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  • Akutō and Rural Conflict in Medieval Japan by Morten Oxenboell
  • Ethan Segal
Akutō and Rural Conflict in Medieval Japan. By Morten Oxenboell. University of Hawai‘i Press, 2018. 210 pages. Hardcover, $72.00.

Japanese primary sources, especially those written by landed estate owners in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, are filled with accounts of the depredations perpetrated by akutō. Translated by various scholars as “brigands,” “bandits,” or “evil bands,” the term was applied to individuals who resorted to violence in defiance of established authority during the Kamakura period. According to the sources, akutō attacked and occupied estate lands, robbed travelers, assaulted local residents, seized goods intended to serve as tax or rent payments, burned fields, illegally harvested crops, and more. Scholars have tended to take those sources at their word and to write of akutō attacks that were so widespread and disruptive that they contributed to the collapse of the Kamakura shogunate.1 At least one historian has even gone so far as to label the years in which they were most active “the akutō century.”2 But should we accept the accusations levied against akutō in those sources? [End Page 167] Or might a critical examination of such claims, situated in relation to other societal and landholding changes taking place in thirteenth-century Japan, lead us to rethink our understanding of the period?

In Akutō and Rural Conflict in Medieval Japan, Morten Oxenboell challenges both the violent descriptions in primary sources and the scholarly interpretations of akutō identity and motivations. He offers persuasive reasons to suspect that many of the assertions of violence in primary sources were exaggerated by estate proprietors seeking assistance from Kamakura-affiliated samurai. The Kamakura regime would not send its men to aid a proprietor who was merely struggling with robbers or non-delivery of rents, but it might be inclined to intervene if the troublemakers committed murder or other comparably violent acts. Therefore, Oxenboell argues, central elites who owned estates had every incentive to embellish when listing the crimes of so-called akutō in a complaint (pp. 57–63). He also provides convincing evidence that akutō were not a specific class of people motivated by economic opportunism, as some scholars have claimed. Instead, they might come from any stratum of society (local land managers, prominent peasant community leaders, even Kamakura-appointed warriors) and were often reacting to thirteenth-century proprietors’ efforts to tighten control over estates (p. 7).3

Oxenboell is not the first scholar to address the topic of akutō. Ishii Susumu attributed their emergence to the growth of the early medieval economy and the ineffective rule of the last Hōjō shogunal regents, whereas Amino Yoshihiko made connections between akutō and various nonagricultural peoples who operated outside of shogunate or imperial court control.4 Yamakage Kazuo (who is cited by Oxenboell) may be the Japanese scholar most closely associated with the position that the word akutō did not refer to specific types of individuals but was merely a label that petitioners used to slander their enemies.5 Historians based in the United States such as Thomas Conlan and Peter Shapinsky have also addressed akutō in passing, but Lorraine Harrington is the only scholar publishing primarily in English to have made the subject a major focus of her work; her single chapter was, regrettably, the only significant resource available to non-Japanese readers until the publication of Oxen-boell’s book.6 While Oxenboell’s research builds on these earlier publications, there are important distinctions between his findings and theirs. To cite just one example, Harrington writes of “unruly warriors disturb[ing] peace and order” and committing “random acts of violence.”7 Oxenboell, in contrast, sees akutō as clever, calculating “entrepreneurs” whose “violent behavior cannot be reduced to wanton destruction: it also constituted a means of constructing new avenues of negotiations and establishing alternative sociopolitical networks” (p. 11).

The akutō phenomenon should, in Oxenboell’s view, be linked to broader social changes in the thirteenth century. Specifically, traditional estate proprietors (temples, shrines, and aristocrats), who relied on provincial landed estates for much of their income, came to feel their control threatened as the Kamakura shogunate placed its appointees on...


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pp. 167-171
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