- Heian Japan: Centers and Peripheries
Generally speaking, the Heian period in Japan (794–1086) does not enter easily into world history conversations. As is noted in this volume, both world and Japanese history textbooks describe Heian Japan as quintessentially classical, with limited contact with the world beyond its shores. Although written primarily for Japan specialists, Heian Japan: Centers and Peripheries takes a thematic approach that allows world historians to compare Heian Japan to other societies, particularly early states. In the fourteen essays of this volume, the terms “center” and “periphery” refer not only to the political sphere of the Heian court, but also spheres of religion, arts, and literature that may include other parts of Asia. In this brief review, I will summarize four objectives identified by the editors and then describe the articles through three themes useful for comparing early states. A world history scholar will find Heian Japan stimulating in terms of content and methods, if at times challenging for a non-Japan specialist.
The essays variously touch on four objectives pertaining to “centers and peripheries.” While these four points reference a political reality specific to Heian Japan, they may be used for comparison with other societies. The first point establishes the tenth century as a “turning point” in which the state maintained control by turning to the power of peripheral individuals, rather than depend on the Tang China–style governmental structure inherited from late seventh century ritsuryō. This point serves as a temporal linchpin for the other three. The second point focuses on “multiple centers and peripheries” to understand religious, linguistic, and political power, rather than political power centered solely on the Heian capital. The third point proposes that through “integration of centers and peripheries” in terms of politics, religion, and language, central control worked in tandem with private peripheral power, rather than against it. The last point, “privatization,” calls attention to concerns outside the state that increasingly helped “rule and administer” the realm, ranging from imperial consorts to rural notables.
The world historian may find it useful to group the essays in terms of ideas of nation, language traditions, and the nature of the state with its religious and political peripheries. Two articles address conceptions of nation, integrating Heian Japan into the Asian world, and demonstrating early foreign relations in Japan. In “Cross-border Traffic on the Kyushu Coast, 794–1086,” Bruce L. Batten illuminates how the court [End Page 456] acted as a center of the nation through its interactions with the frontier and with other nations. He argues that the Heian court maintained control of both the periphery and its own domain by allowing the government outpost of Dazaifu to act as its agent in diplomatic relations and control of trade. For scholars interested in Buddhism as an international religion, Robert Borgen’s article “Jōjin’s Travels from Center to Center (with Some Periphery in between)” addresses conceptions of nation through the monk Jōjin’s (1011–1081) pilgrimage to China in 1072. Borgen argues that Jōjin practiced a kind of nationalism in which he was conscious of both his role as a representative of Japan and his mission, which placed Japan within a larger Buddhist scholarly world.
In Heian Japanese studies, Japanese national identity is customarily linked to indigenous spoken language, with Japanese privileged over Chinese. Three articles shed new light on the relationship between Chinese and Japanese culture in the Heian context. In “The Way of the Literati: Chinese Learning and Literary Practice in Mid-Heian Japan,” Ivo Smits counters convention by arguing that Chinese writing was central to Heian culture, in terms of not only statecraft but also court literature, in dialogue with Japanese literary texts. In “Terrains of Text in Mid-Heian Court Culture,” Edward Kamens examines the works of courtier Fujiwara no Tadanobu (967–1035) to further demonstrate that the Chinese and Japanese literary worlds intersected and complemented one another through both written text conventions and vocal performance. In terms of gender studies, both of these essays...