Japan in Print: Information and Nation in the Early Modern Period
Mary Elizabeth Berry
Los Angeles, University of California Press, 2006, ISBN: 0520237668; Price: £19.95
School of Oriental and African Studies
Date accessed: 1 June, 2023
On a recent holiday to a country that has nothing to do with either Britain or Japan (Iran, as it happens), I took both an English and a Japanese guidebook. I often do this. As expected, the Japanese one was extraordinarily accurate in boat and bus timetables, entry fees and opening hours, all of which were correct. But next to no interpretative assistance was supplied. Mosques with their domes and minarets, buildings and extensions, Shahs and ayatollahs, in short, the culture of the place, were not part of the purview. By contrast, the English guidebook (or I should say the Western one, since I am not arguing for any British exceptionalism) was wrong on most specifics, where it listed them at all, and accepting its own limitation it often told the reader to check at their hotel. But it was expansive on the cultural, or what one might call the contemplative rewards of travel. Here, perhaps, is an atavistic extension of what Berry writes about in her fascinating new book, Japan in Print. She calls the archives that were created with astonishing rapidity in the early Edo period (roughly, the seventeenth century) an 'information library'.
Berry is too judicious to make generalisations about the repercussions into the present, much less to proclaim that she has located the origin of what became a trans-historical norm of 'Japanese culture'. But nevertheless, those who know the Japan of today will feel a sense of familiarity with what she writes, as I do with my guidebook. A sense of familiarity, and also, perhaps, of familiar lack. It remains popular in Japan to note how the education system enforces rote learning of masses of data, while, conversely, downplaying analytical or creative skills (which is often expressed in the conundrum of why has Japan has so many scientists but so few Nobel Prize winners). I would maintain that if Berry is correct in seeing the emergence of an obsession with information in the first generations of the Tokugawa shogunate, and of a way of categorising life and of understanding knowledge by the a positioning of oneself against vast quantities of information, this is indeed very much still the dominant mode.
Berry's book is packed with data to substantiate her claims. In a curious way, she recreates the material she describes. Readers of Michael Ann Holly's Past Looking (Cornell University Press, 1996), will find an instance here of Holly's notion of how past works (she is thinking of paintings but it can as well apply to books) prefigure the shape of their subsequent histories. The information library has infested Berry's book and replicated itself, like a cancer, within it. But this is not to criticise. By making her present book one with its subject, Berry creates, for the modern reader, a sense of access to the older works under analysis, and of reading as an Edo reader read. Berry states how an Edo text will be a 'litany of nouns' (p. 18). Hers is too. But this is not to deny she has a theme or agenda, and, as her subtitle denotes, she has a bold one: the creation via this collective oeuvre of the Japanese 'nation' (on which more below).
Japan, in its early modern, or Edo, or Tokugawa period (1603–1868), is thought of as a country at peace. To a large extent it was, at least in the middle portion of that timeframe, barring several peasant insurrections and the very occasional attempted coup. Otherwise expressed, the early Edo period saw a country emerging from a full century of warfare during which there was no central authority at all. This warfare was quite unlike the battles of Europe, which are petty in contrast, because it engaged such vast numbers of people. Regularly tens of thousand were arrayed on either side, and fighting could occur in many parts of the archipelago at once. The wars were immensely destructive, but also organisational feats of a kind never known in Europe. Under such conditions, Berry has it, a community of knowledge, fed by printed media, could not emerge. Skills were built up and handed on, by experience or through oral traditions, but they were not openly available. One of Berry's most interesting and provocative contentions is that it was the cadastral surveys that are known to have been compiled for purposes of taxation as soon as peace was effectively restored (from the close of the sixteenth century), that initiated the new 'style of knowledge' which was one 'sated by categories' (p. 13).
The Japanese islands are extraordinarily diverse. The north is snow-bound while oranges grow in the south. This plethora had to be subjected to some unifying grid if it was to hold together. A similar proposal was made long ago about France, being both Atlantic and Mediterranean. Japan is infinitely more diverse than France. A force equal to bringing its 2,000-plus kilometre string of mountains into one overarching grip had to be very strong indeed. Under the cadastres, the whole sweep of the landscape was measured, which required certain procedures, and the one chosen, intriguingly, was that of rice equivalency. All land was surveyed and, whatever it actually produced, or was thought capable of yielding, it was assigned a rice-yield equivalent. Since warrior stipends were paid in rice, this allowed an immediate transferability from land to earnings. The shogunate enfeoffed its supporters in quantities of land/rice commensurate with their dignity. The lords to whom they gave territories, or whose pre-existing lands they accepted, possessed publicly-known kokudaka, or 'bushel levels', and tabulations of lordly landholdings were ipso facto tabulations of lordly income. The entire landscape was construed as mobile units, with the lords moved in or out, their lands added or subtracted, as merit or demerit demanded. These lords were known as daimyô, literally 'great landholders'. Indeces of European peerage list by hierarchy of nobility; Japanese ones listed the shogunal court by landholding, which actually meant income. They listed in the same unit, if exponentially more, as that with which a blacksmith or ostler could measure his wealth.
The cadastres are certainly important in Japanese history. But no one has before given them the capacity to construct an entire mental grid, that of 'the knowability through observation of worldly phenomena' (p. 16). And in her conclusion Berry asserts that 'the surveys inducted large numbers of participants – investigators and investigated alike – into an exemplary logic: social phenomena were amenable to inquiry, knowable through observation, and communicable though taxonomic analysis (p. 210). Many readers may find this persuasive, and think it is, at least, the best available working hypothesis. Unification brought standardisation with the cross-referencing of administrative units. It was via assessment – and being assessed – that people learned 'in effect, how to be a public – an object of analysis and collective definition' (p. 42).
