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Using the Concept “Feudalism” to Compare Japan with Europe: Words of Caution

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WITH THE GROWTH OF THE WORLD HISTORY MOVEMENT, MANY ASIAN SPECIALISTS ARE CLEARLY FOCUSED ON THE INTEGRATION OF ASIAN MATERIAL INTO A WORLD HISTORY FRAMEWORK. THREE YEARS AGO A COLLEAGUE AND I DEVELOPED A UNIT USING JAPANESE “FEUDALISM” AS ITS CORE. OUR GOALS INCLUDED A FOCUS ON LITERATURE AS A TOOL FOR TEACHING ABOUT JAPAN’S HISTORY AS WELL AS A CLEARLY DEFINED CONNECTION WITH THE WORLD HISTORY STANDARDS. THE COMPLETE PROJECT, INCLUDING A CHART COMPARING EUROPEAN AND JAPANESE “FEUDALISM” CAN BE VIEWED ON THE WEB.1 MY MORE RECENT RESEARCH INTO DEFINITIONS OF “FEUDALISM” INDICATES THAT A WIDE GAP EXISTS BETWEEN THE PERSPECTIVES OF THOSE HISTORIANS WHO RESEARCH AND TEACH WORLD HISTORY AND THOSE WHO FOCUS MAINLY ON MEDIEVAL EUROPE. THESE VIEWPOINTS CHALLENGE SOME OF THE CONCLUSIONS FOUND IN THE EARLIER WEB-BASED PROJECT. WITHIN THE NATIONAL STANDARDS FOR WORLD HISTORY AND SOME WORLD HISTORY TEXTS “FEUDALISM” IS BROADLY DEFINED WITH ECONOMIC, SOCIAL AND POLITICAL CHARACTERISTICS. IT IS USUALLY DISCUSSED WITHIN A EUROPEAN CONTEXT, SOMETIMES FOCUSING ON ENGLAND AND FRANCE, BUT TYPICALLY SUGGESTING THAT “FEUDALISM” WAS WIDESPREAD.2 SPECIALISTS APPEAR TO DISAGREE WITH SUCH GENERALIZATIONS.

Among historians of medieval Europe, using the term “feudalism” and an appropriate definition of “feudalism” appear to be highly charged issues. In an influential 1974 article Elizabeth Brown challenges historians’ widespread use of the concept and argues that using “feudalism”‘ allows historians to “pander to the human desire to grasp a subject known or suspected lo be complex by applying to it a simple label simplistically defined.” She continues the attack by suggesting that historians. while debating the usefulness of the term, still appear unwilling to ”jettison the word, “feudalism”.”3

NOTES

I. My colleague was Patience Berkman, Chair of the History Department at Newton Country Day School of the Sacred Heart, Newton. Massachusetts. See the Berkman/Wood materials on the Japan Studies Leadership Program’s curriculum outlines Web site: https://www.fivecolleges.edu/fcceas/

2. See the National Standards for World History (Los Angeles: Notional Center for History in the Schools, 1994). See page 134 (Era 5, standard IIB); page 196 (Era 6, standard 5B); and page 140 (Era 5. standard 2A). See also, Jerry H. Bentley and Herbert F. Ziegler, Traditions and Encounters: A Global Perspective on the Past (Boston: McGraw-Hill Companies. Inc.. 2000). For specific  references to feudalism see page 349 (Medieval Japan); page 390 (Feudal Society); page 454-5 (Feudal monarchies in 3. France and England); and page 664 (Tokugawa Shogunate).

3. Elizabeth A. R. Brown. “The Tyranny of a Construct: Feudalism and Historians of Medieval Europe,” The American Historical Review, October 1974, pages 1065-6.