Dissertation Part 3: ‘State’ Building and ‘Other’ Building


(It goes without saying that this work is my own. It is copyrighted both to myself and to SOAS University; any personal use of this material must be authorised by myself first. Thanks.)


‘State’ Building and ‘Other’ Building

Michinoku Province – “The Province Beyond the Realm”1 – was an incredibly significant place and idea to the western-based ancient and classical Japanese polity. Honshu’s most north-eastern region may have been geographically disparate from the pre-modern capital cities of Yamato (modern Asuka prefecture, ca. 250 – 710 C.E.), Nara (710 – 794) and Heian-kyo (modern Kyoto, 794 – 1185), but from the court’s first written piece of legislation in 604 C.E. until the Meiji period in 1868, it was inseparable from notions of home in the aristocratic imagination. For centuries, ancient Japan had been a member of China’s East Asian tributary network, submitting to Chinese rule in exchange for its protection and a share in its cultural establishments.2 Seeking equality with China, the Yamato court installed the same political institutions at home from which they were trying to break free. Prince Shotoku (573 – 621 C.E.), the nephew of Yamato’s Empress Suiko (r. 592–628), devised a native ruling framework in the form of Japan’s first legal constitution, and its seventeen articles of law, modelled upon Buddhist and Confucianist ideologies, enabled a process of Japanese state-building which mapped a socio-political structure onto the archipelago both horizontally and vertically: a vertical hierarchy situated the imperial ruler as the child of God, their imperial palace and aristocracy as the sky’s clouds, and ‘common’ subjects as the land below; a horizontal hierarchy established the Emperor’s body as the realm’s divine centre (geo-spatially symbolised by his capital city), and the lands which dispersed beyond its borders were measured in inferiority by the degree of their distance from it.3

Map 1.1 Early Provinces of Japan, ca. 645 – 800 C. E.4

Forty years later, Emperor Kotoku furthered the imperial claim on the land through his Taika Reforms (645), which installed a bureaucratic administrative system centralised in Kyoto and implanted his claim that “under the heavens [the emperor] there is no land which is not the king’s land. Among holders of land there is none which is not the king’s vassal”.5 He built guarded barriers around the home provinces (kinai), nationwide highways to connect the far reaches of the realm, and commissioned fudoki (provincial gazeteers) which mapped, named and brought in tax from the provinces.6 His territory stretched from northern Tsukushi (modern Kyushu) in the south, Shikoku in the west, and to the northern borders of Hitachi (Ibaraki), Shimotsuke (Tochigi) and Echigo (Niigata) provinces in the north. Beyond their northern borders was ‘Michinoku’, a region which belonged to the state only in name: ‘The Province Beyond the Realm’. This contradictary name at once signified Michinoku’s otherness to the state (“beyond”) whilst still being claimed under sovereign rule (“province” of Japan). From the moment it was ‘created’, Michinoku was a paradox of place.

The land was not all that needed identifying through naming. The throne also commissioned literatures in an attempt to unify the elite, for the elite were the only literate class and could together identify themselves through state-based literatures as belonging to that state: as ‘Japanese’.7 Two mytho-historical works, the Kojiki (Records of Ancient Matters, 712) and Nihongi (Chronicles of Japan, 720), narrate the state’s origin story. A semi-mythological emperor Jinmu (r. 660–585 B.C.E.) quits heaven to establish an earthly domain (Japan).8 His pacification of the people served to demonstrate his militaristic prestige, and many chapters of both works are dedicated to their subjugation and his creation of provinces. Japan was created out of the people’s submission to divine rule. However, the Nihongi claimed that:

the remote regions d[id] not yet enjoy the blessings of imperial rule. … it is true that the frontier lands are still unpurified and that a remnant of evil is still refactory … but in the Central Land, there is no more wind and dust.9

The people ‘beyond’ this frontier – a boundary which moved further and further north throughout the pre-modern period – appear in the chronicles as 蝦夷 ’emishi’ or ‘ezo’ (‘prawn brutish foreigner’). Although there were many provincial rebels who were pacified in these narratives, only those located in Michinoku were called emishi. A later state history, Shoku Nihongi (770) consistently names rebels from other eastern provinces as ‘ebisu‘ (‘prawn northern foreigner’), whereas rebels in Michinoku remain 奥蝦 (Michinoku emishi).10 Moreso than anywhere else, the eastern landscape itself appears dangerous, as serpents eat deities and Japanese heroes die far from home.11 As we shall see, later literatures follow this early tradition of equating the north-east with danger. Given that the purpose of these works was to construct a statehood identity, this treatment of the north-east as quintessentially different from the rest of Japan, both in landscape and people, is significant.

