedom from the closure of settled community and agricultural life goes without saying, but can it offer any freedom from “empire”, which by contrast thrives on openness, trade and cosmopolitanism? Is Amino after all, in his affirmative stance towards the non-agriculturalists, taking the side of empire?
No, because in his account of the origins of the kugonin system he shows that muen and the freedom of marginal space can do without the emperor. Imperial rule was secondary. All he is saying is that imperial power was formed in the process of establishing rule over marginal spaces outside or between communities. The special link established between these spaces and the emperor was formed because they were beyond the reach of the community or the power of the local lords and that therefore only the emperor could control them. Empire is the last card played by the forces of order to rein in and impose rule on the areas of anarchy.
My criticism of Amino
I am not wholly satisfied with this clarification, since I wonder if Amino is not putting unnecessarily much emphasis on the link between muen and the emperor. Muenjo need a plurality of rivaling power-centers to proliferate, not the protection of an emperor. This is shown by the fact that they thrived in periods when power was fragmented and by the fact that they were found also outside western Japan where imperial rule was strongest.
This also means that I don’t accept any simple equation saying that muen can be only be formed in Karatanian “empires”. Remember that Amino himself compares muen to the “asylum” of feudal Europe. This strongly suggests that sanctuaries don't need the protecting hand of an emperor. What is crucial is a fragmented power structure in society and probably also a widespread sense of the sacred. This of course does not mean that I am going to advance any opposite thesis feudal society being a more favorable environment for muen than empires. But I don’t see any evidence at all that muenjo can only emerge in empires.
The entire emperor-paradox in Amino’s writings seems to stem from a strange unbalance. As I have shown, he clearly states that the muenjo arise and are preserved in ancient Japan because of the strength of popular claims. But as soon as one recognizes the importance of popular claims as the basis of muen, then it no longer makes sense to claim (as Amino does in works like Igyô no ôken or Nihon shakai to tennôsei) that the fall of imperial prestige after Go-Daigo’s failure was a decisive factor in weakening the respect for muen - let me refer to this claim as the "Go-Daigo thesis" as a shorthand. Such an explanation only makes sense if muen needs imperial support for its existence. But is he right? Wasn’t there still a popular, religious basis for muen that didn’t need the emperor? I think Ikkô-ikki shows that there was.
Amino himself seems to be aware of the continuing strength of the popular energies that helped uphold the ideal of muen even as late as in the Sengoku (Warring states) period. Commenting on the fact that many of the formal letters recognizing the rights of muenjo or the rakuza-rakuichi were issued by feudal lords of that period, he stresses that such institutions were neither invented by those lords nor granted willingly. The statutes built on strong local tradition which were only recognized reluctantly by the lords, when they had no other choice. Giving them official recognition was often just a final means to bring them under at least partial control (Amino 2001b:35, 52f, 170f).
Amino’s ”emperor-problem” in fact consists of two separate problems: the problem of Go-Daigo (is it tenable to portray him as the hope of the discriminated?) and the problem of origins (how deep are the roots of the emperor system in the stratum of common people?). If the entwinement between emperor and non-agriculturalists is really indissoluble the "Go-Daigo thesis" seems reasonable, but as Amino himself shows the entwinement is contingent. It is only after the emperor succeeds in imposing imperial rule on the muenjo that it becomes crucial for traders and other non-agriculturalists to receive the privilege of being appointed kugonin. This admission opens up for the possibility of muen existing without the emperor. If that is recognized, then the "Go-Daigo thesis" is no longer a sufficient explanation.
That Amino himself didn’t feel he had reached a satisfying solution to the problem of the emperor is evident in interviews. In one interview, Oguma Eiji asks him about his attempt to resist the authority of the emperor which uneasily coexists with his preference for many of the features of the society of western Japan, the stronghold of imperial power – such as the fact that it was less hierarchical than the east, that women had a stronger role in society, or that muen was upheld by the big temples. Amino can only reply that he is “still squirming and struggling for a solution” (imada ni mogaite, jitabata shite iru) (Amino 2002:200f).
This squirming and struggling seem to arise from the fact that Amino still believes that the emperor’s protection was important for maintaining muen and the other parts of western society he liked.
However, the features of western society Amino likes do not seem to have relied necessarily on closeness to imperial power. That muenjo and the regions of freedom it offered were not in need of imperial protection is demonstrated by the fact that muenjo existed also outside western Japan – for instance on Tsushima, a very marginal domain. The famous enkiridera Tôkeiji was located in eastern Japan and so was Mantokuji. As Amino himself shows, many of these temples were granted their rights not by the emperor but by feudal lords, and the rakuichi rakuza were also implemented by feudal lords. To repeat: what muen needed to thrive was a strong living sense for the sacred and the absence of a strong secular central power, not the emperor.
Surely we can imagine travelling salesmen without the shadow of the emperor.
The “emperor problem” in Amino’s writings does not consist in any thesis of an indissoluble link between the emperor and the non-agriculturalists. As he shows, that link was contingent.
This does not by itself solve the bigger problem of whether the “freedom” of muen is attractive as a guiding star today. Even without the emperor, isn’t there always a risk for mini-emperors to spring up in organizations meant to resist hierarchy and oppression? The risk even of lynchings and other forms of internal repression in the name of the “sacred” struggle against outer enemies? Look at the ikki who adopted the orange dress and the straw hats of the hinin. Were the real hinin welcome to participate? And look at the temples functioning as muenjo – what happened to those who challenged their hierarchies?
As Oguma asks Amino in his interview, didn’t the muenjo have their own internal stratifications and hierarchies? Weren’t they often in fact a prime example of the kind of enclaves run by local bosses that Maruyama Masao criticized as a mainstay of the emperor system? Amino’s answer is vague – such opinions, he thinks, arise because people think of communes as communities. He doesn’t deny the internal hierarchies, only states that what he wanted to bring out was a way of human interconnectedness that didn’t rely on power or state (Amino 2002:192f).
In one of his books, Amino himself addresses the objection that the free cities were ruled by rich elite cliques, that the local powerholders who led the ikki were themselves oppressors of their servants and that the temples serving as sanctuaries for a variety of refugees (kakekomi-dera) were little better than "takobeya" (notorious cramped lodgings of workers), or that the Honganji temple was pervaded by hierarchies with the head priest at the top. Again his answer is vague. He says that he won’t argue against these objections, but adds that these relations of private possession, private subservience or the logic of dominance were counteracted by the principle of muen which was also at work in these organizations (Amino 2001b:34).
These objections touch on a fundamental problem. Can muenjo be organized? How can a sacred place be regulated without itself being profanated, turning into a secular worldly power? Isn’t that what happened to the the Buddhist establishment? Isn’t it also exactly what happened to the capitalist market, which Amino claims developed out of the muenjo? Is it possible to imagine an unregulated public or commons, in which the ”sacred of chaos” can remain untained?
Amino has no solution, but at least he brings up face to face with the problem.
He talks about communes and mirs. Like them, the sacred of muen, of the primitive and of nature, can remain an inspiration for revolts, a reminder of freedom that can spur us to resist and try to go beyond the worldly order of power and money.
He seems to suggest that what muen needs to thrive is not organizations. It needs something very different, a completely other way of life, the outlook of the world of itinerants, gamblers, outcasts and bandits. One could call it the air of muen. The organizations that from time to time spring up to challenge the powers that be – the ikki, revolts and religious reformers – are inspired by this air.
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