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"Communalism" in Japan

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This article seeks to make a contribution to comparative history at the level of interpretative concepts. The argument is that the concept of "communalism" provides a lens that is useful for the examination of Japanese history, even as the application of the concept to Japanese material discloses questions that might usefully be pursued by historians of communalism in Europe. In its original historiographical setting (Upper Germany in the late medieval and early modern periods), the concept was put forward as a way of describing how rural and urban communities developed a corporate character and were thus able to take over "state" functions on the local level, such as the making of ordinances, the administration of justice, and preservation of the peace. For purposes of comparison with Upper Germany, this essay focusses on Central Japan. One similarity between the two regions may be seen in the way villages were formed. Both in Europe during the High Middle Ages and in Japan during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, changes in the agrarian economy and in rural settlement patterns provided the background for the appearance of village communities. In both areas the fixed peasant household was a foundation stone of the emerging village. While the concept of communalism stresses the importance for Upper Germany of the village assembly of householders, together with the village council and village court, research on Japanese villages has emphasized the importance of cultic associations and the functional division of villagers into age-group associations. Despite such internal divisions, village government in Japan also had a basis in the community as a whole. As in Upper Germany, a vigorous communal organization developed in medieval Japanese villages. It was the community that controlled the "state functions," so important to the proponents of the communalism thesis, as well as certain economic and religious functions. The corporate activity of Central Japanese villages was, in fact, even more impressive than their Upper German counterparts, for in Japan the village could also function-unlike in Germany-as a community of fighting men defending their collective interests with military means. The strong position of Japanese villages was due not least to the upper stratum of village society, which during the wars of the sixteenth century separated itself more and more from ordinary villagers and approximated the status of the warrior estate (samurai). These rural warriors also formed regional associations that transcended village boundaries. In Japan there were no parliaments or representative assemblies at the territorial level, as in Europe and especially in Upper Germany, where village communities often had a voice in such bodies. By contrast, villages in Central Japan formed the basis for regional federations entered into by the warrior upper stratum of village society and the local nobility. These associations represented, in sixteenth-century Japan, a counterpart to the state building efforts of territorial princes. In sum, the village communities of Central Japan and of Upper Germany have a number of features in common that seem adequately to be described by the concept of communalism. By the same token, the distinctive characteristics of village life in Japan-the segmentation into age groupings, the military enterprises of the villages, and a militarized upper stratum building networks across village lines-raise questions that deserve further examination by historians of village communities in Europe.


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