Center and Periphery in Japanese Historical Studies by Michael Lewis: A Consideration

A consideration of Center and Periphery in Japanese Historical Studies by Michael Lewis (Chapter 24) in William Tsutsui’s Companion to Japanese History.

Center and Periphery in Japanese Historical Studies, by Michael Lewis, is fundamentally historiography. Densely written with numerous references, it engages with many approaches to history writing, which themselves cover many centuries of human endeavour. Lewis argues that approaching Japanese history from the perspective of the center-periphery model has limited utility and that it is important to also consider Japanese history from alternate perspectives. The center-periphery model considers history in terms of cores which influence and, in the case of reflexivity, are influenced by the surrounding areas. This framework has been utilised to describe a large variety of scenarios, whether it be the surroundings mimicking the behaviour of the core or the core extorting the surroundings to increase its power and influence.

Lewis argues that, although the center-periphery model can be useful when considering certain topics (such as when defining the connections between the central government and the prefectures), it can also lead to oversimplified conclusions. Approaching history from a center-periphery perspective can lead to the diversity within the groups (e.g. gender, economic etc.) being overlooked and thus the impact of these factors potentially underestimated. Lewis concludes that the historians who are decentralising the narrative of Japanese history are providing novel and useful insights into the past.

This argument raises interesting questions regarding Japanese national identity. Who are the “original” Japanese people? What is Japan? When was Japan, as we know it, formed? What does it mean to be Japanese?

Viewing Japan’s history from a decentralised perspective alters the way one considers even the most basic timeline of Japan. Japan’s history is traditionally broken down into distinct periods often defined by the forming (e.g. Nara Period) or moving (e.g. Heian Period) of the capital. Thus the basic framework of Japanese history has hitherto been based around the center. Center and Periphery in Japanese Historical Studies causes the reader to consider how and why history is divided into such discrete sections.

In this context, it is interesting to consider the northern regions of Japan from both a center-periphery and a decentralised perspective. Lewis shows how various historians have used the center-periphery model to demonstrate how the northern regions were used by the center politically. For example, creating a standard for what is Japanese by framing the Ainu as the “other” and then later, when it became important to be seen as one nation with defined borders, how the Ainu were absorbed into the idea of what it meant to be Japanese. Whereas, in contrast, a decentralised approach allows the culture, history and people of the north to be considered as their own entity and not become a minor factor within a larger narrative. 

In conclusion, Center and Periphery in Japanese Historical Studies invites the reader to re-examine the way in which they approach the concept of history in order to provide different perspectives that can be combined to form alternative narratives.

3 Replies to “Center and Periphery in Japanese Historical Studies by Michael Lewis: A Consideration

  1. Hi Zoe, Thank you for your well structured post. I would agree that Japanese history has been written in a perspective of the centres, and I think many ordinary Japanese people see that, too. It is interesting to look into how actually Japan was decentralised.

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