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Bibliographic Data: Vaporis, Constantin Nomikos. Breaking Barriers: Travel and the State in Early Modern Japan . Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Asia Center, 1994.

Main Argument: Vaporis argues against the now very dated interpretations that Tokugawa communications were primitive, and that travel was essentially restricted by the system of permits required on shogunate-maintained roads. Rather, travel was bound up with pilgrimage, often took on a recreational character, and often was accomplished without any permits whatsoever: "quite paradoxically, the system that the ruling class [sic] devised to control commoners actually ended up restricting themselves more" (6).

Historiographical Engagement: Vaporis is arguing with a bunch of rather stodgy older writers in English, and draws on much scholarship in Japanese. Vaporis also really loves the work of one Rutherford Alcock.

Introduction: Argument, Sources, Examples Vaporis reviews three anecdotes about travel--some merchants going to Edo in the 17thC, some women traveling together in the 18thC, and a child who went on an illicit group pilgrimage in the 19thC.

Chapter 1: Argument, Sources, Examples This chapter examines the establishment and composition of the Tokugawa transportation system, "the arms and legs of the realm." This consisted of five shogunally maintained road networks (taking their name from the classical circuits of the same appellation), which were maintained to certain standards and which had barriers (sekisho) and inns along the way, as well as bridges and river crossings. Most scholars assumed rivers were not bridged for military reasons, but rivers such as the Ôi appear to have been left unbridged for geographical and then economic reasons.

Chapter 2: Argument, Sources, Examples This chapter examines the corvee labor tax (sukegô) that was levied on villages adjacent to official post stations. Alleged abuses of this prerogative generated endless protests (both the occasional outbreak of violence and the more or less continuous of non-violent forms of resistance) from the villages in question, leading to equally endless attempts to reform the system. The high costs of using the official network drove the emergence of a network of non-official roads and private transport networks even as the bakufu starved itself of possible revenue streams derived from the Gokaidô, "such as enforcing quotas and load limits for privileged travelers" (96).

Chapter 3: Argument, Sources, Examples This chapter examines the "curious institution" of the sekisho, which were more or less the means by which the bakufu "monitored daimyo compliance with the system of alternate attendance" (99). Daimyo established bansho, essentially the same thing, within their own domains, though bansho served essentially "to regulate and tax commodities" while sekisho were a mechanism to surveil "inbound guns and outbound women" (133), in a word, as the sekisho originated in the bakufu's consolidation of military power within the realm. They evolved, however, into "a measure for bringing general stability to the realm" by allowing "the flow of traffic--official, recreational, commercial, and criminal--to be monitored and to a degree controlled by channeling travelers onto only a few roads and allowing them to cross water only at designated points" (nominally, anyway) (ibid).

Chapter 4: Argument, Sources, Examples This chapter looks at permits, and also at traveling both with and without them. Vaporis argues that despite their ideology, the bakufu's concern was not to prevent all movement of commoners but rather to prevent them doing so without permission (such as when masses of peasants would go on nukemairi, spontaneous pilgrimages)--thus over the course of the period the bakufu continually simplified the permit application process and also allowed more and more authorities (temples, etc) to issue permits. Women, however, remained a focus of regulation due to their lower social status (though they would also incur lighter penalties for the same reason), with the result that many women simply bypassed the permit-requiring roads to travel entirely.

Chapter 5: Argument, Sources, Examples This chapter explores "the benevolence of the realm," or the behavior of officials at the barriers. Many barriers had "small side roads that travelers could use to avoid inspection," and some barriers literally had cuts over or through the physical palisades (175). "Sekisho officials could also show benevolence by allowing travelers to pass inspection with either no permits or defective permits, by passing through women in obvious disguise as men, and by interpreting the law to downgrade serious offenses" (ibid). They could do all the above to their own material benefit as well, thus sometimes giving the phrase an ironic cast. Vaporis concludes that in many ways the sekisho system outlived its purpose, with the result that over time "the active willingness of travelers to evade the barriers, along with some cooperation from political authorities, allowed travel to develop as recreation" (216).

Chapter 6: Argument, Sources, Examples This last chapter looks at travel as recreation. Owing to a vast set of cultural institutions, from inns to guidebooks to hot springs to pilgrimage sites, which developed because of and stimulated travel, more people in the Tokugawa period could travel than ever before. The major pilgrimage sites were, somewhat predictably, the Shikoku 88, the Sankoku (Kansai) 33, the Kanto 33, and Ise Shrine. At times vast numbers of people semi-spontaneously travelled en masse to Ise, a practice that was known as okagemairi (usually in times of social unrest). Even children could and did participate in such spontaneous journeys, showing the extent to which the purportedly rigid sekisho/permit system could and did accommodate wildly disruptive movements. Vaporis looks at many of the types of sources that Beth Berry analyzes better.

