William E. Deal’s Handbook to Life in Medieval and Early Modern Japan

Deal-Handbook-JapanIf the title sounds daunting, don’t be worried. William E. Diehl’s Handbook to Life in Medieval and Early Modern Japan is a well-organized and eminently usable reference to the history, arts, and customs of Japan from 1185, the beginning of the Kamakura Period, to 1868, the end of the Edo Period, which is to say, the end of the Tokugawa shogunate and the restoration of the Emperor.

The “Introduction” is a very helpful little tidbit — don’t skip it. It contains short discussions of the transliteration (which he calls romanization) of Japanese words, pronunciation, Japanese naming conventions, date discrepancies (Japan followed a lunar calendar instead of a solar calendar, so those discrepancies occur with regularity), and a listing of the historical periods.

The first section, “Historical Context,” can be taken as a type specimen for the rest of the book. It begins with an historical essay giving a summary of major events in the history of Japan, followed by a “Table of Events” that is pretty exhaustive, including not only military and political activities, but such things as the founding of the Jodo-sinshu school of Buddhism (by Shinran, in 1224). This is followed in turn by an encyclopedia of biographical entries of historical figures. It is followed by a short list of suggested readings.

Deal follows this general format throughout the book, in the sections about “Land, Environment, and Population”; “Government”; “Society and Economy”; “Warriors and Warfare” (contributed by Lisa J. Robertson); “Religion”; “Philosophy, Education, and Science”; “Language and Literature”; “Performing Arts”; “Art and Architecture” (with Robertson); “Travel and Communication”; “and Everyday Life”. The book finishes with a list of museums with notable collections of Japanese art; a bibliography; and what appears to be a pretty exhaustive index.

I’ve found this volume very helpful when I need more information on some aspect of Japanese history and culture that isn’t quite clear — or that the creators assume I know — in manga and anime, particularly the historical dramas, or from other reading. I can just look up whatever I have questions about, read the entry, and go on my merry way. (I had no idea what the Gion festival is; now I do.) It’s also enjoyable just to read.

It’s a fairly new book, for a scholarly publication (first published in 2005; this edition was published in 2007), so we have the advantage of recent scholarship. The discussions are concise but thorough. It’s illustrated with photographs depicting, for example, houses ranging from Himeji Castle to a woodcutter’s hut, and illustrations of various aspects of Japanese life adapted from Japanese originals. There are also maps and tables, all listed in the front of the book for easy reference.

And “easy reference” just about says it: this book is very easy to use, both for specific subjects and general reading, and I’m finding it an excellent addition to my library.

(Oxford University Press, 2007)

About Robert Tilendis

Robert M. Tilendis lives a deceptively quiet life. He has made money as a dishwasher, errand boy, legal librarian, arts administrator, shipping expert, free-lance writer and editor, and probably a few other things he’s tried very hard to forget about. He has also been a student of history, art, theater, psychology, ceramics, and dance. Through it all, he has been an artist and poet, just to provide a little stability in his life. Along about January of every year, he wonders why he still lives someplace as mundane as Chicago; it must be that he likes it there.

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