#AsiaNow Speaks with Maren Ehlers

Maren Ehlers is an Associate Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and author of Give and Take: Poverty and the Status Order in Early Modern Japan, published by Harvard University Asia Center and winner of an Honorable Mention for the 2020 AAS John Whitney Hall Book Prize.

To begin with, please tell us what your book is about.

My book is a microhistory of a small castle town in late Tokugawa Japan. I use the journals of Ōno’s town elders from 1740 to 1869 and other local sources to show how ordinary subjects—including outcastes and other marginalized people—participated in the administration and regulation of local society. The book can be read in three different ways: as a history of government under the status order, a local history of Ōno, and a history of poverty control and relief in Tokugawa Japan. In the past three decades, the interpretation of Japan’s early modern status order has been radically revised and the status order is no longer viewed as a rigid hierarchy, but as a complex web of locally specific social structures that gradually changed over time. My book builds on this new understanding to explore how Tokugawa society dealt with the problem of poverty. I emphasize the inequalities in Ōno’s local society—warrior hegemony, discrimination of outcastes, class differences, et cetera—and portray poor relief as a way of upholding the social order. At the same time the book also shows how Ōno’s domain government, like other warrior governments at the time, mobilized the capacities and mutual relationships of status groups for poverty control and relief. The groups in Ōno’s local society were integrated in the sense that they were interdependent, and the domain government had to take their interests into account.

The title refers to two kinds of reciprocity that mattered in the treatment of the poor. First, reciprocity was inherent in the status order. Warrior administrators organized society by giving semi-autonomous occupational groups privileges and expecting in return the fulfillment of obligations. Second, charity and the Confucian-inspired ideal of benevolent governance were grounded in ideas about reciprocity—mutual aid in village communities, Buddhist ideas of karma and merit, exchanges of benevolence and gratitude between ruler and subject. I try to show how these two kinds of reciprocity were interlocked and played out in a specific local context.

What inspired you to research this topic?

I began this project because I wanted to understand how people in Tokugawa Japan experienced poverty and what kinds of help they could expect if they lost their usual sources of income. As an undergrad at the University of Hamburg, I had taken courses in Alltagsgeschichte (History of Everyday Life), and I was eager to write history that centered on ordinary people. And although I wasn’t so conscious of it at the beginning, my interest in poor relief was also very much driven by questions about the nature of community—about exclusion, belonging, hierarchy, collective pressure, and personal autonomy. The scholarship I encountered on the topic of Tokugawa poor relief was too abstract to really allow me to get at those issues. Although it cited many isolated local examples, it didn’t explain the relationship between them. Every domain, every town seemed to be doing things differently, and I wondered about the logic behind this variety. I wanted to know how different people experienced social hierarchy, inequality, and community in a specific local context.

My breakthrough came when I encountered the scholarship of Japanese social historians of the Status Marginality Research Group (Mibunteki shūen kenkyūkai). I was struck by the ability of these scholars to contextualize marginal groups such as outcastes and itinerant entertainers and suggest ways in which these kinds of groups might be connected to the problem of poverty. They also gave me an empirically productive framework for rethinking the social order as a whole.

What obstacles did you face in this project? What turned out better and/or easier than you expected it would?

I faced a couple of challenges that come from working with unpublished local manuscripts. My project would have been impossible without access to a database and volumes of photographic source reproductions in the Office for the Compilation of Ōno City History. Thanks to the support I received from that office, I didn’t have to collect and catalogue a large number of heterogeneous materials all by myself. I’m incredibly grateful to the office staff—especially Katō Morio and Saitō Noriko—for giving me the freedom to roam the archive they had built to pursue my shifting research questions. A second challenge was the fact that many of my documents are untranscribed and I had to become proficient in reading cursive script (kuzushiji). Often, people assume that the deciphering must have been the most challenging part of my project, but that wasn’t actually the case. Although deciphering can be very time-consuming, it does get easier with time. The hardest part was piecing together the clues I obtained from multiple sources, often by reading them against the grain. I had to put these fragments into context without much prior research to rely on. The new Ōno City History, which might have made that work a little easier, was published only after my book came out and I actually ended up contributing to it.

What is the most interesting story or scrap of research you encountered in the course of working on this book?

