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  • Images of Akutō
  • Morten Oxenboell (bio)

They never confront people directly, but sneak about with their strange bamboo quivers on their backs. At their waist they carry long swords with unadorned hilts and scabbards, and in their hands they hold nothing but long shafted weapons made of sharpened sticks of bamboo or hard wood. They do not even wear breast plates or other kinds of armor. . . . They pay no attention to the laws of the bakufu, and the attempts of the shugo to suppress them have borne no fruit. In this way, their numbers have swelled with each passing day . . ."1

With these words, Mineaiki, a work evidently written in 1348 by a priest from Harima, described groups of local troublemakers whom the author referred to as akutō (literally "evil bands").2 The term akutō appears in a variety of documents dating from the second half of the thirteenth century to the end of the fourteenth century, and the words of the author of Mineaiki have been much quoted by scholars investigating the decline of the shōen system of landholding and the social and political changes taking place in the countryside during this span of time. The image of akutō presented by Mineaiki is of groups of outlaws and fortune hunters roaming the countryside and making life difficult for absentee shōen proprietors in the capital. Arguably, however, the image is an incomplete one. Historians agree that it is not easy to grasp the nature of the various groups referred to in this and other sources as akutō. The quest for common traits linking these groups has proved difficult since they seem to vary considerably in social background, objectives, and activities.3 [End Page 235]

Until the 1980s, the discussion of akutō took shape primarily around two lines of inquiry. The first of these was promoted by Ishimoda Shō and Nagahara Keiji as apart of their attempts to describe medieval society from the perspective of local lords in conflict with proprietos, a situation they held to be one of the major reasons fo the destruction of the shōen system.4 Noting that akutō were often mentioned in the sources in connection to crimes of setting peasant houses on fire, robbery, murder, and other violent acts, Ishimoda saw the akutō as groups of powerful local residents who not only opposed the proprietors, but were also in conflict with the cultivators of the area.

Building on the ideas of Ishimoda, Nagahara took akutō to be in direct confrontation with the Kamakura bakufu and the shōen proprietors, while standing out from the rest of local society in their attempts to establish themselves as regionally based landlords or feudal lords. The nature of the individual akutō, he argued, depended on the relative degree of power of local landlords on the one hand and the shōen proprietor on the other. Nagahara divided the akutō into two categories: provincial akutō and Kinai akutō. The former he saw as for the most part local lords asserting themselves against the authority of warrior family networks associated with the bakufu.5 The Kinai akutō, situated in the provinces near the capital of Kyoto, he regarded as more complex in their composition. Including both warriors and peasants, who joined together in their struggles against proprietors and the bakufu, the Kinai akutō were, Nagahara held, a motive force behind the emergence of feudalism in Japan.

The second line of interpretation of akutō was advanced by Kuroda Toshio , who rejected the "local lords versus absentee proprietor" explanation and instead focused on the struggles taking place within the framework of the shōen system. Local power holders, including those accused of being akutō, were, of course, in conflict with absentee proprietors, but, Kuroda argued, this was true throughout the medieval period and should not be tied to the sudden appearance of akutō in sources of the thirteenth century and their equally sudden disappearance in the fourteenth century. Kuroda stressed instead the link of akutō to economic developments of the time. With the rapid spread of money during the thirteenth century, he proposed, many landowners and lords fell victim to greed and started gambling. This led in turn to their...


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