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Reviewed by:
  • A Maritime History of East Asia ed. by Masashi Haneda and Mihoko Oka
  • Adam Clulow
A Maritime History of East Asia. Edited by Masashi Haneda and Mihoko Oka. Kyoto University Press/Melbourne: Trans Pacific Press, 2019. 392 pages. Hardcover, ¥4,700/A$59.95.

A Maritime History of East Asia is an important and groundbreaking book that combines three distinct achievements. First, it offers an innovative model for collaborative scholarship that showcases the research of a pioneering cohort of maritime historians now working in Japan. Second, it articulates a valuable framework for understanding and categorizing trade and maritime interaction across a long period, from 1250 to 1800. And third, it presents a remarkably ambitious and rich survey of maritime activity stretching across an expansive region centered on the East and South China Seas. [End Page 261]

Even as collaborative work has become the norm in many fields, historians have traditionally been reluctant to depart from either the standard single-author monograph or the edited volume, in which connections between individual chapters may be limited at best. Although Haneda Masashi and Oka Mihoko, both highly distinguished historians in their own right, are the only named editors, the volume is in fact the collective work of a much larger group of scholars including Fujita Akiyoshi, Morihara Masahiko, Nakajima Gakushō, Hashimoto Yū, Sugiyama Kiyohiko, and Watanabe Miki, and some thirty additional participants in the Maritime East Asia History Research Group. All collaborated over numerous meetings and hundreds of email exchanges to draw up the original Japanese version of this work, Umi kara mita rekishi (History Viewed from the Sea), which was later refined and then translated into English as the book under review.1 The book's genesis as the product of extended discussions, and not merely a single conference, is evident throughout. Although each of the three parts bears the imprint of different voices, the editors have developed a seamless and integrated narrative. Given the number of contributors, this means that a single volume of around three hundred pages opens an expansive window onto recent trends in scholarship.

While the collaborative nature of the project is important, so too is the manner by which it came to appear in English. In past decades, it has been common for overseas scholars to translate the work of prominent Japanese historians as a way of showcasing remarkable research in Japanese that does not always find as wide an audience as it should. Although this is a valuable model, it often depends on the impetus coming from outside the country. By contrast, the organizing force of this volume originates from within Japan, and its aim of setting up a direct, unmediated conduit between the worlds of Japanese-and English-language scholarship makes it a particularly exciting development that will surely be followed by others.

The broad goal of the volume is to produce "a new history of East Asia" viewed from the "perspective of those living on the sea" (p. 9). The focus is on a single maritime region, which the authors define as stretching from the Sea of Okhotsk down through the East China Sea to the South China Sea. As such it encompasses China, Japan, and Korea, and the book draws examples from each. Its three parts explore the periods from 1250 to 1350, 1500 to 1600, and 1700 to 1800, which are broadly characterized, respectively, as eras of openness, competition, and, finally, compartmentalization.

Part 1 discusses the period from the mid-thirteenth to mid-fourteenth centuries, which was distinguished, the authors argue, by an unprecedentedly "flexible" and "lenient" approach on the part of states toward maritime interaction (p. 72). There was little attempt to monopolize or channel trade in clearly defined ways, with merchants and officials engaging instead in "symbiotic collaboration" (p. 81). The focus of study is the Yuan court, which pursued two apparently contradictory policies—the first an aggressive campaign of military expansion that resulted, for example, in two attempted invasions of Japan, and the second the active promotion of maritime trade. This dual approach meant that commercial circuits proved resilient, rapidly reforming and expanding even in the wake of expansionist ventures. [End Page 262]

Part 2 examines the...