Literature review – Japanese History


Not without flaws, the text “The Empire of Things: Tokugawa Ieyasu’s Material Legacy and Cultural Profile” (Pitelka, Morgan 2009) successfully constructs a broad brush stroke overview of the life of Tokugawa Ieyasu and a picture of the cultural, political and social climate he lived in. The paper frames this biographical profile in the context of the historical significance we can glean from cultural and artistic artifacts, more specifically the painting “Dream Portrait of the Tōshōgu Deity” by Kanō Tan’yū.

This Biographical sketch aims to bring the reader through the complete life and times of Tokugawa Ieyasu, from traumatic childhood, being sent to a foreign clan as a hostage, through his adult life, his gain in military power, political ascension, strong stable retirement and glorification of reputation after death (Pitelka, Morgan 2009.) The text has three main foci which are linked to the three types of objects shown in the portrait by Kanō Tan’yū. The first focus is on the importance and significance of swords as gifts, presents and status symbols in Ieyasu’s life, especially early on in his training and growth as a worrier. The impact that Chinese culture, thought and literature on Ieyasu is also significant, and reflected in his extensive collection of artifacts and texts, two of which are pictured in the art work. Finally, the favorite past time of falconry, which also aided in political and social status, as well as physical and mental training is depicted in the wall print behind Ieyasu.

This paper shows a glimpse into Tokugawa Ieyasu’s life in an interesting and focused manner. The artifacts seen in the Kanō Tan’yū painting form the structure of the content, and keep the content of the paper focused on the areas of life that were most prominent in Ieyasu’s life and immortalised legacy after his death. I found the text easy to read and follow, easily empathising with the central figure. I felt what it would be like to live in Japan at that time. I was also able to see through Ieyasu’s eyes, and feel what he felt through his life. The paper cited varied and diverse sources, since Ieyasu had some “unwillingness to record personal thoughts and emotions in written form.” (Pitelka, Morgan 2009) These references enrich the experience of learning about Ieyasu and give a deeper understanding of his personal life. The frame of the paper is a painting which was commissioned after Ieyasu’s death, fulfilling the intended purpose of the author to use material culture to close the gaps of historical texts. Daily journal type entries by Ieyasu’s falconry partners show us his interest in the activities from the point of view of a contemporary of his.

Although I enjoyed reading the text and felt that the purpose to “enrich our understanding of Ieyasu and his age,” (Pitelka, Morgan 2009) I didn’t feel that the text had a strong or convincing argument. Upon reading the conclusion, I didn’t feel I was being called to change my view or opinions on the subject matter, and though the Kanō Tan’yū painting was used as a skeleton for the paper’s structure, and it was mentioned throughout the essay, there was no final statement as to how and why cultural artifacts indeed fill in gaps that other historical text can not do. Concluding the paper, the author only talked about such paintings as solidifying the honour and status of such clans as Tokugawa and how they continue their legacy. I felt that the introduction and stated purpose was related but disjointed to the conclusion.

In conclusion, Morgan Pitelka’s paper indeed gives us a deep and focused picture of Tokugawa Ieyasu’s life and the society he lived in, showing the importance of cultural artifacts as historical aids, however, the author could have delivered a stronger message to the reader, rather than a historical narrative and could have tied the text together in the conclusion more tightly.