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Response to Review no. 537

I thank Dr Screech for his bracing review and welcome this opportunity to extend discussion. I address four of the points Dr Screech raises.

First, Screech finds my emphasis on maps disproportionate since they ‘were rarely printed, and so are somewhat out of place as the core’ of the book. Although it is true that official maps seldom saw print, they provided the foundation for a commercial cartography that was probably the most prolific in the early modern world and a dominant part of Japan’s print explosion. (Incidentally, great numbers of maps were not ‘partial’ but exhaustive in their treatment of the entire country. And details of castle complexes were the sole significant ‘absences’ in maps otherwise faithful, for example, to every neighborhood frontage, palace gate, graveyard monument and hiking trail.) More important, official maps were at the heart of the information revolution both conceptually (insofar as they integrated history, politics, culture and physical features into the first holistic representations of Japan since the classical period) and pragmatically (insofar as they defined the graphic and labelling conventions indispensable to all subsequent spatial discourse). Crucial as the cadastral surveys certainly were, the maps gave legible expression to the logic of union even as they situated the polity of a conquest regime in a masterfully supple geography of history and society. All the texts I discuss – from personnel rosters to urban directories – built on cartographic frameworks.

Second, Screech finds my neglect of manuscript material a ‘serious limitation’. He is surely right to want more, and I hope in this or a later lifetime to at least double my knowledge of the full written record of nearly three centuries. Still, my focus on print is a matter not just of competence but of purpose. My explicit concerns in the book are the origin, character and significance of what I call the ‘library of public information’ – a wide range of texts, substantially new to the seventeenth century, that share both a common goal (to examine and order the verifiable facts of contemporary experience for an open audience of consumers) and a common attitude (which presumes the knowability through observation of worldly phenomena, the coherence of those phenomena through holistic and taxonomic modes of analysis, and the entitlement of ordinary readers to know what is known). An attendant concern is the revelation in the texts (through their tropes and standard entries) of that fugitive source of collective identity we call common knowledge.

I fully appreciate Screech’s point that information was not confined to print and that the comparison of manuscript with print material can clarify the scope of information in circulation, the patterns of dividing intelligence between media, and the (often implicit and self-imposed) censorship at work in early modern Japan. My concerns nonetheless guided me to texts emphatically identified through commercial print reproduction as public, accessible and mainstream. Indeed, to explore common rather than exceptional knowledge I concentrated on the routinely reissued staples of the information library. I concede being impressed by the volume and variety of that knowledge. But if I omit mention of sensational episodes of discipline outside my purview, I do repeatedly stress the very real limits of the information library (notably a retreat from anything resembling a critical social science).

Third, Screech raises questions about my use of the word ‘nation’. The term is, for me, neither a fixed and absolute notion nor a synonym for the modern order. It is simply a heuristic device that enables comparison, and hence elucidates the ultimate particularity of all variants across space and time alike. Given a workable definition (‘nation signifies the congruence within a bounded territorial dominion of a paramount state institution and a cultural consciousness of membership’), we can illuminate a certain likeness among cases that satisfy the terms. Comparison is much more useful, however, in illuminating difference. Thus, I argue, the specifically early modern nation of Japan (unlike the modern nation of Japan, say, or the early modern nation of England) was clearly conceived as an integral territory, but one defined more by internal connection than external competition; it was governed by a coherent state structure headed by the shogun, but one founded on mediated authority and lacking a universal center of allegiance; it was bound by a presumption of cultural literacy uniting ‘our people’, but one detached from any totalising recruitment to patriotism or singular loyalty.

When Dr Screech observes that ‘Being part of a group of readers that precisely did not consider itself defined by the identity of its overlords . . . suggests absence of nation’, he seems to insist on an absolute, peculiarly modern definition of nation (which requires not only a paramount state institution but some identification of members with a personal head) as well as a binary approach to classification (X is a nation, Y is not). This insistence is fine, of course, and characteristic of the modern theoretical literature (which tends to make the nation a quintessentially modern invention). Yet my own interest lies in putting historical variants of the nation in tension, and thus detecting the divergence that looms larger than convergence. In any case, the collectivity projected by the texts of the information library seems to me more than an anonymous public, insofar as it remained adamantly located in a common ground and common knowledge that provided membership in ‘our country’.

On the linguistic question Screech raises, it is worth reiterating that – quite apart from the maddeningly complex role of language in all nations – written Chinese was not a foreign language in Japan.

Finally, Screech speculates that an enduring ‘obsession with information’ in Japan comes at a cost to the analytical or creative or interpretive thought he finds lost in the Japanese school system (but palpable in a current British guidebook to Iran). Here, I suspect, Dr Screech is enjoying a puckish challenge, since he is deeply familiar with the analytical trenchancy of the texts that came out of Tokugawa academies and the creative integrity of Tokugawa fiction and drama. The information library is but a piece of the picture. Yet there, too, analytical sophistication and interpretive power is pronounced; for information does not arrive at an investigator’s door already packaged and transparent in meaning. Selecting and arranging their data, cartographers invented ideologically charged versions of Japan; city surveyors defined a market-centered image of urbanity; compilers of bureaucratic rosters projected an ideal of professional and competitive competence; and so forth. Throughout the information library, never innocent data conveyed subversive as well as safe messages not least, for example, that the self is mutable, mobile and a legitimate social actor. It is the genius of the information texts, as I have tried to show, that seemingly obvious and objective accounts of the social body carry big ideas and pack trouble.