Culture of Disputes in Early Modern Japan

A review of The Culture of Disputes in Early Modern Japan, 1550-1700, by DAVID ANTHONY EASON.

In his original and profusely documented dissertation, David Eason fundamentally rethinks the ways in which scholars have framed the historical divide between medieval and early modern Japan.  He does so by focusing on what he calls a “culture of disputes” (p. 7), and on the ways in which efforts at regulating it became central to the rhetoric and policies employed by rulers—first the warlords vying in the civil war of the mid-sixteenth century; then the new regimes that unified and pacified the country at the turn of the seventeenth.  Eason argues that scholars have made too much of the chronological watershed of 1600, and that only by examining these years as a continuum can we grasp the significance of newly articulated ideas about rancor (urami) and restraint (kannin) in the establishment of an early-modern political morality.  The dissertation relies on a vast spectrum of sources that touch upon disputes: letters, placards of prohibitions, chronicles, didactic treatises, fiction, and—crucially—laws.  Historians have long turned to the legal pronouncements of late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century leaders to make sense of the momentous transformations that ushered in Japan’s early modern period.  Eason moves beyond the formalistic approaches that have been used most commonly; drawing on the writings of Pierre Bourdieu, and applying the lessons of European Medievalists like Warren C. Brown and Piotr Górecki, Eason posits that, “the nuanced relationship between law and conflict demands a detailed examination that does not end with a formalist reading of law as it was written on the page but rather extends the analysis to focus on the ways in which rules were applied, avoided, or altogether transformed within the practice of dispute” (p. 14). Ambitiously, Eason proposes to analyze the laws at the center of his study not as products of a burgeoning administrative rationalism, but rather, in light of recent findings by historians of emotions, as expression of permissible or desirable attitudes or emotional postures.

Thus, in Chapter 1 Eason tackles a law code promulgated in 1567, the so-called Rokkaku-shi shikimoku (Rokkaku family formulary), in terms not only of its legal antecedents and formal concerns, but of the conflicts that led to its compilation and that it was intended to address.  The code, which scholars have often compared to Magna Carta, remained in vigor for no more than a year, conspicuously failing to live up to its task of mediating disputes both between the Rokkaku and their followers and among their followers.  By discussing the creation of the formulary as a product and a catalyst of the Rokkaku family’s rapidly declining fortunes, Eason challenges the commonly held view that the flurry of legislative activity of major warrior families in the late sixteenth century betokens a successful drive to centralize judicial authority.  What the formulary signaled, rather, was a broader effort to claim that “the practices of conflict—and of conflict resolution specifically—were deemed permissible only to the extent to which they conformed to the dictates of written law” (p. 63).

The evolving relation between law and the practices of conflict (including warriors’ long-established reliance on self-redress) is at the center of Chapter 2. Here, Eason shifts his focus from individual texts to prolonged efforts, by the leaders of the Mōri family of western Japan in particular, to define the boundaries of permissible violence.  The essay illustrates the ways in which preexisting ideas about public—and thus acceptable—war and its opposite, private violence, were paired with equally preexisting attitudes towards rancor and restraint.   Forging this link enabled three generations of Mōri warlords to couch their own authority and monopoly of violence in terms of a higher moral ideal, while at the same time disqualifying subordinates’ recourse to previously routine forms of self-redress through the intimation that their actions were spurred by a surfeit of unacceptable emotion.  Borrowing from William Reddy’s work on the history of emotions, Eason frames the success of Mōri leaders’ efforts in terms of the creation of an “emotional regime” (pp. 115, 118).

Chapter 3 follows by showing how the rhetoric of restraint (and its lamentable but politically useful opposite, rancor) was embraced at the end of the sixteenth century by other warlords in their dealings with competitors—most notably by the first two of Japan’s unifiers, Oda Nobunaga (1534-82) and Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-98).  Hideyoshi in particular made it the moral and legal underpinning for his policy of “all encompassing peace” (sōbuji).  By emphatically distinguishing between war (kassen) and quarrels (kenka), two concepts/terms that had been used interchangeably to describe anything from local disputes to regional conflicts between rival warlords, Hideyoshi could downgrade all contests not sanctioned by his own regime to petty fights disruptive of the peace.  Taking inspiration from the Mōri, Hideyoshi associated his own proclamation of all-encompassing peace with the dispassionate exercise of public authority (kōgi). All displays of excessive emotion (rancor in particular) became violations of the peace; any accusation that a recalcitrant lord was moved by rancor disqualified his claims and became an indictment of his loyalty.

In Chapter 4, Eason analyzes the ways in which the authorities of one early seventeenth-century domain, Owari han, dealt with the culture of disputes in its castle towns. The resettlement of warriors in cities created new challenges for rulers trying to keep the peace, especially as they tried to enforce newly established social demarcations between commoner townsfolk and low-rank samurai. Eason focuses on a type of law that is often seen as representative of the draconian enforcement of this mandate, the so-called kenka ryōseibai-hō (laws that punished with death all participants in a quarrel, irrespective of fault).  By looking beyond the letter of the laws themselves, and analyzing collected (and published) accounts of violent disputes (ninjō jiken or “cases of injury”), Eason finds that in practice the authorities, far from handing down death sentences automatically, modulated punishments in accordance with a variety of factors: extenuating circumstances were, in fact, taken into account, none more so than whether those involved had displayed (or harbored) rancor.  Far more than previously understood, in other words, the authorities sought to keep the peace in the context of a culture of disputes that had come to be channeled through the rhetoric of rancor and restraint.

Finally, chapter 5 takes on the dissemination of the virtue of restraint in seventeenth-century literature.  Eason shows that the promotion of restraint, along with the condemnation of its absence—not only rancor, but any surfeit of emotion—was embraced well beyond the narrow circles of the ruling class.  Aided by a booming printing industry, seventeenth-century writers made restraint the cardinal moral virtue in fiction and in didactic treatises aimed at a large and growing class of urban readers, more or less consciously furthering the expansion of the emotional regime that had been first devised by regional warlords a century before.

David Spafford
Assistant Professor
Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations
University of Pennsylvania


Primary Sources

Nagoya sōsho (Collected documents from Nagoya), Dainihon komonjo iewake (Old Japanese documents, by family), Chūsei hōsei shiryōshū (Collected sources on medieval legal precedents), Yamaguchi-ken shiryō (Sources from Yamaguchi prefecture), Asai Ryōi shū (The collected works of Asai Ryōi).

Dissertation Information

University of California, Los Angeles, 2009. 307 pp. Primary Advisor: Herman Ooms.

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