Daibutsu, Kamakura

Daibutsu, Kamakura
Daibutsu in Kamakura, June 2010. There were thousands of school kids visiting that day. It was still great fun.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Tour of Duty: Samurai, Military Service in Edo

I recently read the book Tour of Duty by Constantine Nomikos Vaporis is professor of history at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. An excellent book on the sankin kotai system, the duty of samurai to "attend" the Shogun in Edo period Japan (1603-1868).

Alternate attendance (sankin kotai) was one of the central institutions of Edo-period (1603–1868) Japan and one of the most unusual examples of a system of enforced elite mobility in world history. It required the daimyo to divide their time between their domains and the city of Edo, where they waited upon the Tokugawa shogun. Based on a prodigious amount of research in both published and archival primary sources, Tour of Duty renders alternate attendance as a lived experience, for not only the daimyo but also the samurai retainers who accompanied them. Beyond exploring the nature of travel to and from the capital as well as the period of enforced bachelorhood there, Constantine Vaporis elucidates—for the first time—the significance of alternate attendance as an engine of cultural, intellectual, material, and technological exchange.

Vaporis argues against the view that cultural change simply emanated from the center (Edo) and reveals more complex patterns of cultural circulation and production taking place between the domains and Edo and among distant parts of Japan. What is generally known as “Edo culture” in fact incorporated elements from the localities. In some cases, Edo acted as a nexus for exchange; at other times, culture traveled from one area to another without passing through the capital. As a result, even those who did not directly participate in alternate attendance experienced a world much larger than their own. Vaporis begins by detailing the nature of the trip to and from the capital for one particular large-scale domain, Tosa, and its men and goes on to analyze the political and cultural meanings of the processions of the daimyo and their extensive entourages up and down the highways. These parade-like movements were replete with symbolic import for the nature of early modern governance. Later chapters are concerned with the physical and social environment experienced by the daimyo’s retainers in Edo; they also address the question of who went to Edo and why, the network of physical spaces in which the domainal samurai lived, the issue of staffing, political power, and the daily lives and consumption habits of retainers. Finally, Vaporis examines retainers as carriers of culture, both in a literal and a figurative sense. In doing so, he reveals the significance of travel for retainers and their identity as consumers and producers of culture, thus proposing a multivalent model of cultural change. (University of Hawai`i Press)

Tour of Duty is one of nearly 200 books submitted for the 2011 International Convention of Asia Scholars (ICAS) Book Prize. The book is currently in second place with online polling taking place until March 20th. If you read this excellent book and enjoyed it like me, please go to the ICAS website and place your vote for Tour of Duty by Constatine Vaporis.


  1. Sounds very interesting... I quite enjoy the more detailed historical books.

    I wish we could get such books here in Adelaide, but alas, the range of books on Japan is (perhaps surprisingly) limited. One reason why I buy english books on Japan from Japan (they're also cheaper than here as well).

  2. I'm lucky enough to have a very large selection of Japanese history books at the Los Angeles City library. My overall favorite Japanese history book is called "Japonius Tyrannus" and is a great biography of the great unifying warlord Oda Nobunaga. It's like $80 or $100 bucks thru Amazon and other places but my library has it.