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Research Projects

“Minamoto no Yoshitsune: From History to Cultural Nationalism”

Senior Honors Thesis by Thomas Curtis. This thesis focuses on Minamoto Yoshitsune as a historical figure, and more importantly, the transformations in the representation of Yoshitsune over time, in epics, in plays, in theater, and in modern pop culture. The stories of Yoshitsune, and how they changed over time, show how the culture and values of the warrior elite contributed to the formation of imagined communities at various times from the early days of the Kamakura Shogunate all the way up to the Meiji Restoration, and how Yoshitsune’s stories even now contribute to modern Japanese cultural nationalism through representations of the samurai.


“Chado Ceramics: Overseas Relations, Aesthetics, and Political Currency during the Azuchi-Momoyama Period (1573-1615)”

Senior honors Thesis by Sophie Eichelberger. This thesis argues that the use of the wabi aesthetic by Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi created a domestic art-style and aesthetic for a newly developing state. The import of ceramics needed for the wabi aesthetic was facilitated by Sakai merchants who supported the shift to wabi, and the merchants used the aesthetic to create a liminal space in which to host political figures. I analyze wabicha ceramics as a site of aesthetics, political power, and a method of examining trade dynamics in Asia.


“A Social History of Hideyoshi’s Political Policies: Freezing the Social Order in Late Sixteenth-Century Japan”

Proposed MA Thesis by Megan McClory.
Perhaps the most influential policies that the hegemon Toyotomi Hideyoshi introduced were the cadastral surveys, kenchi, castle destruction, and the Sword Hunt Edict. My thesis will focus on the third of these, a policy that argued that farmers simply do not need swords or other weapons. Looking at the original text of the policy, it is clear that cultivators are essential because they are the ones who take care of the rice paddies and fields and if the farmers are off stirring up trouble, then these things will not be done and the whole society will suffer.

Therefore, in Hideyoshi’s careful words, his officials will kindly collect all “unnecessary implements” in order to allow the farmers to properly do their job. This first part has underlying Confucian tones, stating everyone’s roles so as to allow the whole group to prosper, but if this were not enough to convince the farmers, Hideyoshi sweetens the pot by adding a dash of Buddhism and saying that the collected weapons would be melted down in order to construct the Great Buddha statue that would consume him for many years to come. This would increase the peasants’s dharma, bringing them and their descendants one step closer to enlightenment. Finally, he mentions China as an example and a symbol of culture and civilization. As the origin of both Confucianism and Buddhism, emulating China would result in peace and prosperity for the whole nation.

At the heart of the edict—an official variety known as a Red Seal indicating Hideyoshi’s commands—is the mandate of social division: farmers are meant to be farmers. Warriors are meant to be warriors. Maintaining this balance will lead to peace and is at the heart of what is often credited for the resulting Pax Tokugawa, as the Tokugawa regime would continue and expand upon this same principle, such as limiting samurai participation in mercantile endeavors. That said, however, I would like to question the effectiveness of this edict. Seventeenth century Japan looked quite different than early sixteenth century Japan, certainly, but the main power structures remained in place. All three unifiers relied on traditional means of legitimacy and authority. The court, although reduced in agency, was still the center of the arts and civilization. The temples and shrines continued to be relied on for their role in spiritual matters. And Hideyoshi finally managed to receive the title of shogun, which was passed onto the Tokugawa dynasty after his death, meaning the military government, as well, survived. This trifecta, known as the kenmon system, had been in place for centuries and Hideyoshi’s policies did little to disrupt it, as these three pillars continued to rely on each other.

Additionally, it wasn’t only the political structure that survived; the basic social structure was more or less the same. Social mobility existed in limited capacities both before and after the Sword Hunt Edict, and the same can be said of the influence of the general populace in Japan. The people continued to unite to make themselves heard by those in power, as can be seen in the perseverance of leagues, ikki, up until the nineteenth century and the fall of the Tokugawa. If the Sword Hunt Edict, as a symbol of increased social barriers, was not as effective as the shogun perhaps intended, what, then, is at the heart of two hundred years of peace? What did change between the sixteenth and seventeenth century that brought a country at war with itself to a standstill? By examining the effectiveness of the class freeze, and the porousness of these borders, we can begin to question the origin of the Pax Tokugawa.


Letters from Japan’s Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries: Correspondence from Warlords, Tea Masters, Zen Priests, and Aristocrats, Morgan Pitelka, Reiko Tanimura and Takashi Masuda, University of California, Berkeley, Institute of East Asian Studies.

The book provides translation of and commentary on 24 letters from Japan’s sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. These include missives by the warrior tea master Kobori Enshû, the warlord Takeda Shingen, Empress Tôfukumonin, the Zen Priest Kôgetsu Sôgen, the tea master Sen no Rikyû, and others. The book includes photographs of the original handwritten letters; transcriptions into Japanese text; our annotated English translations; and extensive commentaries on both the authors and the contents of the letters. The book will be the first monograph of its kind in English, serving as both an introduction to an important form of documents for the study of premodern Japan and as a kind of epistolary history of elite cultural production in the shift from medieval to early modern in Japan.


Reading Medieval Ruins: Urban Life and Destruction in Sixteenth-Century Japan, Cambridge University Press, by Morgan Pitelka.

The Japanese provincial city of Ichijōdani was destroyed in the civil wars of the late 16th century but never rebuilt. Archaeological excavations have thoroughly uncovered the most detailed late medieval urban site in the country. This book uses the material culture from Ichijōdani, supplemented by documentary and visual evidence, to examine daily life in this late medieval Japanese city. The book considers the settlement’s spatial layout, as well as the objects excavated from residential and commercial sites in the city, ranging from the palace of the ruling Asakura warlords to the modest homes of neighborhood artisans. It considers the politics, religious practices, and cultural life of the residents of the city, as well as the remarkable story that led to its destruction in 1573. It concludes by interrogating the preservation of the site and the complex representational strategies that archaeologists and museum curators have deployed to celebrate the city’s heritage.