P26. Hierarchy and Subversion in Premodern Japan

Session: Session 4, 8:30 – 10:00 am, Saturday 9/30

Category: Organized Panel

Location: Lincoln

Chair: Michael Abele (Independent Scholar)

Paper Presenters: Dunja Jelesijevic (Northern Arizona University), Michael Abele (Independent Scholar), Akira Shimizu (Wilkes University)

Discussant: Brian Platt (George Mason University)

Abstract: Spanning the late medieval to the early modern period, each paper in this panel takes up the themes of hierarchy and subversion in premodern Japan. Though this time period witnessed a number of different social hierarchies that reflected then-dominant power relations, we attempt to identify some commonalities across different times and places.  Starting chronologically, Dunja Jelesijevic’s paper analyzes Noh plays to explore gender dynamics in the late medieval period. Taking up three “demon” plays that feature a female demon as the protagonist, she demonstrates how the medium of Noh was used to challenge and destabilize the existing religious and political authorities. Moving into the Tokugawa period, Michael Abele discusses the nature of Tokugawa status system from the perspective of rural outcaste villagers. By examining how the social and economic changes of the late eighteenth century altered the fabric of rural outcaste life, he demonstrates how a focus on outcastes can improve our understanding of the larger Tokugawa society. In our last paper, Akira Shimizu’s uses the sake trade to explore hierarchies among different merchant groups. By examining how Itami brewers sought to protect their brands, he reveals how merchants used their connection with political authority to protect their trade privileges against outsiders.

Implements of Dissent: Resisting Family Structures in the Noh

Speaker: Dunja Jelesijevic
Role: Paper Presenter
Institution/Affiliation: Northern Arizona University
Abstract: The 14th century Nō plays Kanawa and Kinuta take as the subject matter marital relationships, betrayal, and abandonment. In Kanawa, husband takes a mistress, upon which his wife seeks to exact revenge by ritually transforming into a demon, with an iron trivet – normally used for cooking – representing demonic horns. In Kinuta, the wife attempts to call back her long-absent husband by beating on a fulling block used for laundry. In both plays, the betrayed wives use household implements – markers of domesticity, to express their resentment and rebel against the fate to which they are expected to be resigned. Analyzing the two plays, my presentation explores how domesticity, originally posited as a source of confinement and subjugation of the female, is turned into a tool of dissent. I seek to elucidate the ways in which the medium of nō is used to challenge and destabilize the prescribed social order, familial structure, and gender roles.

Rural Outcastes and Social Change in Late Eighteenth Century Japan

Speaker: Michael Abele
Role: Paper Presenter
Institution/Affiliation: Independent Scholar
Abstract: The American Chinese restaurant has cemented itself in the minds of Americans as a uniquely American institution, but is still considered an example of the “Other.” In spite of the Chinese exclusion acts of the late nineteenth century, and the history of various subservient roles of Chinese immigrants, such as indentured servants, the American Chinese restaurant has managed to survive for over a century and a half of trials and tribulations. In 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, it became apparent that American Chinese food and restaurants had become racial battlegrounds, with negative feelings by mainstream Americans being directed towards the food and the restaurants themselves. Their cleanliness was even attacked, due to centuries-old stereotypes of dirtiness and supposed unsavory behavior by Chinese owners and customers. I suggest that these attitudes of mockery (say, for example, by certain key political figures) and distrust had their basis in residual feelings of a new twenty-first century version of the Yellow Peril panic of old. In this paper, I argue that due to stereotypes institutionalized more than a century ago against Chinese people and their food, American Chinese food today has become a location of racialization, and a proxy for present (even of unspoken) racist attitudes.

“Authentic” Sake Brewers in Itami vs “Fake” Sake Dealers in Edo: How Regional Brands Were Protected in the Capital in Early-Modern Japan

Speaker: Akira Shimizu
Role: Paper Presenter
Institution/Affiliation: Wilkes University
Abstract: This presentation examines the significance of the place of production on sake labels during the Tokugawa period (1603-1868). As in “Bourgogne” or “Bordeaux” in French wine, “Itami”—a small town in western Japan—became synonymous with sake of the highest quality, especially after one of its brands, Kenbishi, won the favor of shogun’s palate in the capital of Edo. In the mid-Tokugawa period, more than half of sake consumed in Edo was from Itami. Conversely, the success of the “Itami” label led to the proliferation of “fake” Itami sake in the Edo market, sold with forged labels or adulteration with low quality one or water. To understand this reciprocal process, I explore archival documents from the Itami brewer and largest sake supplier to Edo, Konishi family, and Tokiwa-ya from Musashi Province north of Edo who was a producer of “fake” sake for Edo wholesalers. While the label “Itami” became a warrant for the highest quality and best taste, there began the label forgery and circulation of “fake” sake. Since there is no trademark laws, Itami brewers handled the cases themselves, and began using the “Itami” seal on sake barrels to prove the authenticity. However, this regulation met the emergence of “fake” seals.  The examination of this interaction reveals two important historical aspects of Japanese branding. First, it allows us to see the roots of contemporary sake marketing that emphasizes regions; second, brewers’ use of the brand seal shows the values that brand labels represented.