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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

Twenty-five years later. the debate rages on. ln contrast to other historians who define the term more broadly. Susan Reynolds, argues for a narrow definition where “feudalism” refers to relations between lords and vassals within the noble class. She does not include within “feudalism” the economic system and relations between lords and peasants.4 Another issue related to the definition involves the areas of Europe where “feudalism” existed. Specialists in European medieval history argue that there were enormous differences between “feudalism” in France and England. both in terms of land ownership and the degree of central control exercised. Some sources consider “feudalism” in Italy and Germany. while others limit themselves to France and England and more specifically to discrete regions of those countries in varying time periods.5 Therefore, some specialists believe that the base definition needs to be narrower and the “feudal” areas of Europe more Limited than has often been recognized in tJ1e past. In addition to the views above, the teacher using “feudalism” should be aware of the Marxist argument that ”feudalism is a universal historical stage through which all societies must pass before the emergence of capitalism [and the term] is equated with economic exploitation.”6 Even if one immediately rejects t:be Marxist view as loo extreme, the broader arguments of European historians raise serious questions about the advisability of applying “feudalism.” an essentially European term to Japan.

While l will not. in this article, attempt to assess the validity of the various viewpoints concerning Europe, 1 will argue that teachers of world history should very cautiously use the concept “feudalism” when Leaching about Japan. Based on my research thus far, I conclude that an acceptable European definition based on recent research differs from a Japanese definition in at least one significant way.7 The military aspect of “feudalism” is not as essential when applying the concept to Europe. In contrast. for those wanting to use “feudalism” with regard to Japan, Peter Duus’s definition may provide us with a solid starting point.

“Feudalism” consisted of a network of political, legal and personal relationships binding together a class of military lords and their vassals/followers. Typically. land was used to pay for services rendered.8

How may this definition, significantly similar and yet different from that for Europe, be applied to Japan?

There are three distinct periods of Japanese history where the concep1 “feudalism” is often used to describe Japan. Du1ring the Kamakura period ( 1185-1333) the imperial institutions consisting of the emperor and his court were unable to provide peace and security throughout Japan. As a result, “family-centered warrior bands” grew increasingly effective in maintaining order. Gradually, the warrior bands were consolidated under the control of numerous regional warrior chiefs.9

During this period the first shōgun (supreme general) established a bakufu (tent government or fairly centralized military government) in Kamalrura, located in the eastern part of Honshū. The Kamakura shogun bound other warrior chiefs to him through a network of political and personal ties related to land control. Meanwhile. the emperor and his followers continued to maintain some control in Kyōto, located in the western part of Honshū. However, Duus has pointed out U1at “as ‘government by vassalage’ became hereditary, it gradually began to supplant the imperial government as the only effective government in most parts of the country.”10 Therefore, during the Kamakura period two governments existed independently, neither one willing or able to expunge the other. However, the bakufu became inexorably stronger. It is appropriate 10 use the term “feudalism” for this period because the political and personal relationships between military lords and vassals became stronger even though the Kyōto institutions continued to exist.

The term is even more applicable during the next historical period. As the Kamakura leader lost control or his vassals, a new bakufu was established in the Muromachi section of Kyoto. During the years 1338-1573 the Muromachi bakufu under the nominal leadership of a shōgun and the imperial institutions continued to exist in Kyōto. But effective power passed into the hands of regional military lords who fought constantly during this period and established their vassalage ties without any legal sanction from either the imperial institutions or bakufu located in Kyōto. During the Muromachi period the lords were called daimyō. Real power in Japan rested with the network of relationships based on the daimyō. lords of specific land units or domains. and the samurai or vassals residing within the domains and supporting the daimyo. By 1500 there were 200-300 daimyo in Japan.11

Probably the most controversial time period for applying “feudalism” to Japan is during the Tokugawa bak.ufu. 1600- 1868. located in the eastern part of Honshu at Edo, present-day Tokyo. Reischauer considers it approp1ia1e and calls the period “centralized feudalism.” 12 wh.ile Duus rejects the term, suggesting that it is ··a contradiction i1[1 temis.”13 During this period the bakufu was able 10 implement various techniques for controlling the daimyo. Land and loyalty were still the basis for the binding ti.es, but the rules governing U1e arrangements were strictly enforced; especially during the early years of the Tokugawa bakufu. Harold Bolitho examines the Lies between the Shogun and bis most trusted lords/daimyo and ,ll’gues that strict bureaucratized controls were necessary for the first fifty years. After that. effective power lay within the power arrangements of the individual domains. 14 Conrad Totman avoids using the term, “feudalism,” and instead characterizes the Tokugawa period as one of “integral burieaucracy” where the daimyo and their supporters were gradually tran~formed into bureaucrats. 15 Wh1le other analysts emphasize the way the shogun controlled the daimyo in tJ1e early yearf>, later losing control. Totman focuses on the way’> that the stimu.lus of commercial activity transformed the network of relationships ordering society. r believe that •’feu<lalism” appropriately desc1ibes U1e Tokugawa bakufu as long as one understands how it applies and how it has evolved. The shogun used vasi-alage ties 10 bind the daimyo to him. The daimyo in tum used the same techniques to control their tenitories. Gradually, commercial developments and the mul:l.tion of military men into bureaucrats bound society more tightly together and the shogun actually became less powerful.

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.