- Land, Power, and the Sacred: The Estate System in Medieval Japan ed. by Janet R. Goodwin and Joan R. Piggott
This collection of essays is an outgrowth of a conference on estates (shōen) held at the University of Southern California in 2012. It is a pleasantly hefty volume (some 560 pages) and its 18 essays promise the first multifaceted, volume-length study of the estate system in nearly 30 years. In breadth (chronological, geographical, and thematic) as in depth, it far outstrips previous, very old journal essays, as well as the slightly more recent but often uneven chapters of the Cambridge History of Japan and the lone monograph by Thomas Keirstead.1
While acknowledging Keirstead's contribution, the editors steer a very different course, striving to discover the overall shape of the estate system inductively, exploring several variants from several angles. Thus, we are offered detailed treatments of, among others, Hine, Kuroda, Nate, and, most of all, Ōbe, which is the primary subject of six essays but is discussed at length in at least three more. Aiming to test the claim that estates became the central institution of the medieval period, the book features essays on estates as sources of agricultural production and elite revenue, but also as foci of conflict, as centers of community formation and Buddhist devotion, and—crucially—as drivers of commercialization.
Although inevitably the essays vary in strength, all are solid and several are excellent, ensuring that scholars and teachers return to the book's analysis and material for years to come. Some editorial decisions are bound to raise discussion and criticism, yet this collection undeniably represents a welcome contribution to scholarship on estates and, at least in English, a significant expansion of the field itself. The book's seven thematic sections make plain its scope and ambition while revealing the challenge of giving coherence to such a sprawling phenomenon. Bookending the volume are essays by Joan Piggott and Sakurai Eiji, who set out to frame the topic, and by Ethan Segal, who offers a brief meditation on the challenges and [End Page 455] importance of teaching about estates. Piggott opens part 1 with an outline of scholarship since the 1970s. Among the important evolutions detailed are a turn toward material culture and representation, and a more nuanced periodization scheme (in six phases, rather than three), which has helped reveal how the eleventh century saw much centrally driven estate creation—at odds with the paradigmatic bottom-up commendation by local magnates.
Sakurai's essay seeks to rethink our approach to shōen by bringing together "economic history—the history of trade, markets, and coinage—and the history of medieval estates" (p. 37). Readers of Hitomi Tonomura's Community and Commerce may not find the approach as surprising as Sakurai (and the editors) believe.2 Still, the essay is a splendid example of synthesis of broad and complex issues—for instance, how the minting of coins (and subsequent turn to commodity currency) was driven by the state's rising and then subsiding disbursement needs for infrastructural work and army salaries, not the availability of bullion. Sakurai goes on to analyze the medieval diffusion of cash commutation and a credit economy, and the eventual return to commodity currency in the sixteenth century as a by-product of Ming China's return to the use of silver currency.
In two essays in part 2 ("How Do We Know about Estates?"), Ōbe Estate is viewed through archeological surveys and its proprietor's archive. The second of these, by Endō Motoo, provides a pithy introduction to the challenges of document reading and would make an excellent assignment for beginning graduate students. In the third essay in the section, Hirota Kōji provides a detailed account of the ways Hine Estate was reconfigured over the years, stressing the importance of combining archeology with textual analysis. The most significant portion of the essay considers the emergence of self-rule at various...