BONDS OF CIVILITY. Aesthetic networks and the political origins of Japanese culture. Eiko Ikegami.

Murray Sayle – TLS

Copyright The TLS, February 10, 2006
460pp. Cambridge University Press.
Pounds 45 (paperback, Pounds 20.99). US $80 (paperback, $36.99). – 0
80942 8.
The title Bonds of Civility opaquely introduces the most original
contribution in years towards unravelling some perennial Japanese
mysteries: How did a rough military dictatorship generate one of the
world’s most refined, if somewhat stilted cultures? Why, after 260
of haughty seclusion did the same fastidious society suddenly revert to
expansion and sweep over Asia? And -an insight that jumps from its
-how to explain whathas happened lately in Japan? Eiko Ikegami, who
teaches at the New School for Social Research in New York, had already
attracted attention with her 1995 The Taming of the Samurai:
Honorific individualism in the making of modern Japan, in which she
explained how horned, helmeted warriors had metamorphosed into the
drab-suited, company-badged Japanese administrative class, without
losing the soldierly virtues of leadership and loyalty that made them,
until recently anyway, the most dedicated middle management in the
world. Now she has tackled an even more challenging conundrum: how did
rigidly stratified, closed-off society ever come to feel, and behave,
like a nation? Her search ranges fourteen centuries of Japan’s written
history, from which the scowling bulk of the Kampaku (regent) Hideyoshi
Toyotomi (1536-98) emerges as the dominant figure.
Hideyoshi started as an ordinary foot soldier and by luck, loyalty and
military talent became the eventual winner of the non-stop fighting
had ravaged Japan for the previous two centuries, imposing himself on
the terrified Emperor GoYozei as chief minister, and the real ruler of
Japan. He then set about ensuring that the scratch alliance he led
enforce perpetual peace by making any new rebellion impossible. First
codified a rigid social stratification -samurai-soldiers on top, then
the farmers who grew Japan’s food, next craftsmen, such as swordsmiths,
and at the bottom, contemptible men without any honour, merchants. The
system hailed originally from China, but with a twist: the Chinese
version put scholars on top and warriors at the bottom.
Next followed the Great Sword Hunt, disarming everyone below samurai
rank, the razing of castles likely to be centres of resistance, and
Japan’s first cadastral survey, fixing the taxes in rice and other
that farmers had to pay to support the now unemployed samurai, who were
directed to cut themselves off from the countryside and reside in
under the eyes of their lords and thus, indirectly, under Hideyoshi’s.
This achieved, Hideyoshi began a Japan-wide road system, partly for
military use, partly to facilitate taxable trade between the growing
towns. He seized all working gold mines and minted Japan’s first
national coins He then threw a “Great Public Tea Party”, inviting all
and sundry, samurai, farmers, craftsmen and merchants to drink tea with
him in the Kitano pine woods outside Kyoto on a “bring your own” basis,
the guests to bring whatever tea and utensils they had, the Regent
promising to pour the brew himself. As MC, Hideyoshi engaged his own
adviser on tea matters, Sen no Rikyo, the founder of the tea ceremony
much as it is still practised in Japan.
Odd conduct, it might seem, even for an unstable military genius, but
Professor Ikegami applies the sharp new scalpel of historical sociology
to dissect the Regent’s motives. Like many victors in civil wars,
Hideyoshi had big plans for his army, if only he had a united people
behind him. In 1592 and again in 1598 he invaded Korea with the aim of
conquering China, but achieved nothing beyond the undying hatred of
Koreans for Japan and some rough bowls looted from Korean farmhouses
his new tea ceremony.
Ms Ikegami reminds us that Japan’s geography has not changed, nor have
the attitudes it has generated. In Hideyoshi’s day Japanese grew rice
long, narrow valleys, and feared the people in the next valley. “Treat
stranger as a thief” is still current.
