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Book Review


Andrew Edmund Goble, Kenneth R. Robinson, and Haruko Wakabayashi, eds. Tools of culture: Japan's Cultural, Intellectual, Medical, and Technological Contacts in East Asia, 1000-1500s. Ann Arbor, MI: Association for Asian Studies, 2009.

     The Association of Asian Studies has done the Asian history field a great service by creating a new book series, Asia Past and Present, to succeed its previous monograph and occasional paper series. AAS hopes to publish between two to three books a year in emerging and underrepresented fields, including premodern Asia, the time period covered in the book under review. Tools of Culture fits within the recent popularity in premodern Japanese studies of connecting Japan to Korea and China.1 The book grew out of a conference held in 1997 on non-state contacts between Japan and the continent, but unlike many conference volumes that suffer from uneven quality, the nine chapters fit within a cohesive and well-written whole.

     The goal of the book is to trace the interaction between late classical/medieval Japan and the continent beyond the confines of official "state" relations. Following a trend in world history, the editors want to move away from the land-bounded view of history to focus on the people, ideas, and objects that traversed the sea to and from Japan.2 Thus, although seven of the scholars are Japan specialists (the other two work on Korea and China), this is very much a Japan of East Asia, and should be read widely outside of the Japan field.

     The volume is divided into three parts: "Inscriptions and Interaction," "Arts and Esthetics" and "Prescribing and Prescriptions." Part one addresses Chinese language as a vehicle for interaction in East Asia, not just for recording information. In the first chapter, Robert Borgen describes the writing of the Japanese Buddhist monk Jōjin, who traveled on a pilgrimage to China during the Song dynasty. What makes Jōjin's diaries unique is his observations on technological advances in the canal system, unusual animals, fauna, and architecture; a collection unlike other Heian period monks who traveled to China. Interestingly, Jōjin also brought books with him to China, piquing the interest of his Chinese hosts, and performed, at their request, a ritual unknown to the Chinese monks, examples that demonstrate Jōjin as an equal participant engaging with his Chinese counterparts (44). This last point is especially welcome by those of us trying to dispel student assumptions that much of Japanese culture originates in China, makes a brief stop in Korea, and finally ends up in Japan.

     Although it comes as no surprise that written Chinese language was the medium for interaction among the educated elite in premodern East Asia, the second chapter by Murai Shōsuke is a wonderful example of the degree to which poetic writing ability mattered in diplomatic relations. A country's reputation rested upon the poetic strengths of its diplomats to the extent that sovereigns appointed diplomats based on poetic ability. Here again, we see Buddhist monks applying their intellectual abilities to secular activities; many religious excursions abroad doubled as diplomatic missions. Murai highlights Korea's importance as a participant in the creation of a shared East Asian epistemology through diplomatic poetry, and blends well with the third chapter, which focuses on the Korean tributary system. Like the other chapters, the port city of Hakata looms large, in this case through the Ōuchi family who, similar to the Sō family in nearby Tsushima Island, dominated official interaction between the Korean King and Japanese shogun. Kenneth Robinson uses a monk's account to detail the Korean tribute system.

     The three chapters in part two demonstrate the continental influence upon medieval Japanese culture. The first, and most creative essay in the volume, demonstrates how depictions of the Mongols in artwork created after the Mongol invasions established a new iconography for depicting foreign enemies more generally. Haruko Wakabayashi proves this by demonstrating how the textual and visual narrative of Empress Jingū's expedition against Korea, a mythical event that takes place nearly a thousand years before the Mongol invasions, changes over time after Mongol invasion iconography had been established. Moreover, the narratives of both events incorporate much that is unique to Kyushu culture.

