Sunday, June 26, 2022

A History of Japan: 1615-1867

Sansom's final volume in his magisterial series, A History of Japan: 1615-1867, is significantly shorter than the preceding books. A lot of complex and contradictory traits of this important stage in Japanese history are quickly covered and analyzed while raising so many questions. Since the Edo period is perhaps one of our favorite eras and Sansom's study of it is a great introduction, it is definitely worth the time. However, it seems like the Tokugawa state and the type of nation they were attempting to build was one that moved in contradictory directions. Agricultural, industrial, commercial, and scientific advancements continued and were sometimes supported by a government that was based on feudal principles but sought to create, at least for some time, an "authoritarian dictatorship" or totalitarian state. 

An example of this can be seen in the growing interest in Western science and learning, trade with Russia and Asia via the Ryukyus, and the importation of non-Christian texts. The policy of seclusion was not necessarily maintained or closely adhered to by various actors during this period. Another example can be seen in the attempts to regulate consumption patterns of the commoners in a social structure that officially placed traders and moneylenders below warriors, farmers and artisans. Yet the warrior class and entire fiefs became indebted to moneylenders and wealthy merchants, some of whom invested their capital into ventures such as Echigoya, which appears to be a forerunner of the modern department store with advertising and sales to poor consumers. These aspects of the social and economic history of the era suggest the ways in which this conservative Bakufu actually oversaw a changing society in which many seemingly "modern" ideas, practices, and concepts developed. 

So, we will continue to read more on Japanese history to see how it complicates our assumptions on modernity, authoritarian states, feudal regimes, militarism, capitalism, and industrialization. The Tokugawa state seems to be an interesting case study of this, particularly for our past interest in the peasantry and urban laborers during what appears to have been a tumultuous era of famines, inequality, urbanization, and the impact of the market on commoners.

Tuesday, June 21, 2022

A History of Japan, 1334-1615

The next volume in Sansom's important work on Japanese history, A History of Japan, 1334-1615, continues from the decline of the Kamakura Bakufu to the Ashikaga Bakufu, Warring States era, and the eventual rise of the Tokugawa Shogunate. While losing our interest during some of the minutiae of the Ashikaga Shoguns and their struggles to maintain authority in the first half of the text, Sansom's second half delves into more interesting topics like Christianity, Japanese relations with Asia and the West, the rise of merchants, peasant uprisings, and the successful warlords who eventually restored national unity. 

Finally, there is some analysis of peasant uprisings and how changes in agriculture, markets, internal and external trade, and roads impacted the peasantry and ji-samurai (kokujin) who often rebelled against the government. According to Sansom, it is unclear to what extent rural rebellions were planned or led by free peasants, but the common occurrence of rural disturbances definitely tells us something about the growth of the Japanese economy in the these centuries and the slippery division between peasants and warriors until Hideyoshi's Land Survey and disarmament. Peasants formed associations, benefitted from the expansion of markets to sell their produce and continued to abscond when it was in their interest to do so.

Even more intriguing are the Japanese traders, pirates, mercenaries and others established in other parts of Asia during the 1500s, from Burma to the Philippines. The expansionist invasion of Korea by Hideyoshi and his talk of India, Persia, Philippines, and other regions alongside the Japanese economic interests and trade with Asia and Europe potentially illustrate how non-Europeans like Japan under Tokugawa Ieyasu, could have, had there been a will to do so, engaged in colonial conquest or at least large-scale trading expeditions around the Pacific and Indian Oceans. We shall revisit this in future readings. 

Wednesday, June 15, 2022

A History of Japan to 1334

In our new obsessive pursuit of reading Sansom's works on Japanese history, we finally completed A History of Japan to 1334, the first volume in a trilogy. Unlike his earlier cultural history, this offers a far more detailed social and political history of events in Japan from prehistoric cultures to the fall of the Kamakura Bakufu. Undoubtedly, he treads on some familiar territory here but with almost excessive details on various political and social conflicts, disputes, or transformations. Of course, the rise of the warrior class in the east and the decline of imported codes and land tenure systems during the Heian period receive special scrutiny. The Fujiwara Regents, and the dazzling life of Heian-era court life with its pursuit of taste and aesthetics also receive a useful overview. 

However, we would have liked to read more about the peasantry, artisans, laborers, craftsmen, traders, and merchants during the varoius eras covered in this volume. We see a glimpse of the future importance of the moneylenders and brokers in the 1200s and 1300s, but what about traders, moneylenders, and merchants prior to that? Perhaps the sources consulted by Sansom and the earlier scholarship he relied upon just wasn't very interested in that question, but it makes one think. Furthermore, it would be interesting to get more details on Japanese relations with the outside world, not just Korea or China. One could probably find this kind of information in more recent scholarship on Japanese history, but we shall continue with Sansom for a while.

