- Across the Perilous Sea: Japanese Trade with China and Korea from the Seventh to the Sixteenth Centuries
It is the rare academic book these days that merits rereading, much less republication, nearly two decades after its initial release. Charlotte von Verschuer's Across the Perilous Sea is one such book. Originally published in French in 1988 as Le commerce extérieur du Japon des origines au XVIe siècle, this work is now available in revised form in English. Although the original edition was warmly reviewed by Andrew Goble in MN 45:3 (1990), the book failed to receive the attention it deserved, particularly from American scholars, because of the language in which it was written. The appearance of Across the Perilous Sea is thus a welcome event that more than justifies, I believe, the publication of a second review of essentially the same book in the same academic journal.
Across the Perilous Sea begins with a new preface, in which Verschuer situates the work in its historiographical context so as to explain why it remains relevant. (Although she is too modest to say so, the book remains relevant largely because it has no serious rival in a Western language.) The preface is followed by five substantive chapters, which describe, in more-or-less chronological order, the development of Japanese trade with China and Korea over the millennium from roughly 600 to 1600 CE. Rounding out the book are a number of useful (although not particularly well-produced) appendices; a pleasingly full, up-to-date bibliography; and an index that doubles as a glossary thanks to its inclusion of Chinese characters.
For those not familiar with the original work, Across the Perilous Sea can be roughly summarized as follows: During the seventh through ninth centuries, Japan's external trade took place mostly within the political framework of tributary relations, whether with China, to which Japan played a subordinate role, or with Korean kingdoms, which it attempted to subordinate (chapter 1). Between the tenth and twelfth centuries, private (albeit regulated) trade, largely mediated by Chinese merchants, came to the fore (chapter 2). Whether trade was conducted through political or commercial channels, Japan's imports typically consisted of perfumes, medicines, fabrics, ceramics, and Chinese books, and its exports of gold dust, mercury, sulfur, and high-end Japanese manufactures (chapter 3). Between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries, Japanese merchants gradually replaced their Chinese counterparts; trade missions were sponsored [End Page 378] by an increasingly diverse cast of institutions and individuals ranging from the Kamakura bakufu, to Buddhist temples, to local leaders in Kyushu; and Chinese coins became a major item of import (chapter 4). Finally, from the fifteenth century, trade became highly commercialized, with imported goods sold on the domestic market for profit and large quantities of Japanese manufactured goods successfully exported to China and Korea (chapter 5).
As noted above, there is really nothing like this book in English. Although more detailed studies of specific topics exist, no other publication, to my knowledge, presents such a coherent, concise, and readable overview of pre-Tokugawa Japanese trade with the Asian continent. (On the topic of readability, let me here congratulate the translator, Kristen Lee Hunter, for her superb work, which cannot have been easy given the many difficult terms.) Across the Perilous Sea benefits from a particularly strong grounding in primary sources, which are quoted liberally throughout. The book has a refreshingly concrete tone, exemplified by its loving treatment of the nature and uses of specific items of trade—an approach that will remind older readers of Edward Schafer's immortal studies of Tang exotics. As a result of these obvious strengths, Across the Perilous Sea should find (or perhaps has already found) a ready home in many undergraduate and graduate course syllabi, as well as on the bookshelves of researchers seeking a handy one-volume reference.
Of course, what from one perspective is a strength may be...