Medieval Japan

In my search for societies, traditions and cultures that might have held to something approaching the non-aggression principle for an extended period of time (outside of the medieval western tradition), I decided to look here: Medieval Japan: Essays in Institutional History, edited by John W. Hall and‎ Jeffrey P. Mass.  Let’s just say, at least with this effort, I came up snake eyes.

The journey already began with the cards stacked against me.  I found very little available in English on this period of Japanese history.  After looking through the handful of choices, I settled on this book – capturing a series of essays prepared initially for the Yale Faculty Research Seminar on Medieval Japan held in 1972.

Now…the subject is complex enough and the terms foreign enough to begin with; matters are further complicated as I cannot avoid looking at this period in Japan through the lens of my knowledge of medieval Europe.  Add to this that the book I chose is a book of academic essays; let’s just say that it was not written for the uninitiated layman.

The book captures the history of more than seven centuries, ending in about 1600.  Preceding this period, Japan was greatly centralized; then followed a period dominated by great noble houses, followed by a period where civil and military interests competed for power, and finally a period where almost all governance was local – exercised by warriors who could exercise military force.

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While I find many snippets that seem familiar to one who has done a bit of reading on European medieval history, what connection that there is (in terms of law approaching the NAP) all seems very superficial – not superficial as in fake, but superficial as in no real foundation.

There is no sense of the worth of the individual, no sense of decentralized law – just decentralized power (toward the latter part of the period in question).  There is no concept of natural law, of man made in God’s image, of oath, of law following the oldest custom and tradition, of religion as a check on political power.

To make a long story short, I found no reason for the decentralization that ultimately came toward the end of this period (albeit, relatively short-lived) other than the waning of centralized power.  None of the foundations under the decentralization of medieval Europe are clearly present in the case of Japan during this time period.  There was nothing underneath to sustain this decentralization.

And in this might be a good lesson for our times; we may very well be entering a period of decentralization – not based on any foundation that is lasting but based on a foundation of waning power.

It is worth keeping in mind: after this short-lived decentralization, Japan fell into civil war. Thereafter, centralization came back in full force.

Reprinted with permission from Bionic Mosquito.