ahorbinski: A snakes & ladders board.  (struggle & stagger)
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.

Breaking barriers )

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]

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

May 2016

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