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Top>Opinion>Historical Studies and Materials


Kei Yamazaki

Kei Yamazaki [profile]

Historical Studies and Materials

Kei Yamazaki
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Chuo University
Area of Specialization: History (early modern Japan)

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Historical materials of the Edo era

I am studying the Edo era (early modern Japan), focusing on the history of villages and regions. For my study, I often use historical materials such as old documents possessed by individuals as well as ones held in museums or archives. In Japan, there are even more historical materials on the early modern and subsequent periods than in other countries around the world, and old families who played the role of a village chief, assistant to the chief, or other village administrator in the past still preserve and inherit the old documents of those days. I visit such families, ask them to bring out the old documents covered with dust from a storehouse, and read or take pictures of them. The City of Hachioji, now collecting historical materials for editing the city history, found many old documents in various districts, including former Nakano Village where Chuo University is located. Unexpectedly many old documents exist around us, when it comes to ones on the periods up to around the Edo era.

Historical materials and the Great Earthquake Disaster

In March 2012, my graduate students and I visited Ishinomaki City, Miyagi Prefecture, to participate in an activity of Miyagi Shiryou Net (Network for Preserving Historical Materials). The Network, a group based at Tohoku University, is carrying out activities to save old documents damaged by the earthquake disaster. The East Japan Great Earthquake Disaster deprived people of a large amount of valuable property as well as many precious lives. Behind the scene, some old documents indispensable to historical studies-many of which were on the Edo era and subsequent periods-were also destroyed together with the storehouse of old families in which those documents were preserved. In Ishinomaki, we saw residential ruins extending all around the landscape with only the foundations of houses remaining, and flowers offered here and there. In fishing villages, coastal villages, and port towns in the Tohoku region, tsunamis washed away not only the daily lives accumulated by people through history but also a considerable number of old documents proving those lives. Historians and volunteer citizens in the prefectures of Tohoku and Kanto regions are soberly and steadily continuing the work of conserving and repairing old documents that narrowly escaped the damage in order to leave the documents to the future.

Issues in historical studies

Historical studies also witnessed a number of movements toward the revision of research issues following the shock of the disaster. Our journal Chuo Shigaku carried a feature entitled "Disaster and Historical Studies [Saigai to rekishi kenkyu]" (No. 35, edited by the Chuo Historical Society), and The Historical Science Society of Japan also published The Period of Earthquake and Nuclear Disasters and Historical Science [Shinsai, kaku saigai no jidai to rekishigaku] (Aoki Shoten). Survival and poverty have also been highlighted as issues in historical studies in various historical science societies for the past several years. Facing serious global economic difficulties and their impacts on our lives, they have launched projects one after another that attempt to consider how people in the past addressed difficult circumstances and created mechanisms for survival in various social settings across different times and geographical areas. In the afflicted areas, analysis of historical materials repaired and preserved after the tsunami and earthquake disaster will reveal more precisely how people have dealt with disasters or other mortal crises and survived until today.

Living in a village in the Edo era

In the book Anti-Poverty [Han hinkon] (Iwanami Shinsho), the author Makoto Yuasa is concerned about the fact that safety nets do not work properly in Japan today. So, how about in the society during the Edo era? The Edo era was, simply put, a period when peasants occupied the central position. While peasants, who did not have large fields, maintained their businesses by enhancing the intensity of labor and the productivity of land, such businesses were vulnerable to disasters, diseases, and other unexpected events. Various disasters including bad harvests, famines, floods, and earthquakes occurred again and again during the Edo era, and the people affected requested that their lord provide Osukui-or food, money, or seed rice for rescue. This Osukui worked properly to some extent in the early Edo era. Lords were recognized as those who provided Osukui in emergency in spite of daily exploitation, and the people regarded their government as a benevolent one. As is widely known, however, the finances of the shogunate and feudal domains reached a dead end in the late Edo era, making it impossible to provide Osukui adequately as before, and leading to a gradual reduction in its size and coverage. In turn, many roles were shifted to villages or major farmers (in the case of urban areas, towns or leading residents). Villages worked out a wide variety of measures to maintain the businesses of peasants, along with rice storages in preparation for famines.


However, these functions of villages had been denied or lost in and after the Meiji period. Various social security systems were established by the state to replace them, but those systems are in need of revision because they have not worked properly today. As safety nets work only if they are set doubly or triply, another issue is considering how to build a relationship to enable mutual support in a community, in addition to revising national systems. In so doing, it would be necessary to review and examine the regional history. Whereas the enactment of the Public Records Management Act is driving the establishment of a system for the preservation and management of national administrative documents today, one of the urgent challenges should be the formation of a framework for conservation and the utilization of many historical materials privately possessed by old families in towns or villages.

Kei Yamazaki
Professor, Faculty of Letters, Chuo University
Area of Specialization: History (early modern Japan)
Born in Nagano Prefecture in 1966.
Graduated from the School of Letters, Nagoya University in 1989.
Graduated from the Master's Course, Graduate School of Letters, Nagoya University in 1992.
Withdrew from the Doctoral Course, Graduate School of Letters, Nagoya University in 1996 after the completion of the required course work.
Served at the Inter-University Research Institute Corporation National Institute of Japanese Literature as a research assistant before becoming a lecturer at Chuo University in 2006 and assuming his current position in 2012.
His current research interests include understanding the early modern Japanese society from the perspective of villages and regions, and examining social change from the early modern to the modern periods.
His major publications include Studies on Communities in the Early Modern Shogunate Territories [Kinsei bakuryo chiiki shakai no kenkyu] (Azekura Shobo, 2005).