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  • A Sense of Place: The Political Landscape in Late Medieval Japan by David Spafford
  • Morgan Pitelka
A Sense of Place: The Political Landscape in Late Medieval Japan by David Spafford. Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center, 2013. Pp. xx + 312. $39.95.

A Sense of Place defies expectations. The book’s primary subjects are the land and warriors of eastern Japan during the medieval age, a story that readers might imagine would revolve around battlefield tactics, political intrigue, and change inspired by social fragmentation. The author instead delivers a beguiling study of attachment to place, of movement, of poetry in motion, and of a kind of political inertia—all of which Spafford labels “the persistent medieval.” The monograph is wide-ranging but bounded always by the Kantō, progressing from the grasses of Musashino to the lexicon of words describing boundaries, and from the partitioning of eastern estates to the regular relocation of warrior encampments. Witty, complex, and at times ambiguous, the writing can be frustrating, but readerly perseverance pays off. The book ends up being the most compelling English-language study in the field of medieval Japanese history in many years.

Chapter 1, “The Grasses of Musashino,” sets the tone for the entire study by foregrounding eastern Japan through its representation by traveling poets, authors who, having been forced out of Kyoto by the fires of civil war, brought a capital-centric gaze and courtly lexicon to bear on their wanderings through the Kantō. Particularly powerful is Spafford’s exploration of the poetry of the Musashi plain and its most common image, the grasses that marked the otherwise (ostensibly) empty fields of the east. Gradually, as more poets spent more time in these grassy meadows, and indeed in dialectical poetic exchanges with the “rustic” locals, the “stock portrayal” (p. 55) gave way to an increasingly nuanced representation of the region; as Spafford puts it, “We can see some of the unruliness of actual experience—or at least the [End Page 367] willingness to adopt registers other than the courtly—beginning to show up in texts composed after the Ōnin War by a variety of men” (p. 63). Yet Spafford does not see this as a process of increasingly accurate representation. Instead, he sees it as a contingent one in which specific historical actors attempted to bridge the geographic and cultural gaps between capital and countryside using the tropes of famous places (utamakura) and other conventions, and a socially dynamic process involving traveling cultural producers and regional patrons. Thus, even though the representations of the Kantō grew more complex, the traditional representation of the barren fields of Musashi and their flowing grasses persisted.

In Chapter 2, “Disputes over Land,” Spafford turns to the problem of the lands of the east, not as the objects of poetry but as “the currency of the realm”; here he delves into a different kind of textual poetry: “By the middle of the fifteenth century, hundreds of years of unlawful encroachments and lawsuits, hundreds of years of legal accretions, exceptions, redefinitions, and compromises had yielded a tenurial landscape of intractable complexity” (p. 74). The author is particularly interested in the disputes over property and lordship of the second half of the fifteenth century, when civil war broke out in the east a decade before it did in the capital. He dwells on the tension between the breakdown of the lordly authority of distant landholders and the attempts by those warrior administrators who were “present on the land” to maintain legal practices and processes. One reason for the adherence of local warriors to the logic of absentee proprietorship—even when they played a role in its gradual unraveling—was that they owned parcels of land scattered around the region: “absence from one’s lands in a time of military upheaval was as hazardous for a powerful warrior as it was for any proprietor” (p. 96). This tension was not immediately resolved; as Spafford notes, although it was clearly easier to control land in a warrior’s immediate vicinity, “the strength of proximity to land and men was also its weakness, for no lord who relied on that proximity could then afford to be away” (pp. 121...


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pp. 367-371
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