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  • Itineraries of Power: Texts and Traversals in Heian and Medieval Japan by Terry Kawashima
  • Jonathan Stockdale (bio)
Itineraries of Power: Texts and Traversals in Heian and Medieval Japan. By Terry Kawashima. Harvard University Asia Center, Cambridge MA, 2016. xvi, 240 pages. $39.95.

Terry Kawashima's latest work makes a thoughtful and unique contribution to our understanding of Heian and medieval Japanese cultural history. Starting from the observation that the archipelago during this time period was a scene of constant motion (pilgrimage, itinerancy, military campaigns, exile), Kawashima is intrigued by ways in which the trope of movement [End Page 426] provides a particular window into Heian and medieval constructions of power and powerlessness. Yet while other recent scholarship has focused on specific kinds of movement—such as Heather Blair's study of elite lay pilgrimage to Mt. Kinpusen, or my own study of aristocratic banishment1—Kawashima takes a more abstract approach: she's interested in motion itself, wherever that may lead. The resulting material then is all over the map, so to speak, tracking emperors departing from palaces, aristocrats traveling in far-off provinces, courtier-warriors taken prisoners of war, and deities traversing other-worldly realms, such that the collected chapters strain to maintain their narrative cohesion. In the end, however, this is not necessarily a bad thing. Given Kawashima's nuanced understanding of the period's cultural history, her deep grasp of the literary genres at play, her flair for sustained exegesis of otherwise opaque material, and her sharp command of critical theoretical approaches, we're left with a vision of the Heian and medieval periods both richer and stranger than when we began, which seems a valuable payoff indeed.

Readers should know that Kawashima's approach to motion is more complex and multilayered than one might initially expect. For starters, Kawashima is more interested in exploring motion "as a purposeful trope" within texts than in writing a simple history of actual movement (p. xii). This doesn't lessen her concern for historiography in any way—each text is richly situated in its appropriate historical context. It's more to say that Kawashima is interested in the ways that texts involving motion themselves acted to promote or critique shifting conceptions of power and authority. Second, Kawashima is concerned not only with textual depictions of characters moving from place to place but also with what she refers to as literary motion itself, such as when we find "movement" at the level of genre or literary technique (e.g., a sudden shift from waka poetry to kanshibun within a single text). And finally, when both types of movement (of characters and of literary technique) come together within a single text, Kawashima asserts that we have a particularly potent opportunity to observe how the trope of movement "highlights the struggles and uncertainties that are involved in the attainment and attempted maintenance of power" (p. 9). Each of the book's four main chapters then embarks on a close reading and extended exposition of a text that, for Kawashima, displays the importance of both types of movement to the narrative and its historical implications.

A major appeal of Itineraries of Power lies in the way that Kawashima not only introduces characters, tales, and texts that might otherwise escape [End Page 427] our attention but also in how she springboards from these in ways that question and unsettle some of the more widely held assumptions about the Heian and medieval periods. Kawashima does this particularly vividly in her opening two chapters. Chapter 1 focuses on the Yamato monogatari, the anonymous mid-tenth century collection of prose/poem tales, where Kawashima begins by exploring the manner in which gender and movement intersect in the text in unexpected ways. Pointing out the longstanding tendency, even in current scholarship, to associate relatively free movement with Heian males as a sign of empowerment, and comparatively restricted movement with Heian females as a sign of social weakness, Kawashima argues that the Yamato monogatari suggests otherwise. She directs our attention to the opening of the monogatari, which describes a poetry exchange between Emperor Uda and a favored attendant (Ise), in which his required departure from the palace...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1549-4721
Print ISSN
0095-6848
Pages
pp. 426-431
Launched on MUSE
2018-07-31
Open Access
No
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