The Soul of Japan

I’m teaching a survey course on premodern Japanese history this semester. It focuses on medieval and early modern Japan, and I wanted the first paper to deal with a big question in the secondary literature and the second paper to deal with a similarly big issue by looking at primary documents (in translation). After perusing a range of materials, I decided to assign Donald Keene’s recent book Yoshimasa and the Silver Pavilion: The Creation of the Soul of Japan (Columbia University Press, 2003). The book is readable in its narrative and straightforward in its method, such as it is. The central argument of the work is stimulating but impossibly large. The New Yorker, surprisingly, put it best in its brief capsule review:

This enterprising account by the doyen of Japan studies demonstrates that the quintessential Japanese aesthetic—which characterizes Noh drama, sand gardens, monochrome ink painting, shoji panels, tatami floors, and the tea ceremony—was the creation of a staggeringly incompetent fifteenth-century shogun, Ashikaga Yoshimasa. His military record was dismal and his domestic life a shambles: his domineering wife abandoned him, his nanny (who probably doubled as his mistress) may have intrigued against him, and a favorite concubine took up with his dissolute son. While warfare destroyed Kyoto and the corpses of famine victims clogged the Kamo River, Yoshimasa squandered his treasury, bringing obsessive perfectionism to such matters as perfume blending. He ultimately abdicated to become a Buddhist priest, devoting himself to the development of the restrained, Zen-influenced style exemplified in his famous Silver Pavilion. Keene’s multifarious learning and engaging manner illuminate the improbable story of the fastidious aesthete whose taste has been so important in forming the look of the modern world.

I asked my students to evaluate Keene’s proposition that the Silver Pavilion and its associated cultural practices represented the “soul of Japan.” Because we hadn’t yet studied late medieval or early modern Japan, I asked them to assess the argument in the context of fifteenth-century Japan, and the results were quite varied. Some were outraged that any scholar would claim that the cultural practices of the shogun and the capital’s aristocrats–even with their occasional plebeian origins and some signs of dissemination into the provinces–could be lifted up as the soul of anything other than elitism. Others dismissed all these cultural endeavors as Chinese imports that would only become Japanese with time. A few were regular Keene cheerleaders. One really stopped me in my tracks by noting that though Keene is happy to juxtapose Yoshimasa’s political failures with his cultural successes, he doesn’t ask the obvious question about the ramifications of this odd marriage of influence and abjection: does it matter that Keene’s soul of Japan is founded on staggering incompetence? Isn’t that worrisome?

Keene’s book is aimed at a popular readership and like most of his work avoids explicit theoretical questions, and in fact most engagement with secondary literature in English and Japanese, which is unfortunate. We do need a detailed, scholarly study of the Ashikaga shoguns and their cultural production in English. Still, I like the fact that the text is completely accessible to undergrads, unlike most publications on medieval Japan, with their panoply of specialized terminology and untranslated Japanese terms and titles. Keene has done us a favor by writing a book that opens some big questions about the nature of political failure and patronage in medieval Japan without really closing any doors. Maybe this book, with its lively depiction of a period that is less and less studied not just in undergraduate classrooms but in graduate seminars, will help bring more people back to the study of premodern Japan.


  1. I’ve struggled enough with Keene this year; another narrative biography with an understated thesis and no engagement with any other scholarship is just too much to take. Worse, the very concept of the “soul of Japan” sets my teeth on edge, which is probably why I’ve never picked it up; I’d spend all my time, if I used it in class, arguing with it.

    We do need good cultural histories, and we need more medieval material in English, to be sure. Last time I taught the medieval period in a survey, I used Berry’s Culture of Civil War in Kyoto and it went over like a lead balloon. I enjoyed it immensely, but it was very tough going for the students.

    I’m confused about something, though: you assigned this book and had them write on it before you’d covered the period in class?

  2. Thanks for the comment, Jonathan.

    No, I meant that a lot of students wanted to respond to the book in terms of the periods after the Higashiyama Era, but since we hadn’t covered them yet, I asked them to discuss the book’s arguments in terms of the period they already knew: pre-16th century medieval Japan.

