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  • Rulers, Peasants and the Use of the Written Word in Medieval Japan: Ategawa no shō 1004–1304
  • Thomas Conlan
Rulers, Peasants and the Use of the Written Word in Medieval Japan: Ategawa no shō 1004–1304. By FröhlichJudith. Bern: Peter Lang, 2007. 223 pages. Hardcover €27.00/£18.90/$31.95.

Judith Fröhlich's Rulers, Peasants and the Use of the Written Word in Medieval Japan: Ategawa no shō 1004–1304 provides a case study of the Ategawa estate (shō) and explores the topic of literacy in medieval Japan. The monograph's argument is that "literacy coexisted and interacted with orality" (p. 201). By analyzing phonetically written petitions pertaining to land disputes, Fröhlich reveals how peasants from estates such as Ategawa understood their world through oral tales and images, which were transcribed into written records.

Fröhlich thoroughly analyzes secondary scholarship regarding literacy, but she tends to overly distill arguments, causing important points to be lost. For example, she cites Michael Clanchy's From Memory to Written Record: England 1066–1307 as providing useful categories for examining the "making, using and keeping" of documents (p. 25), but she fails to acknowledge Clanchy's argument that "the medium is not the message."1 Pace Clanchy, Fröhlich believes that the medium is the message. "Orality . . . influenced . . . the ways of thought and expression of the peasants. The borrowing of structures of narration from other text genres indicates that in rural society, strict limits did not yet exist between oral and literate forms of narration, be it petitions, gossip or tales" (p. 193). Thus, petitions matter because they were drawn up "for purposes of self-representation" or "vocalizing resistance" by peasants (pp. 155–56) who "composed documents out of their own will." (p. 191).

To Fröhlich, orality represented a distinct ("rural") mode of thought involving forms of expression (genres) different from those employed by the literate. A peasant's world view, or "referential system," used images (p. 189), but peasants could not "relate to something that was not part of a set narrative tradition" (p. 190). Why Fröhlich believes that statements transcribed into "Chinese written style" (p. 156) are fundamentally different from "oralising" (phonetic) scripts such as katakana (p. 196) is not clear, particularly because, as she recognizes, estate managers helped "the peasants" in writing their katakana petitions (p. 162).

Fröhlich is ready to imagine the peasantry's reaction to oral recitations—going so far as to "see with their mind's eye the meadows and wooded mountains of Ategawa no shō in the fall" (p. 181). Her vision fails, however, when she tries to define who [End Page 161] these "peasants" were. She portrays myōshu as "upper class peasants" (pp. 158, 160), or "local land managers" (pp. 160, 166) when in fact these men served on guard duty, were known as "lords of the land" who ruled over hyakushō, and considered themselves to be equals of the Kamakura bakufu's warriors.2 Even some hyakushō, social inferiors to the myōshu, are documented as owning short and long swords and bows and arrows. As Asakawa Kan'ichi noted in his Documents of Iriki, the thirteenth-century hyakushō constituted "residents upon land ... capable in an instant's notice of donning their armor, saddling their horses and riding out to battle as fully equipped soldiers."3 Not an "innocent group" forced to flee a warrior's "terrifying threats" (p. 181), many of these "peasants" were actually part of what Fröhlich conceives as a distinct "warrior elite" (p. 135). Typifying such misperceptions, she translates ōryōshi, a provincial constable appointed from the ranks of warriors, as an "aid inspector" (p. 65).4

A lack of precision and inconsistency marks this work throughout. On page 19, for instance, Fröhlich refers to village communities as being well established, while on page 65, she acknowledges that villages were only beginning to exist during the latter half of the thirteenth century. Some factual errors in need of correcting include: Mt. Kōya, or its priests, were never treated as a daimyo, or military lords, in the Tokugawa period (p. 115); Tōji had four individuals, not one, who...


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