A disappointment

I’ve been enjoying the textbook I’m using for World History this fall: Felipe Fernandez-Armesto’s The World: A History. It covers the entire world in every chapter, and emphasizes ecological and cultural issues which I’ve been trying to slip into my World courses for ages. For the most part, I’m finding it excellent: readable1 , very up-to-date, balanced.

I’m having one conceptual problem with it: the chapters cover a relatively narrow slice of time, in world historical terms, and are topical. Fine: you have to have some organization, and I’m tired of “If it’s Tuesday, this must be Asia.” But the divisions hew more closely to Western conceptions of “era” or “epoch” so that Asian history feels choppy. A little more foreshadowing to indicate that individuals/topics are going to come up again in later chapters would be a blessing, particularly with dynasties like the Ottomans and Ming which last a long time.

And then there’s the eternal problem: eventually, every textbook gets something wrong in your field. From the chapter “States and Societies: Political and Social Change in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries”:

Clearly, however, for those who shared it, Japanese prosperity was founded on what the Japanese call the Great Peace: The era of internal peace that followed the reunification of Japan in 1600 under a dynasty of chief ministers,2 the Tokugawa, who ruled as shoguns in Edo, while the emperors remained secluded figureheads, performing sacred rites in a provincial court at the old capital in Kyoto. The key to stability was the management of relations between the shoguns and the 260 or so daimyo3 who ruled Japan’s provinces. The daimyo had to be drawn from a limited number of noble families4 , but the shogun appointed5 and frequently transferred them from one domain to another6 . Some daimyo, however, effectively managed to secure hereditary succession in their chosen regions.7 The Shimazu lords of the huge, [sic] domain of Satsuma in southern Japan, for instance, built up enough regional power to exercise effective autonomy8 (and, eventually, in the nineteenth century to challenge the shoguns)9. Normally , the Tokugawa obliged daimyo to maintain houses — and, in effect, leave hostages — at the shogun’s court in Edo and reside there for part of each year. The shoguns also arranged marriages between daimyo families.10 In this respect, the system resembled the way many European monarchs dealt with their most powerful nobles.

I actually like that last line: the parallel between the sankin kotai system and Versailles came up in my Samurai class the other day, and it’s not a bad one. But this description both inflates shogunal authority and obscures the cleverness of the Hideyoshi-Tokugawa settlement.

The social and economic discussion around it is OK, though I’m getting a little tired of the Saikaku as “the spokesman of the age” (657) thing. He gets the “closed country” thing right, which is very rare, citing Japan’s absorption of Korean and Chinese ideas, including Confucianism, over this period. So, I’ll be doing some damage control next week, but it won’t be too bad: I love talking about the Hideyoshi-Tokugawa process as an example of state formation and dramatic social/political reform.

  1. He even manages some humor now and then. Discussing the patriarchal social system in early modern Europe he writes, “Widowhood remained the best option for women who wanted freedom and influence. The most remarkable feature of this situation, which might have tempted wives to murder, is that so many husbands survived it.” (p. 643)  

  2. Technically, yes, the Tokugawa were subservient to the Emperor, but this obscures their function as warlords  

  3. can anyone explain to me why ‘shogun’ gets pluralized and ‘daimyo’ doesn’t?  

  4. define ‘noble’? Daimyo were warlords, often of fairly humble origins  

  5. sometimes meddled in succession, yes  

  6. relatively frequently at the beginning of the Edo period, but once things settle down, they stay settled  

  7. that’s actually the norm, not the exception  

  8. most daimyo were effectively autonomous within their domains. I can’t think of too many ways in which Satsuma is an exception in this regard.  

  9. This, of course is the result of their size and leadership, not “effective autonomy”  

  10. Among the fudai, perhaps. Otherwise, the Shogun’s authority was limited to giving permission, not making arrangements.  


  1. What exactly is this “Hideyoshi-Tokugawa process”? The phrase just doesn’t work; the given name of one warlord glued together with the surname of one of his peers who later founded the Tokugawa shogunate. Surely the process of unification cannot be credited to Hideyoshi and Ieyasu without some mention of Oda Nobunaga. And aren’t we over that whole “three heroes” model anyway?

  2. Perhaps a parallel for daimyo as noble would be in the Roman system, where the “noble class” of “noble blood” would be the patricians, while any commoner who achieved the consulate, the highest civil magistracy apart from “censor”, automatically made their line “noble”, but not “patrician” since they still lacked that ancient blood. I think he might be using it in a similar fashion, that is humble or royal origins aside, it’s the *class* that made it “noble”.


  3. Morgan: I admit, it’s a term I just made up, though it pretty accurately describes how I tell the story. Oda Nobunaga was not much of an institutional innovator; I mention him sometimes because the “three unifiers” is still an active cliche, but I don’t consider him a hugely important figure (especially not in the context of a World History survey, where my time is limited). Some of the key components of Hideyoshi’s post-unification pacification weren’t original, but the entire package certainly demonstrated a remarkable vision; Tokugawa Ieyasu added some useful elements, and institutionalized the whole thing with a secure succession. One of the things that does bug me about the text is that it credits pacification to the Tokugawa without mentioning Hideyoshi, a even more outdated narrative than the “three unifiers.” (The only mentions of Hideyoshi are in the context of the military unification of the islands, followed by the clever use of the Korea campaigns to siphon off samurai, and his cadastral surveys which are in the context of mapping and survey projects elsewhere) Telling the story of Hideyoshi and Ieyasu in the context of state-building processes elsewhere is very effective: it introduces lots of key Japanese history concepts, but also puts it in the context of broader trends.

    Chris: I give you a lot of credit for finding a way to make that terminology work, but the continuing distinction between daimyo as samurai and court aristocrats as nobility makes it a pretty tendentious phrasing in any event. There wasn’t a “samurai nobility” separate from their status as daimyo who were sometimes elevated to daimyo status, at least not that I’m aware of.

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