Art and Civil Society in Tokugawa Japan

6 Apr

With an extension to graffiti in late 20th Century

rainbow CEAZE in the industrial zone

I first published this in The Valve back in 2007 under the title “Tokugawa Blogging: Best of 2006.” I’m republishing it here because it relates to the role Transition Teams are playing in moving our societies to a new, more sustainable, and more human way of life.

Back in September of 2006 I was looking through the current issue of Science and saw a book review (requires subscription) entitled “Through Art to Association in Japanese Politics” by one Christena Turner. Given my interest in manga and anime, the title caught my attention. That Science was reviewing a book on such a topic, that really caught my attention. So I read the review, of Bonds of Civility: Aesthetic Networks and the Political Origins of Japanese Culture ( by Eiko Ekegami.

According to Turner, Eikegami argued that

Japanese sociability is characterized by an extensive repertoire of practices for handling the problem of how to interact with strangers. Somewhere between friends and enemies lies the domain of strangers. Somewhere between intimacy and danger lies the domain of civility. “The degree of ‘strangership’ may be an indication of the degree of civility in a given society,” she claims. Civility permits ordinary people to be confident in interactions with those of unknown or different backgrounds, making it possible to form social bonds in the absence of friendship or kinship.

This is important because modern democracies requires a civil realm where individuals can form voluntary associations “outside the realms of both the political institutions of the state and the intimate ties of the family.” Ikegami argued

that networks of people engaged in interactive artistic and cultural pursuits created the bonds of “civility without civil society” that prepared the population of pre-modern Japan for its strikingly rapid transformation into one of the first and most successful modern nations outside of the West. Art created politics when participation in aesthetic networks taught people technologies of association among strangers that eased the transition toward institutions of a modern political economy.

That had me hooked. Not only would this book serve as “deep background” for my interest in manga and anime – “deep” because it’s about a period, roughly 1600 to 1850, well before the emergence of those forms – but it also promised to be a volume that argued for the social value of art on an empirical basis, as opposed to asserting ideals. Since I’d already argued that it was music that made apes into humans, I was eager to read a more empirical, less speculative, argument broadly, if only loosely, consistent with that. Finally, it seemed that Ikegami’s argument might be generally useful in thinking about how social networks function in the larger society.

I am pleased on all counts, and regard Bonds of Civility as the most interesting book I read in 2006. Roughly speaking, the argument goes like this: Early modern Japan was, like most such civilizations, socially stratified. Overall rule was vested in the samurai class, who ceased being warriors and functioned more as bureaucrats and civil servants. The samurai class was dominated by the Tokugawa clan, headquartered in Edo (Tokyo). Ikegami argues that individuals who were assigned different stations by the Tokugawa shogunate would temporarily “escape” that structure in the pursuit of poetry, flower arranging, the tea ceremony, theatre, painting, and so forth. Samurai, merchants, farmers, and others were thus able to meet and interact as equals in these aesthetic activities. Over the centuries, these informal institutions forged a civil society “that generated an image of aesthetic Japan as if it had been a natural description of the geographical identity called Japan” (375). In the late nineteenth century, this identity coalesced around the figure of the emperor when the nation in general, and the shogunate in particular, was forced to adapt to Western imperialism (372-376).

At about the time I was reading Ikegami, I was also photographing graffiti and reading about it. In Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant, Subway Art (Owl Books 1984, p. 23), I read:

A youngster starting out finds a new community, focused on the subway, which brings together kids from all over the city. He gets a new name and a new identity in a group which has its own values and rules. He finds the particular subway stations where other writers congregate and where they form new alliances that transcend the old parochial neighborhood and traditional gang territory.

Within the scope of that world, the graffiti crew seems very much like a Tokugawa era aesthetic network. Both institutions bring together people who are otherwise from different neighborhoods and social strata, and in both cases these people take on new names specific to the cross-cutting group, whether the poetry circle or the graffiti crew.

And then we have the internet, with all the various social venues it has engendered, the blogosphere among them. And if we take the academic blogosphere as an example, what do we see? We see academics from different disciplines chatting with one another, we see academics and non-academics chatting as well. In both cases experts and non-experts have to come to grips with one another.

And then there is the name. Some bloggers post under their own name – that’s the policy for those with posting privileges at The Valve. But many do not. This is often (generally? mostly?) glossed as a protective move, for sufficient reason, alas. But the Tokugawa example, and the graffiti example, suggest that something else might be going on as well.

How far can we push the parallels between the blogosphere, graffiti gangs, and Tokugawa aesthetic networks? I haven’t the foggiest idea. At the moment it is sufficient for me that there are parallels. And surely other examples as well. I’ve read anecdotal accounts of camp meetings in early 19th century America where both blacks and whites gathered for a week-long Christian revival. For six days the two groups kept to their section of the camp, with a fence between. On the last night the fence came down and they all danced together. Was that one of the roots of the abolitionist movement?

The important thing, it seems to me, is to think of social structure in terms of networks, in addition to groups. Groups lead you to think in exclusive terms; membership in one group precludes membership in some other group. And there is a lot of that. But we also have networks linking people from various groups into some other group, of a different (cross-cutting) kind.


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