This is where Berry's story starts. Some will want to know more about printing in Ming China, which was surely a major influence, but which is barely note here (see p. 147), as an impetus to putting information out into general circulation – not least as the cadastres as such were not printed
The cadastres begin, but maps are also a major part of Berry's book. In some ways they rather unbalance it, occupying, as they do, so large a chunk in the middle section. Yet indeed, it was by mapping, literally and by metaphorical extension, that the archipelago became be known, brought together, and its people could merge. It is notable (and Berry notes it), however, that maps contained absences. The Tokugawa castle in central Edo (modern Tokyo) was never shown. It is a blank on the depicted city space – which led to some wild interpolations when maps were exported and European cartographers sought to plug this gap, adding Versailles-style parterres and orangeries. Maps were also always partial, showing regions or cities, but rarely the entire landmass. Maps also retained ancient and long-defunct political boundaries, and wrote in sites of purely poetic renown. They therefore included the past within the present. The current daimyô, or even the shogun (who directly ruled some third of the land) was inheritor and custodian, but not necessarily permanent possessor of his territory. His political boundaries might not even be demarcated. The Japanese map is a thing of great interest. But again, they were rarely printed, and so are somewhat out of place as the core of Berry's book.
Printed books (not printed pictures) are the real theme, and how they circulated information. Enviably sitting in UC Berkeley's sensational East Asian Library, Berry has been surrounded by printed matter of all kinds. She is overwhelmed by their extensiveness, and who wouldn't be? But it is also the case that many aspects of knowledge were not covered in books, and many things that were covered were not covered in print, only in manuscript. Although cadastres and most maps remained un-printed, Berry has no interest in the manuscript, and this is the one serious limitation of the present study. The shogunate, in fact, did control the presses, and did not permit the circulation of many kinds of information, for all that the quantity of information distributed was big and some unexpected fields (daimyô income, shogunal officeholders) were not policed. Of late, scholarship has tended to focus on censorship and acts of prohibition. Berry's celebration of the range of available printed material is certainly welcome, and perhaps a necessary counter-balance, but she goes close to the other extreme. Looking at non-printed work (beyond cadastres and maps), would have extended her argument, showing how, if manuscripts are taken into account, even more information was available. By addressing manuscripts she would also have shown how emphatic was the division between what could be printed, what could only be published in manuscript, and, indeed, what could not be written in either. Several works now thought key to understanding the Edo period were never published. One example is Hokusa bunryaku ('Tales of a Northern Raft'), one of the first extensive eye-witness surveys of Europe, taken down from the words of a castaway who had spent many years in Russia and met Catherine the Great, compiled in 1793. Matters dealing with the state, its formation and the alterities of differing systems, could not be printed. This book was never published. But we know it was widely read in manuscript. This distinction might seem technical since it does not figure that printed books necessarily circulated in more copies that manuscripts, but it was a matter of law, or of taboo, and crucial for commercial or even actual survival to observe fully. Nor does Berry tell us of Baba Bunkô. His fate is instructive. Bunkô was an early eighteenth-century storyteller, and although the facts are little known, his tales of past and present goings on in the shogunal castle were circulated in manuscript. For this he was executed in 1758. There are famous cases of others who fell foul of the law, such as Hôseidô Kisanji (who preferred suicide to interrogation) and Kitagawa Utamaro (who was manacled and, with wrists destroyed, never worked as well again, and died soon). Neither figures in Berry's index. Berry might claim that these occur in the eighteenth century, when times were different, but that century also constitutes a major part of Japan's early modern period, as mentioned in her title. Her claim that 'the state left the past open … and thus made it accessible to popular writers' (p. 238) is a little optimistic.
Perhaps in the deaths of Bunkô, Kisanji, Utamaro and others, we see the split between the information library and the analytical library. Incessantly printed and repeatedly up-dated compendia of all manner of things (temple treasures, daimyô estates, shogunal officers, theatres) came out, but there was much less data that was not overtly informational. It was even the same in fiction, Berry notes, citing the famous novelist Ihara Saikaku, who made stories with 'gleeful lists interrupting the action as virtual parallel plots' (p. 217). And then, as a shogunal chief minister of the late eighteenth century, Matsudaira Sadanobu (admittedly an extreme case), put it, 'we should not offer new interpretations of classical texts'.
Finally, we must return to the notion of nation. Having referred throughout to 'Japan', from the final chapter (boldly entitled 'Nation'), Berry begins to refer to Nihon (which, with the romanisation Nippon, is the Japanese term for Japan). She is aware that 'nation' is a tricky concept and apt to slide into that of nation state, which, of course, she realises is anachronistic. But does 'nation' here mean much more than a public? Nation is a loose concept (the Navajo nation and, say, the French nation are quite unalike). A large portion of any educated Japanese person's reading would have been Chinese. How does this impinge? Being part of a group of readers that precisely did not consider itself defined by the identity of its overlords, like an Islamic ulema or an early-modern German or Italian cultural cluster, or indeed like being an English-language reader today, suggests absence of nation.
Berry has written a book replete with information and with insight. It introduces so many types of publication that have never been properly discussed before, and treats them in terms of quantity and profusion as well as of specific content, that she has probably changed the way her field will be viewed for a long time to come.
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.