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Reviewed by:
  • Government by Mourning: Death and Political Integration in Japan, 1603–1912 by Atsuko Hirai
  • Mark Teeuwen
Government by Mourning: Death and Political Integration in Japan, 1603–1912. By Atsuko Hirai. Harvard University Asia Center, 2014. 464 pages. Hardcover $49.95/£36.95/€45.00.

Government by Mourning was published just weeks before its author, Atsuko Hirai (1936–2014), reached the end of what she describes in her very personal acknowledgments as an “interminable medical odyssey.” Finishing any manuscript is hard work; in this case, it must have been a veritable tour de force. If it were not for her disclosure in the acknowledgments, however, one would never guess that this thorough and detailed book was prepared for publication under such adverse circumstances. As a reviewer, I feel it is my duty to the author to express my respect by assessing the book’s strengths and weaknesses to the best of my ability. [End Page 135]

Government by Mourning consists of three parts. Part 1 addresses the “mourning edicts” (bukkiryō or bukkirei) of the Edo period, which laid down rules for proper mourning following the death of a relative. Part 2 addresses public mourning of prominent figures like the shogun, the emperor, or a daimyo, focusing on the bans on music and other kinds of noise (in Hirai’s terminology, “sounds suspensions,” narimono chōjirei) that were routinely enforced on such occasions. Finally, part 3 shows that after the Meiji restoration, policies of mourning were harnessed in efforts to educate the people in the national values of the state.

Mourning edicts are, at first glance, a less than inspiring topic for a book-length study. Such edicts consist of lists of mourning obligations, organized according to one’s relation to the deceased: so many days of “abstention” and so many days of “mourning” for one’s parents, adoptive parents, stepparents, legal mother, alienated mother, and so on. Such lists were, with minor adjustments, based on the Yōrō code of 718, which laid down rules for the number of days officials affected by a death in their family had to stay away from work so as not to spread ritual pollution. What can be gleaned from such subtle changes, implemented over the centuries, and why are they important?

Hirai succeeds in breathing life into this seemingly arid area of legislation by arguing vividly that “mourning rituals shaped politics,” while, at the same time, “politics impinged on the rituals” (p. 89). Mourning obligations were first codified by the shogun Tsunayoshi in 1693; his edict underwent minor revisions under Yoshimune in 1736. The resulting Edict on Mourning and Abstention remained in force even into the early Meiji period. Hirai argues that although Tsunayoshi’s edict was drafted not by him but by Confucian and Shinto experts, it reflected Tsunayoshi’s personal circumstances and interests. Those interests included his devotion to his mother and his predilection for the Confucian classics. More important, however, were two aspects that made the edict politically relevant.

First, Tsunayoshi’s mourning edict established a clear hierarchy among relatives. In a context where the succession often passed to sons adopted for that very purpose, mourning offered such heirs the opportunity to perform in their role as sons and, through a public display of filial piety (genuine or otherwise), gain additional legitimacy. Likewise, the edict made it more difficult for daimyo to pick the heir of their choice. It left little opportunity to pass over a son or a brother in favor of, say, a nephew or an uncle, because the edict gave the shogunate a juridical reason to withhold its permission for such anomalous successions.

Second, Hirai maintains that while the shogun possessed the authority to reduce mourning obligations, including his own, there were situations when it was convenient to invoke the authority of the emperor as the final arbiter of mourning protocol. In that way, a shogun could cut short his mourning period without appearing unfilial. Hirai adduces “the emperor’s authority to interfere with any shogun’s mourning obligations” as an argument in a larger discussion of the relationship between shogun and emperor (p. 101). She argues that the emperor’s authority in questions of mourning...


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