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Reviewed by:
  • War and State Building in Medieval Japan
  • Suzanne Gay (bio)
War and State Building in Medieval Japan. Edited by John A. Ferejohn and Frances McCall Rosenbluth. Stanford University Press, Stanford, 2010. xi, 180 pages. $60.00, cloth; $20.95, paper; $20.95, E-book.

From this book’s title, one expects an account of Japan’s two medieval shogunates and their systems of vassalage, with emphasis on conflict as the main vehicle of political change. Instead, the book offers a fresh rationale for Japan’s transformation from medieval to early modern times, utilizing comparative historical and political theories of European origin. An introduction and postscript contain the editors’ provocative if one-dimensional explanation for successful political and territorial consolidation in late sixteenth-century Japan. Between are six essays by historians of Japan who address “the choices made by lords and peasants throughout the medieval period and across different parts of Japan” (p. 11). These vary in the degree [End Page 124] to which they apply the editors’ theoretical framework, but each is illuminating in its own way.

John Ferejohn and Frances Rosenbluth first posit a theme of resistance, citing four groups that opposed political incorporation in medieval times: mountain dwellers, pirates plaguing coastal commerce, the “political arm of Buddhism” repelling the government’s encroaching territorial and jurisdictional authority, and the outer daimyō of Kyushu, Shikoku, and remote eastern Honshu who were finally defeated in 1600 at Sekigahara. In their geographical isolation and effective fighting techniques, the first group is likened to Swiss farmers who resisted domination by outside lords. Members of the second group are characterized as resisters preying on commercial ships rather than successful merchant mariner–sea lords in their own right, the more recent scholarly interpretation. At any rate, pirates do not figure again in the volume. The third group included any militarized element within Buddhism, from traditional monasteries like Enryakuji and Negoroji to the grass-roots Lotus and Ikkō leagues. The final of the four groups comprised the domainal lords on the losing side in the Battle of Sekigahara. In this chronologically capacious fashion, the editors identify resistant elements in medieval Japan.

Ferejohn and Rosenbluth further contend that, as in Europe, the emergence of the modern territorial state—e.g., the Tokugawa settlement—came about because “once widespread destruction reached an intolerable threshold, ordinary people were willing to pay for large armies” (p. 11), resulting eventually in territorial consolidation. Thus, farmers are assigned agency in a major political transformation, even as the editors acknowledge that farmers’ bargaining leverage varied considerably over time and place.

The first and sixth essays, by Karl Friday and Thomas Conlan respectively, focus on the warrior class and do not explicitly amplify the themes laid out in the introduction. Friday depicts the origins of the samurai as emerging from the imperial court in ancient times. He reminds us of the great power of the center to control and reshape the countryside, even as real power gradually shifted to locals. A clear explanation of the complex political and military reality of ancient Japan, this essay should be especially helpful to Europeanists either drawing parallels or positing contrasts. Conlan, examining late medieval warfare, plays down the significance of material technology such as firearms and instead emphasizes organizational technology—the ability to mobilize, train, and supply armies—as crucial to the eventual political consolidation of Japan. His analysis of data on wounds reveals that from theLnin War (1467–77) on, warriors served regularly in established bands as successful provincial governors extended their territorial rule. This is organizational technology harnessed for war, the building and maintaining of a regular fighting force. Conlan’s essay is focused on [End Page 125] aspects of making war from the top, but he does remind us that farmers were providing the necessary revenues, supplies, and manpower.

Essays by Susumu Ike and Tsuguharu Inaba are in close harmony with the editors’ farmer-centric perspective. Describing the great range of relationships between lords and retainers in medieval times, Ike characterizes life for ordinary rural people even before 1467 as “chaos,” rhetorically laying the groundwork for a “frustrated farmer” argument. From Masakado’s tenth-century rebellion through Hideyoshi’s unification attempts, he...