Saturday, October 3, 2009

The Gates of Power

The Gates of Power: Monks, Courtiers and Warriors in Premodern Japan by Mikael S Adolphson is a narrative history of political demonstrations by Buddhist monks in Japan up until the C14th. A little too much of a narrative history—I would have liked some more in-depth discussion of the institutional arrangements.

Nevertheless, it is a very informative rendition of disputes within the Japanese political elite from the C9th to the C14th. That is, the period when the warrior class was steadily increasing its role in Japanese society. Adolphson argues that Japan had a tripartite arrangement of power (courtiers, monasteries, warriors) where power shifted only gradually to the warriors.

For anyone interested in medieval European history, medieval Japan is a fascinating compare-and-contrast, because a completely different cultural milieu produced great institutional similarities.
Japan did not suffer the same prolonged assault that Latin Christendom did from the C7th to the C11th centuries, where the Norse, the Avars-then-Magyars and the Saracens raided and plundered from the North, the East and the South respectively. Nor did it suffer the collapse in literacy and trade that occurred in Western Europe during and after the evaporation of the Western Roman Empire. What Japan had in common with Latin Christendom was a temperate climate, a geography that facilitated movement in ideas and skills but impeded full political unification and a lack of external conquest (which thereby permitted continuous institutional evolution: in effect, what game-theory might call "long term games").

Latin Christendom turned to the arrangement of protection-by-knights-in-return-for-labour-by-peasants comparatively thoroughly and speedily. Warrior rule in Japan took much longer to evolve. In Latin Christendom, whatever remained of the old Senatorial aristocracy (and any Germanic imitators) was completely replaced by (or transmuted into) a warrior aristocracy by the C9th. The Japanese civil aristocracy lost ground much more slowly to the warrior class, still having some governmental role at least up to the consolidation of the Tokugawa bakufu.

Which is not to say there were not persistent institutional differences. Japan never evolved any equivalent of the Hospitallers, Templars or Teutonic knights, still less of the Spanish crusading orders. Its “warrior monks” were much more like the monastic thugs who made Alexandrian politics so dramatic under the Eastern Roman Empire. Buddhism and Shinto got along much better than Christianity did with Judaism or pagan beliefs.

While local-samurai-protecting-local-peasants-in-return-for-labour arrangements did grow up in Japan, particularly in the Kanto plain, what Crusader historians would call “money-fiefs” were much more common in Japan (most likely because administrative skills never became as scarce as they did in Latin Christendom) and eventually became the dominant form of samurai remuneration.

Yet the similarities remain striking. Historians of Japan talk about the “privatisation” of government, whereby estates stopped being the recoverable gift of the tenno (the imperial administration) and became increasingly private property. This is a process recognisable from early medieval history in Latin Christendom. Similar processes occurred in Islam and India, but regular waves of conquest by pastoralist conquerors meant that arrangements kept “returning” to revocable local tax-rights.

In terms of long-term economic development, private property is more efficient. It is obviously also preferable for the property holders. In terms of central control, revocable tax-rights are preferable. Such “privatisation” into local property rights is a sign of loss of control over its agents by the central authorities, a persistent problem in agrarian rule and a major factor for the collapse of states. Europe and Japan were protected by their geography from the conquests which tended to follow such decay in central power.

But they were also “tough” societies. Latin Christendom dealt with the assaults of the C7th to C11th rather more successfully than the Western Romans dealt with the equivalents from the C3rd to the C5th, and from a lower (though expanding rather than shrinking) population base. Latin Christendom was much more successful at expanding—territorially, demographically and technologically. The knights came to rule over more of Europe than the Romans ever did.

One of the trends Adolphson mentions is rising peasant power in Japanese society. Competing power hierarchies give peasants leverage. This is a process one can see in both Japan and Latin Christendom. Both societies evolved comparatively strong property rights, independent family households with women marrying later. Merchants similarly benefited, with both societies evolving sophisticated mercantile arrangements.

Japan did not, however, evolve any equivalent of the boroughs of Latin Christendom. It, like other civilisations, lacked the tradition of deliberative assemblies one sees in Classical civilisation and Germanic societies. It entirely lacked Latin Christendom’s invention of representative assemblies.

(The largely independent domains of the Tokugawa daimyo remind me of the Counts of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Barrayar, except the Shogun took great efforts to ensure the daimyo were never all in the same place at the same time.)

Different religious traditions resulted in very different attitudes to suicide. But bushido and chivalry obviously performed similar functions—trying to integrate a warrior elite within the wider society via the dominant religious tradition. The desired trade-off being a warrior elite other folk could live with via a framework of warrior legitimacy. (Adolphson’s discussion of Zen being used as a tool by the new Ashikaga bakufu, both to buttress expanded warrior rule and to tame the esoteric Buddhist sects, has a certain congruence with Brian Daizen Victoria’s analysis in Zen at War of Imperial Zen and Corporate Zen from the Meiji Restoration onwards.)

I enjoyed the tales of competition and intrigue that Adolphson tells. While thematically concentrating on the history of monastic protest, Gates of Power gave me much more insight into the operation of the various Buddhist monasteries and sects—particularly as vehicles for providing religious support for legitimate authority, more easily fulfilled by esoteric forms of Buddhism—the diffuse and competitive nature of power in Japanese society after the founding of the bakufu, the rise of the Ashikaga family, the often dominant role of retired Emperors (the role of Emperor itself was largely ceremonial and ritual so, by retiring, an Emperor rid himself of such time-consuming duties while exercising paternal authority over the notional head of state). I was also amused by the discussion early on in the book of how commentators have often seen religious or monastic power as inherently illegitimate, this tending to get in the way of careful analysis. The Gates of Power is a useful and informative read.

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