While in Ōno, I sometimes have random encounters with people whose ancestors I read about in my sources. One day, I talked to a young guy in a baseball cap who introduced himself as a shrine priest. He turned out to be the nineteenth Iwamotoin, head priest of the Shinmei Shrine, who in the Edo period was Ōno’s leading yamabushi (mountain ascetic)—the kind of person Ōno’s domain subjects would have called to pray for rain, swear an oath, or hold a lottery for a divine verdict. I asked him about his family’s yamabushi past, and he said he also tried to maintain ties to Shingon Buddhism and had received some secret transmissions, though he regrettably lacked the power to make it rain. It feels strange and a bit transgressive to have that sort of inside knowledge about other people’s families, including some knowledge that has been lost among contemporaries. I try to make the best of the situation by being cautious about what I share, by presenting my research in public talks, and by getting involved with local history and preservation initiatives. Such moments remind me that I’m not engaged in some abstract exercise of historical interpretation but am writing about real people.

What are the works that inspired you as you worked on this book, and/or what are some other titles that you recommend be read in tandem with your own?

There are two books I read as an M.A. student that steered me toward my book topic: Herman Ooms’ Tokugawa Village Practice and Nathalie Kouamé’s Pèlerinage et Société dans le Japon des Tokugawa. These two books made me want to study Tokugawa social history and the nitty-gritty detail of everyday life and conflict. Kouamé’s book also opened my eyes to the importance of reading local documents on my own.

As I was working on my dissertation and book, the members of my dissertation committee were particularly influential. David Howell and Daniel Botsman taught me both through their work and in person how to narrate Tokugawa social history on its own terms while engaging broader questions about (early) modernity. I recommend reading my book together with Howell’s Geographies of Identity and Botsman’s Punishment and Power in the Making of Modern Japan. Sheldon Garon’s Molding Japanese Minds was a very important reference point for me on the history of social welfare in Japan. Also, I work at the intersection of local history and domain history and have built on Luke Roberts’ works such as Mercantilism in a Japanese Domain and Performing the Great Peace, Philip Brown’s Central Authority and Local Autonomy in the Formation of Early Modern Japan, and Mark Ravina’s Land and Lordship in Early Modern Japan.

I wrote large parts of this book in conversation with Japanese scholarship, especially but not exclusively the research of the Status Marginality Research Group. For example, for Chapter 5 on the Tenmei famine in Ōno, I was inspired by Yoshida Nobuyuki’s Kinsei kyodai toshi no shakai kōzō, which analyzes patterns of charitable giving and poor relief institutions as a lens on Edo’s urban social structure. Tsukada Takashi’s work on hinin and other mendicant groups has been an important model for me as I tried to contextualize Ōno’s beggar guild, the Koshirō. As for poverty and social marginality in smaller castle towns, I have taken much inspiration from Fujimoto Seijirō’s work on Wakayama (Jōkamachi sekai no seikatsushi—botsuraku to saisei no shiten kara) and Yoshida Yuriko’s work on Iida such as “Chiiki shakai to mibunteki shūen—Shinano no kuni Shimoina-gun o chūshin to shite“ (Buraku mondai kenkyū 174).

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a new book on domain reform in the final years of the Tokugawa period. I decided to stick with Ōno because there is still so much interesting material in the archives, and because I’ve found that research gets more interesting if I can make connections between cases that might seem insignificant by themselves. At the center of Bakumatsu-era historiography there have been these large, politically influential domains such as Tosa, Chōshū, Fukui, and Aizu. By shifting the focus to a small domain, I hope to find new answers to the question of what constituted a domain in Bakumatsu-era Japan, considering factors such as knowledge production, commerce, and occupational and local identity. This time, I’m following reform initiatives that connected Ōno to such places as Osaka, Edo, Tsuruga, Hakodate, and even to Karafuto (Sakhalin). After 1840, Ōno domain became a center of Dutch Learning with close ties to the Tekijuku Academy in Osaka, and established a trade company in Osaka to sell copper, lacquer, textiles, and other local products. Although that company pretended to be a merchant enterprise, it was in fact run by vassals, and in the early Meiji period opened many new branches across the country. Starting in 1856, the domain also sent expeditions to Ezo (Hokkaido) and ran a colony with the status of a “quasi-fief” on Karafuto for about ten years. While there, Ōno’s vassals interacted with indigenous people as well as Russians, Americans, and other foreigners. I’m currently examining how the domain, in the course of these reforms, relied on social groups that formed networks across domain borders: wholesalers, shipping agents, sailors, lacquer harvesters and -dealers, miners, non-Japanese people on Karafuto, and others.