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Reviewed by:
  • A Landscape History of Japan
  • James L. McClain (bio)
A Landscape History of Japan. Edited by Akihiro Kinda. Kyoto University Press, Kyoto, 2010. x, 284 pages. ¥6,600, paper.

This collection of essays has considerable merit. It is organized by a scholar, Kinda Akihiro, who is recognized as a leader-of-a-generation in his field (and who currently is the president of the National Institutes of Humanities). The individual chapters (a dozen in number, all authored by Kinda and persons who trained under him) address a variety of theoretical and evidentiary-based topics. They treat issues that begin in Japan’s prehistory and extend to the present day. Collectively, the contributions bring to the fore questions central to a discipline—historical geography—that has long been influential within Japanese academic circles but has remained somewhat peripheral to the concerns of the international intellectual community. The publication of the volume was underwritten by a prominent scholarly organization, the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science, and it bears the imprimatur of the distinguished Kyoto University Press, which went to the added expense of preparing the volume for an English-reading audience. What more could one ask for?

More than might be imagined at first blush. Kinda’s opening two chapters on “Aims and Methodologies,” for instance, can be at times as confusing as they are edifying. His discussion about the place of historical geography within the broader sweep of Japanese scholarship is welcomed. He reminds us that the discipline has a distinguished pedigree in Japan that predates “the adoption of the modern scientific thinking of Western countries” (p. 4). He also reveals tensions in the past between researchers who wished to reconstruct “the cross-section of a place” at a particular moment in time and others who sought to introduce “historical process” by analyzing changes in landscapes through time. The latter, in Kinda’s gloss, gave rise to modern historical geography. But, as simple as that sounds, the details can be murky, clouded by jargon-ridden references to “thick,” “thin,” and “horizontal” cross-sections, “vertical themes,” and “interlocked narrative accounts.”

Kinda never adequately defines such terms, and as a result many readers will be puzzled by the “contextual approach” that he deploys as the foundation for this volume and defends as a new paradigm that can overcome the disadvantages of past avenues of inquiry. On page 14, Kinda describes his methodology as entailing “the following research angles and procedures”:

  1. 1. The features and situations of each factor of the landscape in each period should be analyzed and depicted as accurately as possible. [End Page 255]

  2. 2. An important working process is to search both the functional and historical ecology and the vectors for transformation of factors.

  3. 3. Such processes prevent the clouding of recognition of the facts and the lack of dynamics in the method of the “thick” cross-section.

  4. 4. These processes also ensure that facts are not overlooked and that there is not insufficient recognition of facts in the “thin” cross-section method.

On that same page, the author includes a flow chart intended to clarify these relationships. It complicates more than helps. In the end, it is difficult to fathom the readership Kinda has in mind for such pronouncements. He seems to aim this book at the nonspecialist, at those who know little about Japanese history or geography; but definitions such as this are not likely to make much sense to the uninformed outsider.

The relationship of text to target audience crops up in several chapters. The three contributions grouped under the rubric “Urban Landscapes,” to present one example, provide exhaustive detail about capitals in ancient Japan, medieval towns, and early modern cities. For the uninitiated, the abundance of raw data would appear to be overwhelming, but those chapters are devoid of both introductory and concluding sections that would provide a context for navigating the factual terrain. They just start, and then they just end. Such an approach might be acceptable for an audience with more exposure to Japanese urban history, but unfortunately the factual material presented will be thoroughly familiar, old hat really, to such experts. So, in the end, these chapters are too...


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pp. 255-258
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