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Conference ~ "The Early Modern 'Medieval': Reconstructing Japanese Pasts"

Friday, October 7, 2011
4:00 AM
Michigan Room, Michigan League, 911 North University, Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1265

Two-day conference featuring two keynote speakers and twelve panelists. Preregistration is required by emailing The registration deadline is Wednesday, September 28, 2011.

In the early seventeenth century, Japan entered a period of prolonged, relative stability under the dominion of the Tokugawa shoguns and other regional lords. This sustained period of peace, usually known by scholars as “early modern,” lasted until the mid-nineteenth century, and witnessed revolutions in printing, literacy, consumer culture, and scholarship in countless fields. The artifacts of this whirlwind of production were particularly shaped by their creators’ need to legitimize their present by reviving and revising motifs from earlier eras. Creators drew heavily from the period known to scholars as “medieval Japan” (c. 1200 – 1600). Writers and artists across early modern Japan appropriated medieval terminology and reinterpreted the words and images to fit their own political, artistic, or social-economic agendas. Literary scholars sifted manuscripts and compiled official, orthodox versions of classical texts. Artistic houses burnished their reputations by defining lineages and secret practices and giving them pre-seventeenth century provenances. Commercial writers and playwrights appropriated official histories of the past to craft panegyric local histories, while religious institutions enhanced their spirituality by reshaping their divine lineages. These projects reconstructed the history of medieval men and women of all walks of life — from samurai to outcastes, from pirates to merchants, and from warrior monks to tea masters. Sponsors: The Northeast Asia Council of the Association for Asian Studies, Japan-US Friendship Commission; and the University of Michigan: Center for Japanese Studies; College of Literature, Science, and the Arts; office of Vice President for Resarch; Rackham Graduate School; International Institute; Institute for the Humanities; and Department of History. The chronological division between medieval and early modern times in traditional periodization reflects the actual transition of the country from war to peace. But the division between periods has also had the effect of impeding connections in pedagogy, research, and publication across the chronological boundary. Scholars today on either side of the medieval-early modern divide share only rarely their sources or interpretations with each other. Japanese academic institutions maintain a discrete section for each of the two periods. As a result, relationships between the materials produced in each period often have been overlooked. Potentially more dangerous than the shape these particular chronological fields have taken is the impact this split has had on how modernity is understood. Modern Japan unwittingly and uncritically claims itself to be the heir of an early modern that in fact projected imaginary histories onto its past in order to fit early modern agendas. This conference begins to address these issues by inviting scholars and students from various disciplines of Japanese studies to explore the protean nature of memory in early modern Japan and the processes by which its inhabitants ascribed historical meaning. The conference is planned for two full days of keynote and panel presentations, source–reading workshops, and general discussion.