War and State Building in Medieval Japan
Stanford University Press Copyright © 2010 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All right reserved. ISBN: 978-0-8047-6370-7
Chapter One War and State Building in Medieval Japan
John A. Ferejohn and Frances McCall Rosenbluth
The Ninja-the lightly armed warrior who operates by stealth and amazing physical prowess to attack powerfully equipped enemies-is a familiar comic book image and heroic action figure. It is generally known that the ninja existed sometime in the mists of Japanese history. Less well understood is that the ninja was but one manifestation of fierce and extensive resistance to encroaching armies in the dying years of medieval Japan. Local farming communities, particularly those in mountain valleys, armed themselves with simple weapons and guerrilla techniques to forestall the trend toward territorial consolidation and centralized taxation. The transformation of "ninja" (the "forbearing ones" or shinobi mono) into warriors with virtually supernatural powers is a recent invention that glorifies the struggle of humble mountain villages for local autonomy in the late sixteenth century.
The world is more familiar with similar events in Europe. The legend of William Tell is of a simple mountain man who inspired Swiss alpine farmers in 1307 to resist domination by the Habsburg Empire. Tell, it is said, was forced to shoot an apple on his son's head in exchange for freedom after he failed to bow to the Austrian governor's hat placed in the village square. In the Battle of Morgarten in 1315, Swiss farmers armed with rocks, logs, and pikes are said to have crushed the magnificent cavalry of Duke Leopold I of Austria in an ambush at Morgarten Pass, pushing countless horses and their riders off a steep mountainside, spearing other unfortunates through with pikes, and causing the rest to flee in terror.
Swiss pikers from mountain villages managed to protect their land from foreign invaders, thereby assuring Swiss autonomy. Feared and admired the world over for their ferocity in battle, Swiss fighters were recruited into mercenary armies throughout Europe. The Roman Catholic pope chose them for his own guards, a role they continue to serve, at least symbolically, to this day.
Unlike the Renaissance Italians or the seventeenth-century English, the Swiss did not elaborate an indigenous theory of limited government, though their practices of cantonal government with local referenda have endured. The Swiss mountain warriors were uneducated farmers and woodsmen scrabbling out a living in alpine valleys and were unfamiliar with the classical Greek and Roman texts that inspired Italian and English antimonarchical theorizing. What distinguishes the Swiss in the forest cantons from farmers elsewhere-as well as from Swiss farmers in the rolling hills in the north-was not so much a belief in the right to their land, but the formidable terrain that made it possible for them to think they had a chance to preserve their independence. There is little wonder that the great plains of Europe, which sometimes doubled as highways for marauding armies, were populated with seemingly weak-kneed farmers who chose instead to exchange their labor for military protection. Japanese mountain dwellers and Swiss alpine farmers took naturally to fighting for their freedom, not because they were braver than their lowland counterparts, but because their craggy fortresses gave them the possibility of resisting domination.
Three other groups in Japan successfully resisted political incorporation for centuries. For seafaring pirates (wako), water provided the functional equivalent of mountain defense. Their ships navigated deftly through the coastal waters, which they knew better than those who commanded the commercial ships on which they preyed or the government's ships that pursued them. As Japan's earliest historical records testify, pirates plagued coastal commerce around the Japanese archipelago from time immemorial.
The political arm of Buddhism constituted a second group in medieval Japanese society that managed for centuries to repel the government's encroaching territorial and jurisdictional authority. Buddhist temples, monasteries, and farming communities, often heavily armed but also often allied with members of the imperial family, avoided government taxation and regulation until Oda Nobunag, one of the unifiers of Japan, finally brought them to heel in the 1580s. Priests protected the tax-free status of temple lands by promising blessings to their patrons, but they would resort to armed defense when necessary. In the case of the spectacularly expansive Ishiyama Honganji branch of Jodo shinshu (Pure Land) Buddhism (discussed in detail in Carol Tsang's chapter in this book), thousands of believers were members of a vast Buddhist movement in the province of Kaga. They enjoyed de facto autonomy from Kyoto or local warlords until they were vanquished in 1584.
