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Reviewed by:
  • Le riz dans le culture de Heian, mythe et réalité
  • Robert Borgen
Le riz dans le culture de Heian, mythe et réalité. By Charlotte von Verschuer. Collège de France, Institut des Hautes Études Japonaises. 409 pages. Soft-cover €25.00.

Readers of Monumenta Nipponica may not always recall a key event that occurred during the Heian period: the Norman invasion of England. It is more significant than one might think to those of us in the Anglophonic world who study early Japan, since, thanks to the Normans, from childhood we acquire an extensive vocabulary of words that are ultimately French. This makes learning to read certain types of French relatively easy, as I realized some years ago when this journal asked me to review Charlotte von Verschuer's first book, a study of early Japan's diplomatic missions to the Tang. Although I had been at best a mediocre student of French, I discovered its diplomatic vocabulary to be much the same as that of English. Since the subject matter too was familiar, I was able to read the book with a modest degree of speed and confidence (although perhaps the confidence was unwarranted). Reading French materials related to my own research, I realized, is not that difficult. Moreover, I discovered that scholars writing in French-not all of whom actually are French-have produced excellent studies that those of us in the world of English-language Japanese studies should be reading.

When I was asked to review Verschuer's most recent book, I agreed, because I knew the quality of her work, and its topic was one I needed to learn more about: "Rice in Heian Culture: Myth and Reality" (to translate the title for those whose French is even worse than mine). After I started reading it, however, I realized its language is more challenging and I less qualified to comment than I had expected. I was reminded of Ivanhoe's opening chapter, in which Saxon underlings note that the swine they watch in the field become pork when served to their Norman overlords. As a result of this linguistic distinction between the social classes of English words, French vocabulary relating to high culture, the usual focus of my research, is more familiar than that relating to more mundane concerns such as farming, the topic of this book. Furthermore, although Verschuer has much to say about how the ancient Japanese fed themselves, I quickly realized I lacked sufficient background to do more than mutter naruhodo to myself and assume that her interpretations are correct. To me, they all seem quite plausible, although a reader with more background in the subject might have found issues to debate, as might a person with a sounder command of French. Having warned readers of my own limitations, I will now put aside my confessional "I-review" (shi-shohyō) approach, shift into a more conventional mode, and do my best to offer a fair critique of Verschuer's book.

As the title suggests, Verschuer's aim is to challenge the conventional view that [End Page 407] rice was central to Japanese culture, certainly in the Heian period, if not from earlier times. Her subtitle, which appears only in Japanese script, Gokoku no bunka ("culture of the five grains"), points to the alternative she proposes, namely that Japanese agriculture was more diversified than familiar clichés tell us. To demonstrate this, she looks at an extraordinary range of periods and materials. She begins with the introduction of rice to Japan in late Neolithic times and notes that ancient techniques were still practiced, at least in isolated areas, well into the twentieth century. Readers familiar with her previous work will not be surprised that she makes full use of written sources, including both standard historical texts such as official chronicles, law codes, and census records, all written in Chinese, and literary works in Japanese. Historians may be surprised at how much data on farming she is able to glean from classical poetry. In addition, she draws on archaeological and ethnographic sources, which provide insights into the lives and livelihoods of ordinary Japanese peasants, who were apt to be neglected in...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1880-1390
Print ISSN
0027-0741
Pages
pp. 407-409
Launched on MUSE
2006-09-20
Open Access
No
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