Conclusion: Argument, Sources, Examples Vaporis concludes that political and economic forces shaped the development of the Tokugawa transport system, which compared quite favorably with networks in Europe. Travel became increasingly widespread over the period as a function of the popularization of culture. Vaporis concludes that all this "presaged" the creation of a "sense of a nation" after Perry, but I would argue with Beth Berry that a sense of an early modern nation existed before then.

Critical assessment: I don't think this is a terribly great book. In framing his arguments, evidence, and analysis, Vaporis falls into the trap of discussing the Edo period (1600-1868) as if its nearly three centuries were a unitary, ahistorical moment in which little if any diachronic change occurred.this infelicity of framing—Vaporis routinely jumps from the beginning to the end to the middle of the Tokugawa period even within paragraphs—is a huge drag on the explanatory and persuasive power of Vaporis’ analysis throughout.

Moreover, Vaporis’ inability to frame his arguments in a chronologically coherent manner is related to another of the book’s profound flaws, namely his severe weakness in organizing his admittedly voluminous evidence. Particularly in its middle sections, Breaking Barriers devolves into a numbing series of anecdotes that are poorly contextualized and almost uniformly not developed in favor of plopping them into the text one after the other. There is certainly nothing wrong with anecdotes in scholarship (and some of Vaporis’ are terribly amusing, a not inconsiderable virtue), but they must be deployed carefully, with consideration of their ramifications both for the point at hand as well as for the larger narrative of the book. Despite Vaporis’ claims that his study is structured by the observations he extracts from three disparate anecdotes about travel which he recounts in his introduction, there is little sense of a coherent narrative underlying the work as a whole; by the time the reader reaches his conclusion, she has little idea what exactly Vaporis was trying to prove. Certainly, despite his professed desires to the contrary, Breaking Barriers has little to offer the comparative study of the early modern around the world, bogged down as it is in too many details too weakly organized.

One suspects that part of the relative weakness of Vaporis’ study relates as well to one of the more profound questions of Edo historiography, namely how exactly to characterize the Tokugawa bakufu or shogunal government. Vaporis is hamstrung in this respect by his insistence (which he maintains even in Tour of Duty) that the shogunate was some kind of “compound” state, a needlessly obfuscatory formulation that prevents him from being able to satisfactorily explain, in Breaking Barriers, the flagrant and enduring violation of much of the shogunate’s travel regulations that he documents, let alone from achieving his espoused goal of “examining Tokugawa society […] through the prism of travel and transport […] in terms of the relationship between the state and society” because his grasp of the nature of the Tokugawa state is so incoherent (2).

Further reading: Peter Konicki, The Book in Japan; T. George Tsukahira, The Sankin Kotai System of Tokugawa Japan; Mary Elizabeth Berry, Japan in Print; Kären Wigen, The Making of a Japanese Periphery

Meta notes: [free space for getting around barriers]

(no subject)

Date: 2014-02-04 23:33 (UTC)
lnhammer: lo-fi photo of a tall, thin man - caption: "some guy" (Default)
From: [personal profile] lnhammer
"Compound" state? What on earth is that supposed to mean?


(no subject)

Date: 2014-02-07 03:08 (UTC)
lnhammer: lo-fi photo of a tall, thin man - caption: "some guy" (Default)
From: [personal profile] lnhammer
What, he wants the individual han to be as independent in practice as in the Warring States, despite Tokugawa hegemony? I can almost see making an argument of disunity around a fudai/tozama division, but even so Edo kept pretty good control even over the western tozama clans for most of the period.

*shakes head*


(no subject)

Date: 2014-02-07 03:26 (UTC)
lnhammer: lo-fi photo of a tall, thin man - caption: "some guy" (Default)
From: [personal profile] lnhammer
I confess I am not as interested in concepts of nationality and their historical development as I probably ought to be. Especially since that's one element that plays into the ways control/power and autonomy work with and across formal structures that I am interested in.

But them, I just finished a draft of a story where my resolution involved throwing more lesbian Quakers at the conflict till things got better, so what do I know.

Edited (grammar) Date: 2014-02-07 03:27 (UTC)


ahorbinski: shelves stuffed with books (Default)
Andrea J. Horbinski

August 2017

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