So why did they do so, and why the north-east? Bruce Batten argues that since pre-historic times, natural boundaries have helped form a cultural borderland between western and eastern Honshu.12 During the Yayoi period (ca. 300 B.C.E. – 300 C.E.), the ‘Yamato Japanese’ migrated from the Korean continent into south-west Japan, bringing with them wet-agriculture which flourished in the warmer climate. These are the communities who would become the subjects of the Japanese state. The ‘Ainu Japanese’ however descended from the native Jomon people of Japan, and practised a hunter-forager lifestyle which could endure the colder, northern climate. The ethnicity, cultures, languages and ways of living between these people were different, which could indicate why the ancient and Heian Japanese state sought to distinguish themselves. As Batten points out, however, a similar disparity of culture and climate also existed in southern Tsukushi,13 where the central Japanese state had formed another frontier against the Hayato (Okinawans). In contrast to Michinoku though, this Tsukushi frontier is relatively absent from state histories, suggesting that cultural/ genetic differences weren’t all that inspired the state’s othering of Michinoku. Furthermore, the separateness between the Yayoi Japanese in the centre-west and Ainu Japanese in the north-east were not clear cut: archaeological evidence from Ishinomaki (modern Miyagi prefecture) shows that a “grey boundary” stretching from Shizuoka to Niigata contained communities in which both the Ainu Japanese and Yamato Japanese lived side-by-side with a mix of language and culture.14 It was an idea more than reality, then, that differentiated the centre from the north-east. Japanese scholars may have claimed that in the north-east “lay the land of the hairy men”,15 but early Chinese annals also describe ‘eastern barbarians’ this way.16 As Classical Chinese literature was an enormous influence on Yamato and Heian statehood, it is probable that this blanket description of all Michinoku peoples suited their borrowed notions of geo-spatial rulership.17 The only distinctions the state did draw between Michinoku peoples is shown during a visit to Tang China in 659:

These missionaries took with them a pair of Emishi from Mutsu [synonymous with Michinoku] … The envoys explained that the “land of the Emishi” lay to the Northeast … and that it was inhabited by three groups, the “tsugaru”, “ara [wild] Emishi”, and the Nigi [tame] Emishi.18

The early Japanese court thus defined Michinoku peoples not in relation to their ethnicity, language or ways of living, but to their degree of state assimilation: their ‘closeness’ to the divine emperor.

The Nihongi further demonstrates how Tang theories of rulership influenced Japanese notions of geography and the state. Tang cosmologists proclaimed that ‘the centre’ was but one direction out of five which effected the cosmos; a harmonious cosmos reflected the emperor’s benevolence, and thus it was imperative for the state to ‘balance’ these five directions.19 The Nara court paid particular attention to “avoiding calamities”, an unbalance, which might put their ruler’s benevolence into question:

Planet        Element    Direction    Season       Signs of the Zodiac
Jupiter         wood        east             spring            tiger, hare
Mars            fire             south        summer        serpent, horse
Saturn          earth         centre        solstices    dog, ox, dragon, sheep
Venus          metal           west         autumn        monkey, cock
Mercury       water         north          winter         boar, rat

According to the theory of five phases or elements, the two elements bordering any particular element were beneficial to it, whereas the two separated elements were harmful. Thus both wood and earth were beneficial to fire, but metal and water were harmful.20

Figure 1.1 Cosmological theories in Nara Japan

The northern and eastern directions are shown to be ‘separated’ from, and thus ‘harmful’ towards the centre: even in cosmology, the north-east symbolised a threat.

Centuries of colonizing the east would dictate how much of the region was considered “harmful”: the frontier lands described in the Nihongi shrank, as the state took control of the eight Bando Provinces (Azuma, modern Tokyo area)21 before reaching the Michinoku border by the end of the Nara period. During this frontier process, some emishi were forcibly displaced throughout the country and re-branded fushu (‘surrendered barbarians’), whilst others made up the forces which would oppose state authority for centuries to come. Regardless of having no static spatial territory, the Togoku (eastern region) would still remain in the aristocratic imagination “a qualitatively different world that was subordinate to the kinai and the western provinces”22 up until the end of the Heian period.



1Takahashi, Frontier, p. 137

2Gina L. Barnes, 2007. State Formation in Japan: Emergence of a 4th-century Ruling Elite. Abingdon: Routledge, p. 27

3Donald Keene, George Tanabe, Paul Varley, Theodore de Bary eds. 2001. Sources of Japanese Tradition: From Earliest Times to 1600 Volume I Second Edition. New York: Columbia University Press, p. 60

5Keene (ed.), Sources, p. 51

6W. G. Aston (trans.), 1972. Nihongi Chronicles of Japan from the Earliest Times to A.D. 697. Vermont: Tuttle publishing, pp. 206 – 209

7Bruce L. Batten, 2003. To The Ends of Japan: Premodern Frontiers, Boundaries, and Interactions. USA: University of Hawai’i Press, p. 91

8Aston, Nihongi, pp. 109 – 111

9Aston, Nihongi, p. 112 – 135

11 Chamberlain, Kojiki, p. 73

12Batten, Ends, p. 61

13Batten, Ends, p. 62

14Batten, Ends, p. 62

15Tsunoda Ryusaku and L. Carrington Goodrich, 1951. ‘Japan in the Chinese Dynastic Histories’. In Perkins Asiatic Monograph 2: 38-40

16Takahashi, Frontier, p. 131

17Karl Friday, 1997. ‘Pushing Beyond the Pale: The Yamato Conquest of the Emishi and Northern Japan.’ In Journal of Japanese Studies 23 (1 winter), p. 13

18Aston, Nihongi, p. 261

19Shirane Haruo, 2012. Japan and the Culture of the Four Seasons: Nature, Literature and the Arts. New York: Columbia University Press, p. 208

20Aston, Nihongi, p. 67-8

21Friday, Pale, p. 6

22Aston, Nihongi, p. 369

23Shirane, Seasons, p. 14


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