Forbidding any spontaneous political groups, the Regent and his
successors were eager to sponsor non-political bonds, even to
participate in person. It has been these aesthetic networks, Ikegami
argues, and not politics, that have given Japanese their self-identity.
The Japanese language makes this clear, distinguishing the za or
“seated” arts, having to do with the shared enjoyment of beauty, from
the martial arts, formerly restricted to samurai, performed standing up
and all connected, one way or another, with killing people.
Sen no Rikyu, alas, went the way of many advisers to the great and
powerful who dabble in the arts. Disagreeing on a point of etiquette,
and possibly suspecting that he might be in it for the money, Hideyoshi
ordered his tea master to commit seppuku or, as the vulgar still call
it, hara-kiri (“belly slit”). Such an order, addressed to a lowly
merchant, was not a basis for discussion. Sen no Rikyu dashed off a
farewell poem, “Seventy years of life”:
Swoosh -with my enlightened treasure sword Let me kill Buddha and my
Ancestors together, It is time to throw my sword to the sky!
And, stained with his own blood, he did. The school he founded, as well
as his aesthetic doctrine, wabi (“elegant simplicity”), live on in
So too does Hideyoshi’s doctrine. The Regent died in 1597, his troops
still away slaughtering Koreans. There was more fighting over his
succession until, in 1600, a wily survivor named Ieyasu Tokugawa won a
great battle (the biggest in the world, up to that time) at Sekigahara,
a pass between Kyoto and Nagoya.
Three years later the victor bullied the Emperor into appointing him
Shogun, “Great Barbarian-Conquering General”, the first of the
Tokugawa shoguns who governed Japan until 1867 and who, at least in
their legacy, govern it still.
It was under the Pax Tokugawa that Japanese culture assumed its modern
shape, with the shoguns’ active encouragement, although its elements
were far older.
Along their network of fine, safe roads and coastal sea-lanes trade,
mail and ideas moved freely, always subject to close inspection at
checkpoints, and the rigid prohibition of anything political or
subversive of the bakufu, “tent government”. The innocent cult of tea
and its offshoot, flower arranging (originally an all-male diversion),
both of them za, or “seated” arts, spread through the islands. So, in a
new form, did the collective composition of poetry as a performance
descended from the waka, the “Japanese songs” that Japanese, like other
pre-literate agricultural peoples, used to elaborate around festival
fires -the same process that left us Beowulf and the epics of Homer.
The collective composition of waka was an ideal medium for the za
circles that formed in the shoguns’ Japan. Anyone could contribute
without regard to social rank, most of the poets used assumed names, or
were anonymous. The form is taut and rigidly fixed, the subjects all of
rural provenance: the moon, cherry blossoms, water, snow on bending
boughs, none of them remotely threatening to the shogun’s regime. The
opening stanza is always in the form of a haiku; an unrhymed sequence
5-7-5 syllables meant to set the mood for the linked sequence to
The poets often assembled under the cherry trees of a Zen temple, but a
marketplace, a bridge or a riverbank would do, where they composed
together until inspiration or the rice wine ran out. The meetings were
led and the results judged by a master poet who trudged from circle to
circle, lodging with poetry enthusiasts and publishing his findings in
anthologies and travel diaries. The best-known still is Matsuo, who
signed himself Basho (“banana tree” -he once lived under one) -and his
most famous haiku, considered beyond improvement:
Furuike ya The old pond!
Kawazu tobikomu A frog jumps in – Mizu no oto Sound of water.
