A Review of "Emperor, Rice, and Commoners" by Yoshihoko Amino


In his essay, Amino posits that the ideology of rice that has shaped so Japanese identity is a fabrication woven over several centuries to empower the Emperor and the concepts of Japanese cultural and ethnic uniqueness that have built the Japanese state. The five main points he examines in this argument are: the historical and political reasons why the term “commoner” became synonymous with “farmer” in Japan; historically Japan was never a purely agricultural society like the modern conception, but a diverse country with many forms of subsistence; imported Confucian ideology brought with it an “agricultural fundamentalism”; a “Rice culture” was imported to Japan from the continent as an already mature system; and, historically rice became politically, commercially, and legally integral to the maintenance of Japan as a state.

In his reverse timeline, Amino begins in the present examining how the term hyakusho, ordinary or “common” people, became synonymous with “farmer” in Japan, unlike in China and South Korea where it maintained its original meaning, and how this transition has led most Japanese scholars to the underlying assumption that Japan has always been an agriculturalist society; many documents proved that 80 to 90 percent of the Edo period Japanese population were hyakusho, and hyakusho were obviously farmers. Moving backward in time, Amino posits that in early Japan hyakusho maintained its original meaning of commoners, and among these commoners were also maritime peoples who practiced salt-making, shipping, and fishing, as well as mountain peoples who were woodcrafters, miners, hunters and trappers, and urban professions such as merchants and bankers. Therefore, Amino claims, up to 50% of what are now commonly believed to have been farmers were in fact not engaged in agriculture. I thought his argument interesting based on my experience living in Japan and speaking with rural Japanese people, to whom the image of the rice paddy is iconic. This is reflected in much Japanese media, including film, manga, and anime, where auteurs invoke the nostalgic feeling of furusato through the image of a paddy field accompanied by the fierce buzzing of crickets.

Amino goes on to describe how this concept of Japan as a historically agriculturalist society is rooted in the imported Confucian ideology of “agricultural fundamentalism” that assumes that “agriculture is the basis of all things.” Since many Confucian organizational systems were being implemented in Japan to solidify its status as a united state, this subtext was built into the political and legal systems. Rice was already used as an early form of currency, but while the urban population subsisted on rice as a staple, the actual farmers only consumed rice on special occasions, such as sacred festivals, and it was subordinate to any number of other crops. Reaching the earliest point in his timeline, Amino points out that for the “rice culture” imported by the Yayoi people to the Japanese archipelago to have spread so quickly, it must have already been a mature system, one that held rice (and rice wine, sake), as sacred. With the institution of an Emperor, in order reinforce the Emperor as divine, he took part in many sacred rice rituals, giving him status as a “rice king,” and giving Japan the image of “the land of rice.”

While I found this essay’s content very informative and interesting, my primary problem with the article is its meandering narrative and Amino’s round-about -almost backwards- method of reaching critical points, though this in part may be to a Japanese style of writing that carried over into Gavan McCormack’s English translation.


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