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  • Performing the Great Peace: Political Space and Open Secrets in Tokugawa Japan by Luke S. Roberts
  • Amy Stanley
Performing the Great Peace: Political Space and Open Secrets in Tokugawa Japan by Luke S. Roberts. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2012. Pp. xiv + 288. $49.00.

Writing Tokugawa history can be a frustrating endeavor. Historical documents from all times and places are populated by lies, but in this field the lies are shockingly bold and clumsy. They muscle their way into the archives of everyday life, making themselves at home not only in clamorous accounts of legal disputes, but also in the quieter pages of population registers and land records. They wreak havoc in the decrees produced at the highest levels of the polity, where the Tokugawa shogunate wrote one thing and did another so frequently that Philip Brown called it a "flamboyant state," prone to extravagant claims of authority that it could not back up with action.1 The lies insist on demarcating firm social boundaries, such as those of status, ignoring the abundant evidence that undermines their claims. To make matters worse, they speak in ambiguous language, giving commonly used terms multiple and contradictory meanings. They browbeat historians into making statements that they later have to modify. The shogunate's legal precedents applied across the realm, but sometimes they did not. Commoners could not use surnames, except when they could (and did). Women called yūjo (遊女) were always legally recognized prostitutes, except when they were not. And on and on. Most of us attempt to compensate, muddling through, translating as best as we can, and trying to amalgamate a "true story" out of a proliferation of lies. Luke Roberts takes these problems of consistency, truthfulness, and translation as his subject and produces a masterful analysis of Tokugawa political culture.

Roberts begins his account with two cases in which Tokugawa-era sources seem to present intractable problems for their interpreters. The first is a flagrant example of a lying document: an official diary from Tahara domain that offers two completely different accounts of the same lord's death in 1792. The second regards the confusing and promiscuous use of the terms kuni 国, often translated "country," and kokka [End Page 216] 国家, often translated "state," in documents produced by the domains and the shogunate. Roberts's consideration of this second problem emerges from a now famous historiographical debate, in which Ronald Toby criticized part of the argument Roberts developed in his first book, Mercantilism in a Japanese Domain: The Merchant Origins of Economic Nationalism in 18th-Century Tosa.2 Roberts contended that the word kuni applied to the domain (in this case Tosa), while Japan as a whole was understood as a "universal realm" (tenka 天下). In other words, the domain was the state and the "country" in Tokugawa Japan. In response, Toby pointed out that the words kuni and kokka often referenced the entirety of Japan; the realm ruled by the Tokugawa was, in fact, a territorial country and a politicized state, and domains were only "regional units."3 Here Roberts revisits the issue and revises his claim. He argues that both the domain and the Tokugawa realm were political countries, just as both accounts of the lord's death were true. In both cases, apparent contradictions reveal themselves as problems of audience. The use of kuni to represent Tosa was meant for retainers and residents of that domain; the use of the same word to represent Japan was used in communication with the Tokugawa shogunate. In the same way, the first version of the Tahara story, that the lord of the domain had died after appointing an heir in the presence of a shogunal representative, was intended for officials outside the domain. The second, that he had died weeks earlier, was meant for the domain's retainers. In fact, the document was not lying: the individual known to domainal retainers as the daimyo died on the earlier date, but the "daimyo of Tahara domain" as a political personage expired later.

Roberts argues that an awareness of the bifurcated nature of Tokugawa political space is crucial to understanding that era's discourse. Here he agrees with Toby's assertion...