Less romantic but more successful was the opposition to centralized rule by the territorial domains in the far-flung islands of Kyushu and Shikoku or the outer reaches of eastern Honshu, which had consolidated locally around a powerful warlord (daimyo). It was not until the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600 that these great outlying domains were vanquished. This battle occurred some 15 years after the defeat of mountain villages and religious communities, and only when one of the lords switched sides in the end game to gain spoils from the others. The secret to the local domains' longevity was their attainment of considerable economies of territorial scale through the exchange of security for taxation with which to fund large armies. This early set of successful Hobbesian bargains at the local level would influence Japan's constitutional structure for centuries to come, in the form of Tokugawa's de facto federal system, which was built on semiautonomous domains.
All of Japan, some parts of which were more affected than others, succumbed to Tokugawa rule for three centuries before a new government would take tentative steps toward constitutional monarchy in 1868. Although the Meiji oligarchs only cracked open the door to electoral competition, the energetic expressions of free speech and support for democracy by incipient political parties were testament to a latent yearning for self-governance. This is not to say that Japan's freedom-fighting past was a continuing legacy that kept alive the potential for resistance. Resistance or acquiescence in Japan's early history followed a pattern of opportunity or necessity. The Japanese accommodation to military rule in the 1930s and 1940s, which was followed by an enthusiastic embrace of democracy from 1945 onward, is better explained by changes in constraints than by long-standing mental frames.
This book relates the tumultuous events of Japan's medieval and early modern history-roughly 1185 to 1600-to theorizing about war and politics elsewhere. Japanese resisters and Swiss alpine warriors are exceptions to the general rule that people tend to populate fertile plains where livelihood is the easiest to secure. The plains areas were also the favored pathways of invading armies and were used to destroy the food supplies of enemy troops as well as to amass large armies on a battlefield. While Japanese and Swiss holdouts provide a fascinating sideshow, the main story of the emergence of the modern territorial state is a Hobbesian one of distraught peasants exchanging financial and labor resources for military protection. We do not intend to paint a picture of happy peasants bargaining and contracting for a better life. Rather, we seek to underscore the severe circumstances in which the Japanese, along with many of the earth's population, found themselves. As the weak have always known, when life is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short," subservience to a protective power may be a lesser evil, even if it is a deeply resented one. Japanese and Swiss fighters offer a romantic picture of rustic self-governance of the sort that Rousseau contemplated in his discourse on equality. But Rousseau's world was out of reach for most people. In the embattled lowlands of France, for example, the protection that comes with strong centralized government gave Bodin's work widespread credibility. Opposition to absolutism was stiffer, and theorizing about limited government was more prolific in Italy and England, whose indeterminate topography left open a range of political outcomes.
War, though miserable for those who fight and for those whose homes and fields are destroyed in the path of battle, can sometimes function as a political leveler. History provides some dramatic examples of political rights that have issued from war mobilization, starting with classical Athens and republican Rome. Mobilizing for war can shift the balance of bargaining power away from rulers in favor of those whose resources are required for battle. But much depends on several factors that affect how much and to whom rulers need to make concessions in exchange for resources, including whether the people supplying resources for war value the protection of a powerful ruler. If communities are confident of their ability to protect themselves, they will be willing to fight for others only in exchange for something of value such as political freedoms or, if they are already free, for pay.
Japanese mountain villagers needed relatively little protection from overlords because their topography made it possible for them to protect themselves. By contrast, agricultural communities that were located in the crossroads of competing territorial claims were more likely to supply increasingly large revenues in exchange for protection. Their fear of violence and instability was greater even than their desire for freedom from domination. Their willingness to supply resources for large armies lies at the root of Japan's political unification in the sixteenth century. The same logic accounts for the rise of Europe's large territorial monarchies.
The Rise and Fall of Decentralized Military Rule in Medieval Japan
The debates among social and economic historians over the repressive nature of Japanese feudalism have largely played themselves out as accumulating evidence suggests that farmers retained some leverage in dealing with overlords. We will therefore avoid using the term feudalism altogether. Moreover, farmers' leverage varied considerably over time and place. Still underdeveloped, however, is theoretical analysis explaining this variation in leverage both within Japan and between Japan and elsewhere. The contributors to this volume establish that, holding all else constant, farmers' bargaining leverage was inversely related to their vulnerability to military attack and hence to their willingness to pay for protection.
