“Samurai Status, Class, and Bureaucracy: A Historiographical Essay” by Douglas R. Howland
Article Critique by Sam Del Biaggio
Though decidedly not very funny, it is possible to imagine the joke that asks, “What is the difference between a historian’s work and an Ikea catalog?” With the answer being, “Historians provide context and a cohesive narrative while the Ikea catalog only provides descriptions and a price.” Catalogs aim to inspire consumption by its audience. Historians don’t make catalogs. Historians figure things out, and then put those conclusions into a context as they create a narrative story to explain events or social change—we call the result, history. Howland reminds the reader that the author is investigating historiography as much as samurai status and class with the second part of his title “A Historiographical Essay.” While Howland’s object of study is the development of class and status of the samurai during the Tokugawa period of Japanese history—the essay is equally about the problems that have troubled those historians that study Asian history around the transition of samurai culture into modernity (Howland 365).
In his introduction Howland states his purpose as being “to review and clarify current descriptions of the samurai and to link status and class to another concept…their administrative labor in governmental bureaucracy.” Howland goes on to explain his intentions and design for his essay as he concludes his introduction, “What follows is a historiographical essay that examines the conceptual basis of ongoing discussions” (Howland 355). These concepts, class and status, are essential to understanding the foundation of the samurai warrior culture based on martial rank as Japan transitioned into a bureaucratic system. The article begins by establishing that E.H. Norman’s “seminal work, Japan’s Emergence as a Modern State, established the parameters of debate” (Howland 353). According to Howland, Norman posed the questions that would later be either reconfirmed or expanded by consequent research. This research becomes the heart of Howland’s article. The author establishes the nature of the territory as murky waters. He begins with the conceptual distinctions associated with class and status within the context of historians of Japanese society during the transition from the Tokugawa period into the Meiji. Questions abound for historians on the issue of status, class, and rank. While mibun (status) is an actual term from the Tokugawa period; the word for class (kaikyu) is a construction by historians and serves a theoretical function—thus, the historian must be mindful that one term is a historically accurate word while the other is a construct. Historians arrive at opposing conclusions as to the reality of the function and operation of status in samurai culture. These are indeed murky waters, as Howland summarizes, “Rigorous conceptual clarity is rare” (354).
The Confucian concept of “four divisions” lies at the heart of the development of status during the Tokugawa period (Howland 355). The Confucian model defined social relationships as hierarchal and specified rights and duties prescribed according to an individuals place in any particular social exchange. The Confucian conception of hierarchy developed to resolve issues in a different milieu than that which faced Japan over a millennium after Kung Fu-Tzu. The issues which later faced Japan revolved around ranking and status based on military service at its center. To Howland, the answers to questions of the cultural transition from a one of warriors to that of a bureaucratic one centers on issues around the ideology and education of the ruling class (371).
It can be assumed that the research and conclusions arrived at by Howland are sound—status and class work together as an explanation of change during the Tokugawa period (373). Howland arrives at other conclusions based on the exhaustive research he discusses. This becomes the problem of the article—the discussion centers purely on the research of other historians. Narrative thread is non-existent. Context is either buried or merely hinted at. While it would be possible to list and ascertain aspects of life in the Twenty-First century by reading several hundred catalogs—it would be ill advised to assume such a list made good history. By drawing exclusively on the debate in the historic literature little is accomplished other than cataloging facts centered on a theme. Without rigorous context and cohesive narration, the mere stringing together of facts—interesting though they might be—begins to look like a catalog more than history.