The Newsletter 63 Spring 2013

Beyond the surface of discourse

Niels van Steenpaal

Reviewed publication: Roberts, Luke S. 2012. Performing the Great Peace: Political Space and Open Secrets in Tokugawa Japan. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press. 263pp + xiv, ISBN 978 0 8248 3513 2 (hardcover)

As a society ruled by status, life in Tokugawa Japan was highly compartmentalized. People, food, clothing, books, everything was organized into discrete hierarchal categories. Even though research has already shown that in practice these categories were more fluid than previously assumed, rigid compartmentalization continued to be at the core of political discourse throughout the period. What should we make of this discrepancy between reality and discourse? Incompetent rulers simply fooling themselves? Not likely. After all, they did manage to squeeze out more than 250 years of enduring peace. In Roberts’ new monograph, we are presented with a compelling answer to this conundrum as he sets out the ‘cultural logic’ through which apparent contradictions between political reality and discourse were reconciled and,
in fact, made perfect sense to contemporaries.

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