All else is not constant, of course, because there were also more purely economic sources of farmers' bargaining power, such as labor scarcity during the early period of land abundance. Japan was settled in the Paleolithic period, tens of thousands of years ago, by hunter-gatherers from the Asian mainland (to which Japan was physically attached by land bridges during the ice age) and fisher folk from Polynesia who enjoyed land abundance and relatively egalitarian social structures. Then, in about 300 B.C., waves of immigrants from Korea invaded Japan and pushed the earlier inhabitants into the mountains and outlying islands. The new ruling elite organized into political units (uji) that jostled among themselves for preeminence. By the eighth century, the uji had imported ideas along with material culture from China and took to calling their leader an "emperor" on the Chinese model. Imperial succession, though sometimes spectacularly contested, was usually managed peacefully through negotiations among a coalition of leading clans. Unlike many powerful monarchical dynasties in China or Europe, imperial succession rules were loose, allowing for a large number of potential heirs. A significant part of the ruling class derived benefit from the imperial institution, giving it the structure of an oligarchy rather than an autocracy.
The scions of some court families emigrated to the provinces beginning in the late ninth century. They did well for themselves by exploiting their connections to powerful court figures and institutions, and by obtaining sinecures as government officials or managers of private estates. The court, in turn, cultivated its connection to these emerging military families to help extend the reach of the court into the hinterlands and to protect the court from both internal and external threats.
Access to abundant frontier land, followed by the scramble to clear new arable land out of forests and swamps, afforded a modicum of bargaining leverage to farmers who were willing to do this work. Noble families, whose land was exempt from some kinds of taxation, bid up the price of agricultural labor in their efforts to claim new land for themselves. Farmers often chose to work as tenants on this tax-privileged land rather than to till taxable lands allotted to them by the central government. Meanwhile, provincial nobles and other elites increasingly commended their lands to military leaders, who could defend the land from predation by bandits and opportunistic neighbors. In the centuries that followed until the sixteenth century, the imperial court became overshadowed by military order provided by one group of warriors or another. Periods of stability were punctuated dramatically by violent rivalries, until all of Japan-save a few mountain redoubts-became engaged in civil war from 1467.
The romantic image of the valiant and honorable medieval samurai keeping the peace is a myth. Among warriors, loyalty to their lord was least common when it was the most valued. Warriors fought alongside their lords when they thought they could win, but they often switched sides to join the victors rather than have their land confiscated and reallocated among the winners. Among the farmers whose land was ravaged and lives were destroyed, war was hell.
Farmers were inevitably drawn into wars among provincial warriors in one way or another. But by the mid-fifteenth century, when territorial control of Japan was divided into scores of local domains, two of the most innovative warlords, Oda Nobunaga (1534-1582) and his general Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-1598) who succeeded him, sharpened the division of labor between farmers and warriors (heino bunri) that had already begun to emerge under domainal rule. Farmers were to remain on their land to produce food and pay taxes, while only warriors (many who had previously been farmers, jizamurai) would fight in battles. Although taxes increased, so did agricultural productivity and economic growth.
Making good on the promise to protect farmers gave these leaders an enormous advantage over their opponents. Leaving farmers on the farm, Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi created disciplined and skilled armies. Histories of modern warfare herald Maurice of Nassau (1567-1625) and Gustav Adolf of Sweden (1594-1632) for building regimented and skilled armies, but Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi were achieving similar success on the other side of the globe. Hideyoshi also carried out extensive land surveys to clarify available assets for taxation, and he dealt gently with former enemies to win their compliance. In the space of less than two decades, Hideyoshi and Nobunaga reversed the centrifugal movement toward smaller political units and created significant economies of scale. By the 1580s, they had managed to consolidate about half of Japan's land mass under unitary rule. Although it remained for Tokugawa to build a coalition big enough to finish the job, Nobunaga and Hideyoshi had broken the back of resistance to central military control.
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