As the shoguns’ subjects prospered in strictly guarded peace, Japan
became the most urbanized country, and by 1700 their stronghold, Edo
(now Tokyo, “Eastern Capital”), was the world’s first city to pass the
million mark. This created enormous publics, in Ikegami’s phrase, for
the za, the sit-down arts. After the tea ceremony and poetry circles
came kabuki, originally “crooked fellows”, strolling actors who
developed the realistic stagecraft that now packs them in at Tokyo’s
Kabuki-za theatre. Encyclopedias, woodblock prints, books of etiquette
poured out of the Edo publishing houses. Instead of the civil society
know in the West, our innumerable associations and pressure groups
seeking to shape public policy, Japan developed, and still has,
civility, the good manners “that flourish best in the intermediate zone
that lies between the intimate and the hostile”, as Ikegami says. Part
of these good manners, and of plain prudence, was the studied ambiguity
that inhibits plain speaking in Japan when hard decisions have to be
made, such as, in recent history, whether to invade (“advance into”)
China, and when to end a ruinous war that was evidently irretrievably
Much else of the shoguns’ Japan is alive and well. Japan has the
pool of amateur poets in the literate world. Contests abound, and the
best entries are read out before the Emperor and Empress at a palace
function every year (the royals also submit entries, which are
published, but tactfully held hors de concours). After four centuries
the obligatory rural references have become somewhat predictable, and
the 1990s Sony developed a haiku-writing programme that came second in
national contest.
Nevertheless human haiku enthusiasts, brush in hand, still wrestle with
the immutable rules. In the mountain village where I live I was pleased
to find that a local worthy of modest farming background who happened
be president of the Japan Rose Growers’ Federation, another aesthetic
network, regularly conferred with Emperor Hirohito in the imperial rose
However, my admiration for Ikegami’s insights was confirmed by the
recent Japanese Lower House election, won in a landslide by Prime
Minister Junichiro Koizumi, which I followed on television because
was nowhere else to follow it. Japan has the widest TV diffusion in the
world, over 90 per cent of homes, and television is, as everywhere,
watched sitting down, while viewers empty their minds. Politics is
felt to be somewhat menacing in Japan and there are no shock jocks,
talkback shows, tough interviews or hard-hitting discussion programmes.
Political meetings are forbidden during electoral campaigns, as are
drinks and door-to-door canvassing, in principle to avoid bribery or
undue personal influence. Candidates are restricted to honest-looking
portraits on small posters on an official board, and to driving through
the contested electorate in sound trucks, waving in white gloves to
sincerity, while fetching girls monotonously chant their names through
voice-of-doom bullhorns.
The real action is on the virtual stage of television, where Prime
Minister Koizumi is perfecting politics as a high performance art, far
ahead of practitioners in Westminster or Crawford, Texas. Prime time
after prime time, the Japanese PM was seen striding the corridors of
parliament on some never-specified official business, a gaggle of
photographers snapping at his heels, his permanently waved mane of grey
hair grazing his collar (the acidulous print media call him “The Lion
King”) as he salutes the grateful cameras and goes on his masterful
His somewhat stiff expression, reminiscent of a Noh theatrical mask,
reminds us that we are seeing a very Japanese blend of ancient culture
and high technology with the ultimate za audience, comfortably seated,
rice crackers to hand, absorbed by the show.
Koizumi called the snap election for September 11 last, ostensibly
because the Lower House had had the temerity to reject his plans to
privatize the Japanese Post Office, the most trusted institution in
Japan, and the only one that has never defaulted on its obligations.
merits of the scheme, which is supposed to help revive Japan’s stagnant
economy, are certainly open to the debate that has never taken place,
but what has fascinated the terebi za, or TV public in Ikegami’s sense,
has been the screencraft of the contest. Pro-Post Office rebels from
Koizumi’s own Liberal Democratic Party, which celebrates its fifty
in power in 2006, were brusquely informed that they would have
candidates dubbed “assassins” by the media run against them, and
-deadliest threat of all -some of them would be women TV celebrities,
known in Japan as “Madonnas” or “lipstick Ninja” (hired killers,
straight from the kabuki theatre). Given the vague nature of the
proposal, the still-defiant Upper House and the glacial pace of any
contested change in Japan, nothing much is likely to happen any time
soon, but Professor Ikegami’s perceptive book has set me thinking.
Maybe, once again, Japan is showing us our future, proceeding in one
mighty bound from politics by backroom deal to politics as pure
with TV editors calling all the shots.

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