Friday, June 10, 2022

The Glorious Victories of Amda Seyon, King of Ethiopia

Although obviously from a different time and era than the chronicles of Ahmad b. Furtu, Huntingford's translation of the royal chronicle of Amda Seyon's 1332 campaigns brought us back to Borno and the campaigns of Idris Alooma. Of course, the chroniclers of their respective kings relied on their own religious traditions and unique political and dynastic claims to legitimacy, but both created relatively detailed and panegyrical chronicles of specific military campaigns during the lengthy reigns of pivotal rulers in the Solomonic and Sayfawa dynasties. 

For instance, both Ahmad b. Furtu and the anonymous chronicler of Amda Seyon undeniably sought to justify the military campaigns of their patrons on religious grounds, with their respective kings reestablishing or restoring the true faith while engaging in large-scale military campaigns that transformed the larger region with population displacement and realignments through imperial expansion. Similarly, both chroniclers compare their patrons to their alleged illustrious forebears, Sayf and the House of Solomon with the expected references to the holy texts of their respective faiths. The major difference here, of course, would be the primary antagonism between Islam and Christianity in the case of Ethiopia while Christianity was a non-factor in Borno's campaigns during the the reign of Idris Alooma.

Despite these probably superficial parallels, we are fascinated by the idea of a comparative study of the Sayfawa and Solomonic dynasties as examples of long-lasting African political systems. Both drew on "world religions" of Christianity and Islam but of course owed much of their origins to an ancient, deeper past in their regions of the Lake Chad Basin and the Ethiopian highlands. Both also provide interesting examples of the vicissitudes of these dynasties during the 19th century and European imperialism as they transformed, declined, or, in the case of the Solomonic rulers, maintained their independence.

Thursday, June 9, 2022

Trouillot and Ardouin

Since we try to read something relevant to Haiti at least once per month, we decided to finally read the short pamphlet on Beaubrun Ardouin by Haitian historian Hénock Trouillot. Trouillot's short study of one of the major 19th century historians of the island briefly covers his background, political career and historical writings. Due to its brevity, one looking for anything like a detailed biographical or critical study will be disappointed. Nonetheless, it's an interesting read, particularly when compared to more recent revisionist scholarship on 19th century Haiti. Trouillot doesn't dwell on what Nicholls calls the "mulatto legend" of Haitian history allegedly promoted by Ardouin. However, due to his familial background, connections, and professions of liberalism, Ardouin definitely did emphasize the role of anciens libres and was clearly an important figure in the illiberal Boyer administration. Nonetheless, Trouillot does not place too much emphasis on color per se, instead seeing the errors and problematic assertions in Ardouin's historical writings as part of his own political biases, social background, or the lack of adequate sources. We hope to revisit Ardouin's Etudes sur l'histoire d'Haïti as well as the works of Thomas Madiou in the future.

Saturday, June 4, 2022



This used to be one of our favorite recordings of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. Now we're reclaiming it as a commemorative piece in honor of our "ancestor" Sayf b. Dhi Yazan of Himyar, in the Arabian Peninsula. This one is for all the Banu Sayf.

Wednesday, June 1, 2022

Japan: A Short Cultural History

George Bailey Sansom's Japan: A Short Cultural History is not short. Exceeding 500 pages, it condenses over 2000 years of Japanese history into a single book. Focusing on cultural developments in the arts, literature, religion, and learning, it unavoidably explores social, political, and economic contexts in various eras in Japanese history before ending in 1868. Since it was originally published in the 1930s, some chapters are outdated and one should probably consult more recent works for prehistoric and early historic Japan. 

However, in spite of its occasionally outdated references and bizarre allusions to "racial" character, this is an enjoyable overview of Japanese Civilization from an old-school generation of British historians. We mean that in a positive way, by the way. There are chapters that also make the reader rethink their assumptions. The Sengoku Jidai period, for instance, was, according to Sansom, a period of economic growth and cultural development despite the warring and destruction. One also gets some semblance of the diverse sects of Buddhism in Japanese history and how Japanese responses to Chinese or other influences changed over time. 

However, I think Morris was a bit more useful for breaking down Heian social structure while Leupp might be more enlightening on the urban laborers and shop hands of the Tokugawa era. In his defense, Sansom's book was first published in the 1930s and he was clearly in a league of his own when it came to Western historians with an interest in Japan. We will have to read the famous trilogy of Sansom next to see his more detailed analysis of Japanese history beyond culture and the arts.