The Journal of Japanese Studies 32.2 (2006) 419-423
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This is one of the most creative and original books on Japan to appear in many years. Based on a careful reading of primary and archival sources and a thorough grounding in the Japanese and Western secondary literature, Howell proposes an innovative reinterpretation of early modern Japanese society and its transition to modernity. Howell's principal argument is that status (mibun) was the primary locus of identity in early modern Japan. The boundaries of the Japanese state, he argues, were marked by the boundaries of Japanese social hierarchy. Howell uses this idea as a framework for two extended case studies, one of the Ainu, and the other of "base people," such as eta and hinin. These two cases would, in a more traditional framework, be treated separately, as questions of status (for the eta and hinin) and of ethnicity (for the Ainu). Howell, however, contends that Ainu "difference" was rooted in status. What made the Ainu different from Japanese was less their ethnicity than their exclusion from the early modern status system. Ainu did not fit into any Japanese status group: they certainly were not samurai, but neither were they farmers or townsmen or members of a base caste. Ethnicity, Howell suggests boldly, may not be a useful term in discussing early modern Japanese identity (p. 6). What made people Japanese in the early modern era was not their shared culture but the common framework of their differences. To recast Howell's argument in Bourdieuian terms, the early modern status system was the field within which all Japanese subjects took positions.
This is an innovative and largely convincing reconceptualization of early modern society. I was especially impressed by Howell's willingness to challenge his own published research. Part of the research presented in [End Page 419] Geographies of Identity has appeared before, such as in Howell's 1994 Past and Present article entitled "Ainu Ethnicity and the Boundaries of the Early Modern Japanese State," but in Geographies, Howell explicitly rejects his early emphasis on ethnicity. In a few passages, his engagement with his own earlier research generates a string of negative definitions. "This is not," Howell insists, "a history of the Ainu, nor a history of Japanese policy towards the Ainu, nor, for that matter, a history of the discourse of Japanese ethnic and cultural identity," and further, it is "not a history of how the Japanese Self was constructed vis-à-vis an Ainu Other" (p. 9). These passages aside, I was struck by the boldness and persuasiveness of Howell's argument.
Howell's second and third chapters, "The Geography of Status" and "Status and the Politics of the Quotidian," are especially strong. Howell examines the matrix of status distinctions that mediated everyday life in early modern Japan. Going beyond the well-known distinctions between samurai, farmers, and townsmen, Howell introduces the reader to a spectrum of marginal status groups: the shuku, who purified temple and shrine grounds in Kyoto by disposing of dead animals; the ama, abalone divers along the Japan Sea; the gōmune, entertainers in Edo; and the tōdō, a guild of the blind. Without denying the subordination inherent in outcaste status, Howell shows how outcastes created distinct social spaces, sometimes invisible to outsiders. Eta communities divided duties (such as service as prison guard) and rights (collecting animal carcasses) according to maps that did not correspond to other political geographies, and insisted that outside authorities honor these boundaries (pp. 37–39).
Howell draws a useful distinction between livelihood (which he links to economic activity) and occupation (which he links to status). The image of a poor but proud samurai, secretly making umbrellas to supplement his meager stipend, is commonly taken as a sign of social decay. Howell argues that the Tokugawa status system routinely accommodated such gaps between occupation and livelihood. The outcaste headman of Wana village in Sakura domain, for example, had a...