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  • A Sense of Place: The Political Landscape in Late Medieval Japan by David Spafford
  • Lee Butler (bio)
A Sense of Place: The Political Landscape in Late Medieval Japan. By David Spafford. Harvard University Asia Center, Cambridge, Mass., 2013. xx, 312 pages. $39.95.

Loosely put, A Sense of Place is a study of Japan’s eastern warriors during the era of civil war known as sengoku (1467–1568). But the emphasis here is on “loosely,” and little about this book will please those mesmerized by warfare and intrigued first and foremost by charismatic samurai, battlefield tactics, swords, and other matters of limited historiographic significance. Rather than examine battles between great, or not so great, warriors (or even weightier issues such as political and institutional change), Spafford considers the role of “place” in one region—the Kanto—and how it was perceived, written about, and made use of by local landed elite. Adding to this unorthodox approach is Spafford’s decision to focus on a time period, 1455–1525, commonly defined as merely chaotic or insignificant in terms of what was important about the age, that is, its progression toward the late sixteenth-century reunification that followed.

Nothing suggests that Spafford took this approach out of a particularly contrarian nature. As he notes in the introduction, he began research searching for “evidence of the waning of a medieval spatial consciousness and the emergence, from the turmoil of war, of a new political localism” (p. 1). What he discovered instead was a “persistent medieval,” a conservatism manifest in spheres ranging from politics and economics to culture and geography. Rather than change, there was continuity. In this manner, Spafford questions the deeply held notion that the sengoku period was one in which innovative, even radical, actors—the warriors—faced a future and a new order they were determined to create. Moreover, he makes clear that the oneness commonly attributed to the period (overwhelmingly so in Western historiography) is mistaken and that this century was more diverse and less predictable than we have been inclined to believe.

What the reader soon realizes is that Spafford is serious about his focus on place. It is more than a thread that ties the chapters together; it is the warp and woof at every step of his analysis. This is made clear in the first of the book’s five chapters, “The Grasses of Musashino,” a detailed examination of the Kanto from a literary perspective. Here Spafford attempts to understand how the region was represented and interpreted culturally by the center, Kyoto, as well as by locals. The stuff of his study is both prose and poetry, whether in the form of travel accounts or uta in its various manifestations. For poets in particular, the Kanto had long [End Page 489] had important literary associations, primarily in the shape of “places of renown” (nadokoro) and the utamakura or “song pillows” that developed out of them. Foremost of these was Musashino, “The Plain of Musashi,” a large region in the province of the same name. With the turmoil of war in the capital that accompanied the Ōnin War (1467–77), many courtiers and others among the literati left the capital to seek refuge in the provinces, and more than a few ended up in the Kanto, either for brief or extended periods. And despite obvious changes that had come to the region in preceding centuries—increased population, expanding agriculture, and most immediately the specter of conflict—visiting poets still depicted it as wild and unsettled. Most remarkably, the provincials who hosted and consorted with their visitors from the west did the same. In this manner, literary convention trumped reality. Though in time there would be a shift in these practices, broadly put, the “place” that was the Kanto appeared in the literature of the day in idealized form.

In chapter 2, “Disputes over Land,” Spafford turns to more mundane matters. His subject is an issue that had long defined warrior relations with courtiers and temples as well as with other warriors: control of land and its income. One key idea that runs through the chapter is the dual nature of warrior authority at this time, what...


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