Protest and World renewal

Tokugawa Japan was a litigious society, with serious disputes over the control of wealth usually taking the form of petitions to higher authorities.[1] Occasionally, the usual social mechanisms could not contain disputes, and they became violent. Usually this violence was directed against property, and it conformed to customary patterns. Of the possible grievances that might cause peasants or townspeople to protest by destroying the property of wealthy farmers or merchants, the high price of rice, allegedly caused by hoarding, was perhaps most common.

The following dialogue between an accused peasant rioter in 1836 and a government official is typical of violent protest in several respects:

Tatsuzō: We got together at Ishimidō to put on a “festival of righteous world revival.” We wanted to bring relief to those who were suffering so much.

Interrogating officer: What kind of nonsense is that—a “festival of righteous world revival”! You break into the households of respected merchants; smash apart casks of sake. You call that a festival to rectify the world? You have the audacity to claim that your actions stand “apart from the law”?

Tatsuzō: To hoard rice; to take this rice that sustains us in this transient life and squander it on making sake—that is what causes suffering for so many people. . . . We got together in order to make an appeal to this respected merchant, to beg him for some food. None of us ever intended to destroy his shop and home. It just happened that we got into a quarrel with him and a fight broke out.[2]

Tatsuzō was attempting to evade punishment by claiming that his group was engaging in a peaceful protest against a genuine injustice that happened, unintentionally, to devolve into a private quarrel. Tokugawa period governments generally regarded nonfatal quarrels as private matters, outside the bounds of the legal system. Regardless of its precise legal status, the smashing of the liquor casks in this case was a fight between two groups of rural commoners. Protests and riots in Tokugawa Japan usually resulted from disputes between groups of commoners, even if warriors became involved to restore order. The term “world renewal” in the above dialogue is significant. The Japanese terms would be yonaoshi and yonaori, with yo literally meaning “world” but almost always referring to the immediate local society and naoshi/naori meaning rectification, correction, or renewal. Especially in the latter decades of the Tokugawa period, it was common to frame public protests as instances of social renewal or rectification, which implies that the protestors are on the correct side of righteousness and the cosmic forces. Indeed, during the last half of the Tokugawa period it became common for peasant protesters to claim that they were acting as agents of deities with names like Yonaoshi Daimyōjin or Yonaoshi Kami, thus framing any destruction or disruption they might cause as an act of divine retribution.[3] Significantly, however, protests or riots conducted in the name of world renewal were rarely revolutionary in their goals. As Herbert Bix points out, “Most often yonaoshi denoted a world-affirming experience. One engaged in such actions to exorcise the evils of local society, thereby preventing the world from coming to an end.”[4]

The terms yonaoshi and yonaori were also associated with earthquakes during the Tokugawa period. It was not until 1855, however, that the meaning of earthquake-related yonaoshi merged with that of social renewal in the context of protests by peasants or townspeople. In the context of pre1855 earthquakes, “Yonaoshi, yonaoshi!” was a talismanic chant with roots in shamanic purification rites. Yonaori, a word derived from the intransitive form of the verb, functioned the same way. It was something that people would have said or shouted after the earth began to shake, similar to shouting “Kuwabara, kuwabara!” at times of severe thunder and lightning.

Yonaoshi” was a common chant in the Kansai area, as Asai Ryōi's description of the main shock of the 1662 Kanbun earthquake indicates: “When people realized it was an earthquake they shouted 'Yonaoshi, yonaoshi!' and houses large and small began to sway and shake.”[5] A portrayal of the 1830 Kyoto earthquake similarly describes everyone chanting “Yonaoshi!” when the shaking started.[6] Chanting “Manzairaku!” was more common in the Kantō area (the vicinity of Edo) during earthquakes. After the major earthquakes of 1853 and 1854, yonaoshi began to appear in the titles of prints and in other written materials with great frequency, but it retained its meaning of a talismanic chant. One significant feature of the Ansei Edo earthquake is that Edo's townspeople interpreted the event itself as an instance of yonaoshi, the first time an earthquake rhetorically played such a role.[7]

  • [1] For a study of litigiousness in a rural area, see Herman Ooms, Tokugawa Village Practice: Class, Status, Power, Law (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996).
  • [2] Takeuchi, “Festivals and Fights,” 384.
  • [3] Sasaki Junnosuke, Yonaoshi (Iwanami shoten, 1979), 12–15.
  • [4] Herbert P. Bix, Peasant Protest in Japan, 1590–1884 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1986), 145.
  • [5] Asai Ryōi, Kaname’ishi (1662), in Taniwaki Masachika, Oka Masahiko, and Inoue Kazuhito, eds. and trans., Kanazōshishū (Shōgakkan, 1999), 15. For an 1830 example, see DNJS, vol. 1 (kō), 567. See also Kitani, Namazue no shinkō, 41, and Nishiyama Akihito, “Kyōto de no higai to jishin taiō,” in Chūō bōsai kaigi, 1662 Kanbun Ōmi-Wakasa jishin, 141.
  • [6] “Daijishin rokka nukigaki kyōka,” in NRJSS, vol. 3, 288.
  • [7] Kitahara Itoko, Jishin no shakaishi: Ansei daijishin to minshū (Kōdansha, 2000), 98–99, and Noguchi, Ansei Edo jishin, 201–202.
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