The Voyage of John Saris

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Midterm Answer


A) The Voyage of John Saris 1613

[It was] written during the Tokugawa era, was historically significant for giving a view of how Europeans and Japanese interacted during the Tokugawa era. We can see in the passage how Saris’ group had come to sell England’s biggest commodity, clothe/textile, but through the exchange, we see how the Japanese mainly sought Western military technology (e.g. gun powder) for trade. This points to the historical demand that Japanese had for certain Western goods: gun powder, glassware, and Chinese goods (picked up along trading routes and delivered more effectively by Western ships).

For the piece as a whole, John Saris’ account points out the historical tensions between the Spanish/Portuguese and the Japanese shogunate, especially due to the Spanish/Portuguese attempts at converting Japanese people, especially powerful daimyo, to Christianity—causing potential regime instability. The distrust of Christians and foreigners seem, in scenes like the burning of Christian or the name-calling of Saris’ group, foreshadows the ban of Christianity and removal of all foreignness, except the Dutch to Dejima in the 17th Century.

C) On Farting by peasant/commoner

Writer Hiraga during the Tokugawa period (circa late 18th century) was historically significant as a satire/commentary on art in the Tokunaga era. In this passage, we see the author criticizing the stagnancy of old schools of traditional art. This reflects a greater trend of popular culture and mass-culture art expanding during the Tokugawa period, primarily due to booming publishing industries through woodblocks and increased literacy of all people, samurai and commoners alike. By elevating a “common” or “base” art such as “farting,” above stagnated modern takes on traditional art, the author suggests that the commoners’ forms of art and literacy arguably should be a part of the Japanese identity or “spirit.”

“On Farting” references many historical, cultural aspects of the Tokugawa era, mentioning theatre (kabuki) and sumo as well, in addition to traditional arts of poetry and calligraphy.


During the Kamakura, Ashikaga, and Sengoku periods, many forces existed that worked against the ideals of strong central polity—yet within these eras also existed the seeds of centralization, which were used by Azuchi-Momoyama period unifiers and Tokugawa to establish a strong idea of centrality. The key force against centralization, through fragmentation/regionalization of power by systems such as Hanzei and the shōen system arguably were counteracted by existing ideals of an ancient unified State (Tenka Kōgi) and increased population, economic growth, and increased communication.

During the Kamakura era, after the fall of Taira clan in 1185 in the Battle of Dan no ura, political power arguable began to fragment with the rise of the samurai and strong lords creating shōen, or private estates, to gain autonomy from the imperial court. Shōens did not pay taxes to the emperor, allowing private forces, such as temples with warrior-lords, to amass wealth and armed forces. When the Mongol Invasion in the 13th century weakened the Kamakura shogunate and caused dissatisfaction among unrewarded samurai, the seeds of fragmentation were planted.

The Ashikaga shogunate began the system of Hanzei, a system where half of tax revenue went to military lords and expenditures, to try to solve dissatisfied samurai. This allowed for more decentralization and autonomy for daimyo. When the Ashikaga leaders weakened (as seen in the Ōnin War of the 15th century), it triggered a civil war for nearly 150 years, as daimyo fought each other for control in the Sengoku period. During the Sengoku period, the concept of Gekokujo worked against centralization further, as if was a system of thought that allowed lower ranks to conquer the higher ranks traditionally set by ideals such as Confucianism.

Yet, during this period of chaos and disunity, the idea of an ancient centralized state remained. Unifiers such as Oda Nobunaga called upon the idea of Tenka Kōgi, of unifying the clans as a whole. Also, Nobunaga, Hideyoshi, and Ieyasu’s respect for existing (though nominally powerful) imperial institutions further reinforced the idea of an ancient, unified past. Japanese people thus believed Japan, having once been unified, should be unified again.

Also, economic and demographic changes pushed for centralization. During the Sengoku era, populations grew tremendously due to better agricultural practices, trade, and economic growth. This, in turn, led to more urbanization, consumption of goods, and increased travel/communication. This was partly fueled later by Nobunaga’s policy of moving castles from mountains to roads/rivers, creating castle towns that fostered urbanization. With economic growth and urbanization, trade and travel increased, leading more Japanese people to depend on and be interconnected with others all over the country, creating fuel for forces of centralization. More economic growth—as well as trade with Europeans for fire arm and crop like sweet potatoes—allowed for larger, more powerful armies that could be used by the 3 unifiers as a centralizing force.

In addition to looting both on an ancient, unified, imperial history and economic growth, the unifiers themselves played key roles as policy makers to get rid of decentralizing forces and create centralizing ones. For instance, Toyotomi Hideyoshi conducted sword hunts and emphasized separation of class—samurai and commoners became social immobile. Despite having come from a peasant background, Hideyoshi did this in order to attack the concept of Gekokujō, and reinforce hierarchical order. Hideyoshi also controlled daimyo by redistributing domains to cut local power ties of daimyo, conducted surveys to better tax and watch out for potential up rise, and removed many samurai from fiefs and moved them into cities—giving them stipends instead. The moving of samurai to cities bolstered urbanization and economic growth, while removing samurai from land where they can raise an army and local power.

Tokugawa Ieyasu takes Hideyoshi’s ideas and goes even further to neutralize decentralizing forces. He arranges his daimyo into fudai daimyo, who are smaller, trusted lords who serve in important government posts, and tozama daimyo, who are less trusted large domain holders with domains farther away from Edo to make rebellion difficult. In addition, Ieyasu insisted alternate attendance, forcing daimyo to keep families in Edo and spend half their time in Edo, half in their domains. This weakened daimyo’s ties to locals and the land, as well as forced daimyo to spend money traveling and maintaining two households, weakening the decentralizing force of autonomous daimyo. Tokugawa also continued to enforce Hideyoshi’s strict division of classes, creating social institutions where samurai/gentry, farmers, merchants and artisans were separated and in a distinct hierarchy. So even as many commoners (especially merchants) became wealthier than debt-ridden samurai in the later Tokugawa period; due to this Confucian principle of separate classes, no major threat of rebellion existed from the merchant class.

Still, in spite of these centralizing forces leading to a unified Japan under 2 centuries of Tokugawa rules, some forces of decentralization were still at play that played a role in toppling the Tokugawa shogunate. Daimyo still maintained autonomy within their domains, and the Tokugawa shogunate still did not enfource a national tax system, thus creating sources for decentralizing forces to arise. In the end, a mix of centralizing and decentralizing forces came to play thoughout the medieval and pre-modern era.

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