I study modern history and I rarely read books on premodern periods. One exception I recently made is Amino Yoshihiko (網野善彦)’s works since I wanted to write a biographical writing assignment on him in my historiography class. I chose him because I own a few books by him, and I remembered that I enjoyed some chapters when I flipped through them a long time ago. Reading Japanese materials, or in other words, taking advantage of my very limited niche as a foreigner, is always good for this kind of assignment (especially when the professor is not a Japan specialist!), of course. I started to read his major works closely, and — how should I put this — it keeps blowing my mind. He is an excellent writer in the first place, and he is so over the nation-state point of view. Each of his argument totally destroys the image of premodern Japanese history that my early school education implanted in me. My teachers at school were not any nationalists in the ‘right-‘ or ‘left-‘ wing sense, but their narratives always assumed “Japan” to be a unified entity throughout “its” long history despite the fact that they acknowledge that the nation in the modern sense emerged much later.
Let me give you one example out of many fabulous points he makes: Amino shows how the seas surrounding now-Japanese islands, which were traditionally understood as isolating proto-Japanese territory from the outside world, actually connected it closely to the Asian continent and other islands. It sounds like an obvious point, but I did not realize how the picture of the modern Japanese map is ingrained in myself and prohibited me from imagining various interactions/dynamics that different geographical parts in Asia had until Amino shows the line of cultural similarity in the ‘dive and catch’ (海女）fishing technique from Western Japan to Korea. Another time, he shows the oddness of the ancient governments to build the famous seven major roads (五畿七道）that run throughout the honshu. Which, again, did not strike me as anything special when I first learned about it at school. However, these roads obsessively follow straight lines, which is very strange considering mountainous geography of Japan. He explains that similar constructions were prevalent in Chinese Sui, Tang Dynasties, Persian empire, Roman empire etc. These “highways” were primarily for military purpose, and more specifically, for further conquest towards Ezo (Hokkaido) and the Korean peninsula.
Anyways, from reading Amino’s works, what strikes me strongly is the huge potential in premodern history to really go beyond, or completely ignore, the national boundaries. Is it ironic that more modernists are conscious about doing ‘transnational’ history because of the expansive power of modernity, global capitalism, and imperialism etc. However, we sometimes run the risk of strengthening the notion of borders by making a big deal of power/phenomena that cross them. Premodernists can, and should, completely ignore the existence of current national borders itself from the very beginning. I did not realize such an obvious advantage in premodern history in deconstructing the notion of the nation-state until I read Amino.