2073 Syllabus

Chushingura (A Treasury of Loyal Retainers; 47 Ronin)

Chushingura (A Treasury of Loyal Retainers; 47 Ronin)

Course Description

This course is an introduction to the major issues and themes of pre-Meiji (1868) Japanese history. Subjects include the formation of the imperial institution and ideology and the dual (occasionally tripartite) nature of imperial and warrior rule. We will cover from roughly the 7th century to the collapse of the Tokugawa samurai rule in the 1860s. The course will include a major exploration of the Ako Vendetta in 1701-03, looking at it from the perspective of politics, ideology, and historical memory.

Our key moments are

  1. Introduction
  2. The Imperial Concept (Heian-kyō)
  3. Warrior Rule (Kamakura-Ashikaga)
  4. The 47 Ronin (1701-03)
  5. Bakumatsu-Japan (幕末日本—1830-1860s)

Course Goals

Throughout the term we will use categories of gender, ethnicity, national identity, nature and class as lenses for approaching something as enormous as Japanese Civilization. This is not meant to give a counter-narrative of the traditional story of Japan but to show how history and historical investigation are related in a more complicated relationship than just “looking things up.” At the end you should be familiar with the different historical, political and social groupings that have at one time or another been part of what we now call Japanese history. You should also be familiar with the different “work” that our different categories of analysis can do.

There are numerous difficulties in studying a non-modern period as even our concept of time used to think historically can be anachronistic. As such we will constantly ask intentionally large questions, especially:

  1. How is power organized at any given time and place?
  2. What are the mechanisms by which power is exercised at this time and place?
  3. What are the sites and methods of resistance to the exercise of any given regime of power?

This will help us keep a focus on the accidents, contingencies, and historicity of these moments. This will in turn help us see that turning point as the product of a history and not a teleology* of Japan.

*look up this term and know what the dictionary definition is and what form it might take in the context of national history.

Required Texts

  1. Amino Yoshihiko, Rethinking Japanese History
  2. Katsuya Hirano, The Politics of Dialogic Imagination

Requirements and Grading

Grading will be based on one short paper (500 words), one longer paper on the 47 ronin (1500 words), an in-class mid-term, and an in-class final. In addition, there will be short, graded writing exercises at the start of every discussion section. These will be combined with discussion participation to form your discussion participation/writing grade.

Discussion is the most important part of this course, because paper and exam topics will also build on what happens in discussion sections.

We will not take attendance in lecture or in discussion section, but at the start of every discussion section, you will be asked to write a short paragraph or take a quiz on the day’s or week’s readings. These will be graded as either 0-did not respond to the issues, 1-shows knowledge of the text’s issues, or 2-shows knowledge of the text’s issues and relates them to our course’s themes. You get two free misses for any reason whatsoever. But this also means that any misses over two will count regardless of excuses. Note that a score of “0” is one you’d probably like to drop as one of your free misses. In other words, don’t do what some have in the past: skip two sections and then get sick for a third, because that third, sick “0” will count. On the other hand, do not read a “1” as merely 50% or a D-. At the end of the semester the totals (less two misses) will be totaled and broken down into discussion grades based on the relative performance of the class–not the absolute score.

There may be occasions for gaining extra discussion points such as attending a talk and writing a precis or occasional on-line quizzes—but except for University sanctioned absences there will be no one-to-one makeup writings.


  1. Short paper                                               5%
  2. 47 Ronin paper                                        15%
  3. Mid-term                                                  20%
  4. Discussion participation/writing        30%
  5. In-class Final                                           30%

Tips for Success

When reading primary sources, keep in mind all these authors are writing because they feel some sense of crisis so your first step should be to identify this crisis; second, identify the author’s concepts and categories and their relation to each other. (In the interpretation of historical sources, it is rare that an argument that depends solely on factual details). Reading for categories is difficult because the author may not always explicitly announce them—or may even consciously hide them.

Interpret the source as evidence in an argument about what happened in the past. History is imagination disciplined by evidence and cogent explication. Historians want to know not only what happened, but how and, if possible, why.

Analyze the source on its own terms. This means avoiding anachronism, projecting our present into the past, and teleology, which means seeing the present as the inevitable result of the past—this slights real historical struggles and reduces past actors to merely “keeping appointments.” Every human society, past and present, has its own values and ways of thinking—often different from our own.

Our case is further complicated by studying non-Western nations, where it is often inappropriate to project our “common sense” onto the motivations of the historical actors. When Oshio Heihachirô rebelled in 1837, his banners did not read “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” but rather, “Sincerity—Truthfulness.” You must learn to read analytically to identify these terms and then determine what those terms meant to him, not you. (This is a historically specific definition. It is also the reason dictionary definitions will be useless.)

Evaluate the work. Give your thoughts on the pros and cons of the text’s arguments. Does it have any factual errors? Does the conclusion follow from the premises? Does it use its own categories consistently? What issues do the language and categories address and what issues do they ignore or fail to see? If you can, try and determine if these inclusions and omissions are due to mistakes or to ideological reasons.

Exercise critical judgment about what you read and hear. It is not enough to merely identify an author’s personal bias. You must show how and why the argument itself—the categories or logic—is racist or progressive or fascist or Marxist, etc.

Create “historical knowledge. Themes and concepts like “modernity,” “nationalism,” and “colonialism,” or even “famine” are developed through historical investigation in a way that they would not be in fields like economics or law.

To reach these goals, you will have to engage in active learning. You will not only be asked to read and understand, but to apply those skills to analyzing, interpreting, and, finally, evaluating both primary and secondary sources. Then, you will have to demonstrate these skills by critiquing primary and secondary sources and expressing your interpretation clearly in writing.


This method requires that you make a temporarily sympathetic reading of the text. Since we are going to be reading texts that are sometimes in favor of war, colonialism, racism, or sexism this temporary moment can be offensive to many readers. In these cases it is important to keep in mind the difference between being descriptive and being prescriptive. We need this temporary sympathy if we wish to offer a more complete and convincing critique of not only the author’s conclusion, but also the categories, structure, and assumptions. If in class discussions or lectures you are ever unclear if we are being descriptive or prescriptive please stop one of us and ask.