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  • Mediated by Gifts: Politics and Society in Japan, 1350–1850 ed. by Martha Chaiklin
  • Charlotte Von Verschuer
Mediated by Gifts: Politics and Society in Japan, 1350–1850. Edited by Martha Chaiklin. Leiden: Brill, 2017. 252 pages. Hardcover €99.00/ $119.00.

The book Mediated by Gifts: Politics and Society in Japan, 1350–1850, edited by Martha Chaiklin, offers insight into important aspects of material life in medieval and early modern Japan. Seven case studies, presented in chronological order, examine the topic of gift giving, and all offer welcome methodological approaches. The diverse palette of themes makes the book a rewarding read and ranges from private initiatives to political implications, from very modest milieus to the highest spheres of society. The reader encounters gift-giving practices engaged in for the sake of both material and nonmaterial, including social, benefit. Sometimes gifts involved personal interests, sometimes wider collective concerns. The driving force behind the exchange of presents could be of a cultural, economic, or political nature, with reciprocity as its basic rule. This collection of essays takes the reader into a floating world between gifts and payments and between temporary interactions and long-term dependencies in medieval and early modern Japanese society.

The book begins with a general introduction to gift-giving practices in Japan, written by the editor. Chaiklin presents a convenient survey of the typology, terminology, material structure, and mechanisms of gifts and also touches on the more general studies of earlier scholars such as Mauss, Bourdieu, Derrida, Befu, and Hyde. The introduction frames the topic of gift giving to include the exchange of both material objects and nonmaterial gifts such as favors or services. Chaiklin focuses on the reciprocity that was observed in implementing these exchanges: gift giving often resembled a form of payment or involved the expectation of a concrete favor in return. She also references taxes and stipends, but as these were part of the system of administrative rule and were unrelated to gift-giving customs, they have rightly been omitted by the authors of subsequent chapters. [End Page 299]

Chapter 1 is the first of three case studies dealing with the Muromachi period. Titled "Unexpected Paths: Gift Giving and the Nara Excursions of the Muromachi Shoguns," this essay by Kaneko Hiraku (translated by Lee Butler) describes the relationship between shogun and religious institutions based on reciprocal visits as the context for gift giving. The highly ceremonial excursions made by the shogun in 1429 and 1465 to the southern capital of Nara involved important gifts of cash presented to him by welcoming host institutions. The Kōfukuji Temple complex, which included the Daijōin and Ichijōin precincts and the associated Kasuga Shrine, was a prominent host to the shogun. Valuable armor, swords, elaborate crafts, and money (including large sums of several thousand kanmon) were presented as gifts. However, the shogun immediately returned all or a portion of what he received to the host as a "donation" for repair projects at the shrine or temple. The gifts from the temples and shrines of Nara were thus repurposed, becoming a form of religious sponsorship by the shogun. The ceremonial excursions were aimed at displaying the shogun's benevolence to religious institutions and at fostering his "kingly authority" (p. 43). The shogun was in fact visualized as a donor to the gods and buddhas. Aside from these returned items, additional presents entered the shogun's treasury. A few days after the shogun's visit, his hosts traveled from Nara to Kyoto to present him with gifts of thanks. Numerous religious institutions in both Nara and Kyoto also hosted the shogun throughout the year and offered presents of valuable crafts and money. The gifts from religious institutions to the shogun were designed to boost the latter's power and were coupled with the expectation of protection or concrete favors in return.

In chapter 2, Lee Butler's essay "Gifts for the Emperor: Signposts of Continuity and Change in Japan's Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries" presents a case study on material culture. Butler takes the reader to the imperial palace in Kyoto through the diary Oyudono no ue no nikki, examining entries written by a female palace attendant between...


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pp. 299-305
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