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Above the Clouds

Status Culture of the Modern Japanese Nobility

Takie Sugiyama Lebra

Publication Year: 1993

This latest work from Japanese-born anthropologist Takie Sugiyama Lebra is the first ethnographic study of the modern Japanese aristocracy. Established as a class at the beginning of the Meiji period, the kazoku ranked directly below the emperor and his family. Officially dissolved in 1947, this group of social elites is still generally perceived as nobility. Lebra gained entry into this tightly knit circle and conducted more than one hundred interviews with its members. She has woven together a reconstructive ethnography from their life histories to create an intimate portrait of a remote and archaic world.

As Lebra explores the culture of the kazoku, she places each subject in its historical context. She analyzes the evolution of status boundaries and the indispensable role played by outsiders.

But this book is not simply about the elite. It is also about commoners and how each stratum mirrors the other. Revealing previously unobserved complexities in Japanese society, it also sheds light on the universal problem of social stratification.

Published by: University of California Press

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. 2-7


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pp. vii-viii

List of Tables

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pp. ix-x

List of Illustrations

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pp. xi-xii

Orthographic Note on Japanese Words

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pp. xiii-xiv

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pp. xv-xviii

In the long years taken up by this study, I have come into debt to countless people. Foremost, I am grateful to the former aristocrats and those around them who allowed me to share their experiences as an interviewer, guest, or semiparticipant observer of their rituals and other activities. ...

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1. Studying the Aristocracy: Why, What, and How?

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pp. 1-27

On May 15, 1947, some two hundred titled noblemen gathered in the imperial palace to hear words of farewell from His Majesty, who in the previous year had already renounced his "divine" status and assumed a human role. Twelve days before, the new constitution had come into effect, designed to ensure universal equality under the law. ...

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2. Creating the Modern Nobility: The Historical Legacy

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pp. 28-61

The basic structure of the nobility under study came into formal existence in 1884 as the result of an imperial ordinance called the kazokurei.1 The embryo had taken shape fifteen years before, which calls us back to the dawn of Japan's modern era, the Meiji Restoration. ...

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3. Ancestors: Constructing Inherited Charisma

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pp. 62-105

Members of the hereditary elite, by definition, owe their status to their ancestors. Kazoku life histories are indeed shaped by the weight of ancestors, which is still felt in one way or another. It is fitting, therefore, to begin our analysis with images of ancestors held by descendants. ...

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4. Successors: Immortalizing the Ancestors

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pp. 106-146

Ancestor worshippers in Japan mention as a major reason for their devotion the debt they owe their forebears for their very existence. Certainly they would not have come to life without their ancestors, but neither would the ancestors have continued to exist without descendants. ...

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5. Life-Style: Markers of Status and Hierarchy

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pp. 147-195

Turning away from the last two chapters' focus on death, the deceased, and ancestors, this chapter looks into the routine life of the latest generations that still "live" in the memories of informants. In contrast to our interest thus far on the time depth of ancestor-successor relations, let us now orient ourselves to the spatial breadth of life conditions. ...

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6. Marriage: Realignment of Women and Men

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pp. 196-242

In discussing ancestors and successors in chapters 3 and 4, we took individual households as units of analysis, and emphasis was on the lineal continuity of each household. While marriage, too, could be seen in the same light as instrumental to the production of legitimate successors to the house, this chapter examines matrimony more as a realignment between households (or househeads), ...

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7. Socialization: Acquisition and Transmission of Status Culture

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pp. 243-284

The kazoku status, to be hereditary, had to have its culture carried on by successive generations. Chapters 3-6 conveyed what that status culture was like; this chapter will consider how it was acquired by or transmitted to kazoku members, with a main, but not exclusive, focus on the child. ...

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8. Status Careers: Privilege and Liability

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pp. 285-333

We have examined how kazoku children were reared and trained in the home, boarding houses, and schools; let us now take up their adult careers. In so doing, we will be more in touch with the public realm, which so far has been treated largely as the ground for private, domestic life. ...

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9. Conclusion

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pp. 334-355

To conclude this ethnographic journey, I will attempt to pull together salient features of the hereditary status and hierarchy that have appeared and reappeared across the preceding chapters. In the introduction we encountered a series of oppositional concepts presented for interpretational purposes; ...

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Epilogue: The End of Shōwa

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pp. 356-362

Emperor Shōwa's terminal illness and eventual demise on January 7, 1989, threw Japan into a state of shock, as judged from the media coverage of the widespread jishuku (voluntary abstinence from festivity and entertainment) and prayer and mourning. Thereafter, open debates about the emperor and the imperial institution as a whole ensued, ...


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pp. 382-393


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pp. 363-382


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pp. 383-394


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pp. 395-408


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pp. 409-430

E-ISBN-13: 9780520911796
Print-ISBN-13: 9780520076020

Page Count: 430
Publication Year: 1993