  3. Isn’t Keene’s thesis the one made a half century ago by Tsuda Sôkichi? I may be misremembering but I know some big scholar, and I think it was Tsuda, who said that everything that went on in Japan before Onin was irrelevant to understanding Japan. For my part I am like Jonathan in having my “teeth on edge” when I hear about countries having souls. At any rate naming one moment or set of attributes as defining Japaneseness is highly ideological. If I used the book I would have the students write essays on what they can learn about the values of Donald Keene from his choices. In essence, why does he write the history that he writes? Keene’s values might seem quite admirable–or not depending. Among my many reactions is a gendered take: to think that it is an attempt to masculinize Japanese culture in a 20th c. nationalizing kind of way. I cannot imagine a modern Japan without Heian literature. Thanks for the post Morgan. I like how your description and focus on the student responses–and there is a mint of value in choosing texts accessible to students.

  4. I agree that there really does not appear to be much available in the way of accessible texts on medieval Japan for undergraduates. Like Jonathan, I also attempted to have students read large sections of Berry’s _The Culture of Civil War in Kyoto_ in a survey course on pre-1600 Japanese history that I taught last year but encountered similarly dismal results. Though I similarly appreciate and enjoy the book immensely, I do not think that I will be trying to assign it in a general Japanese history course again any time soon.

    I am encouraged by Morgan’s experiences with Keene’s book on Yoshimasa, and I might even consider using it in a class at some point in the future once I first looked at it a bit closer myself. As Morgan knows, sweeping generalizations such as anything being the “soul of Japan” infuriates me though, as it runs against everything I believe about stressing the need to understand historical contexts as a defense against the kind of transcendental essentialism that a statement like the “soul of Japan” invokes.

    This time around at least, I am asking students to write a paper based on a variety of medieval codes and battle accounts and to formulate an argument that addresses warrior behavior – in other words, practice versus the ideal. I am admittedly a bit anxious about this, but I have hopes that this approach will elicit some thoughtful and well-argued responses.

  5. What I’m using this semester for my samurai class is Conlan’s State of War: The Violent Order of Fourteenth-Century Japan, and I’m contemplating using it for my general survey — it’s such a shock to the system for people expecting idealized Zen/Bushido/Kamikaze attitudes. It’s got some complex sections, especially on linguistic and social flux, but it does cover a great deal of really good ground.

  6. I am also using Conlan’s monograph this time around, although only select chapters rather than the entire book. I have to once again agree with Jonathan that in all the instances where I have assigned this book – or even just parts of the book – to a class the reaction has been quite pronounced. Some students are surprised or uncomfortable and no doubt want to go back to their already established images of samurai based on movies, comics, and video games. But, after the initial shock, most students also seem to come to appreciate the larger history and are gratified to learn that samurai were not simply one-dimensional, fight-to-the-death killing machines, but in fact a group with complex behaviors, beliefs, and norms.

    Also, to follow up on a comment made by Luke Roberts, I seem to recall that it was Naitô Kônan who is said to have once famously stated that, in order to understand modern Japan, there was virtually no reason or need to study the history of Japan prior to the Onin War.

  7. Thanks for these follow up comments. I guess that for me, it is self evident that the idea of a country having a soul is preposterous. But I’d rather see Keene, or whoever, make an argument like this that is at least of interest to a large group of people than engage in the historiographical equivalent of navel gazing. Also, the essentialist quality of the argument makes for a fertile teaching moment, though I’m happy to let my students come to their own conclusions, as long as they write analytically and use evidence. More worrisome than Keene’s book, for me, is the much more common trend of publishing erudite scholarship about Japanese history that no one but other Ph.D.s in Japanese history will ever be able to read. What an unbelievable waste of time and energy. If I want to know more about a topic like Ashikaga Yoshimasa, I’m not going to rely on a book in English – I’m going to go to the sources, or at least the Japanese secondary sources, myself. This is my personal pet peeve and I’ve attacked it many times and in many places, most notoriously arguing on PMJS that refusing to translate specialized Japanese terms into English is a form of intellectual cowardice. If we have any kind of educational ambitions that extend beyond patting ourselves on the back or arguing with our colleagues in Japan, then we really need to intentionally address ourselves to a much wider readership.

  8. More worrisome than Keene’s book, for me, is the much more common trend of publishing erudite scholarship about Japanese history that no one but other Ph.D.s in Japanese history will ever be able to read.

    I’ve tried three times to disagree with this, and each time I realized that you weren’t saying what I thought you were saying and I agreed with you. So, I agree with you.

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