     Chapters five and six focus on the physical presence of China in medieval Japanese culture. Martin Collcutt's essay traces the development Rinzai Zen through the lens of Lanxi Daolong, someone we might call today a Chinese "expat," who sets up shop in Kamakura. Collcutt begins with a description of Chan Buddhism's introduction to Japan which non-specialists will find particularly helpful. With Lanxi's arrival, Japanese no longer had to travel to China to experience training in "authentic" Chan Buddhism. Moreover, his work in Kamakura speaks to the influence of Zen Buddhism in the shogunate's growing cultural influence compared to Kyoto Buddhism. As interest in Zen grew during medieval Japan, so too did the accompanying tea culture and the desire for Chinese ceramics, the topic in chapter six. The demand for karamono, "things Chinese" (although not always from China), created a new market for goods and with it, a new aesthetic assigning value to objects. The author, Saeki Kōji, approaches his topic using archeological finds in Japan.

     The authors in part three are concerned with the life of books as they expand with the technological developments in Song printing. By studying what kinds of books Japanese elite collected in the 12th century, Ivo Smits informs us that most Japanese were interested in China's past, new editions and commentaries of the classics, reference books, and maps, not in contemporary Song intellectual developments. Thus, the mental image of China among most medieval Japanese elites was skewed towards China's ancient past. This connects to a non-trivial point made in the introduction that for medieval Japanese, "China" referred to south China where most Chinese art, religion, and trade with Japan originated (5).

     The last two chapters have a much clearer connection to each other than to the first, as both trace the transmission of medical knowledge from China (and in Andrew Goble's chapter, from the Middle East) to Japan. Kosoto Hiroshi's chapter is unique in the collection because it focuses mostly on China. His is a straight narrative of how the Song printing revolution affected the creation of new medical texts, and how changing sponsorship and authorship of those texts (heavy government involvement in Northern Song period which shifted to local and private production in Southern Song) changed medical knowledge in China and East Asia in general. His chapter is an excellent set up for Andrew Goble's concluding chapter on Song and Arabic medical influences in Japan. By comparing changes in Chinese medical texts over time, and their influence on Japanese texts, Goble shows that prescriptions of Arabic origins were popular in Japan, a phenomenon he calls the "Medical Silk Road." Moreover, he illustrates how Japanese physicians used Chinese medical texts in clinical experiments showing us that received texts contributed to living knowledge in Japan and did not remain stagnant.

     The reader will certainly come away with a geographical image of Japan that shifts slightly away from Kyoto and Kamakura, to Kyushu and in the southwest. A running theme throughout all the chapters is the importance of Hakata Bay as the arrival point for much of the ideas, objects, and people from China and Korea. This contributed to Kyushu Island's liminality in the Japanese imagination throughout most of premodern Japan. One enticing example of this phenomenon as it relates to sexuality is a type of genital sore called "Kyushu affliction" (10).

     Readers who teach East Asian history and Japanese history surveys will find plenty in this book to add to their lectures. I even recommended this book to a colleague who will team-teach a course on medieval Europe and Asia and is looking for books to assign to the class. The readings are accessible to students as most of the chapters are clearly written, well organized and straightforward. I suspect that the volume will become a standard for measuring future studies of medieval Japan and its interaction with the continent.

Michael Wert is an Assistant Professor of History at Marquette University who specializes in 19th and early 20th century Japanese history. He teaches undergraduate courses on Japan and East Asia, and graduate courses on world history. He can be reached at



1 Works including Bruce Batten, Gateway to Japan: Hakata in War and Peace, 500-1300 (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2005); Michael Como, Weaving and Binding : Immigrant gods and female immortals in ancient Japan (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2009) and Shōtoku: Ethnicity, Ritual, and Violence in the Japanese Buddhist Tradition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008); Herman Ooms, Imperial Politics and Symbolics in Ancient Japan : the Tenmu Dynasty, 650-800 (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2009); Charlotte Von Verscheur, Across the Perilous Sea: Japanese Trade with China and Korea from the Seventh to the Sixteenth Centuries (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University East Asia Series, 2006).

2 An argument echoing the recent volume edited by Jerry H. Bentley, Renate Bridenthal, Kären Wigen, eds., Seascapes, Littoral Cultures, and Trans-oceanic Exchanges (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2007). Peter Shapinsky, a contributor in the above volume, also translated chapter six in the book under review.


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