Amino Yoshihiko

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  • Born: 1928/1/22
  • Died: 2004/2/27
  • Japanese: 網野善彦 (Amino Yoshihiko)

Amino Yoshihiko was a historian of medieval Japan, particularly prominent in the last quarter of the 20th century, and known for his arguments for broad-ranging reassessments of our understandings of, and approaches to, Japanese history.

In particular, among the chief themes of his work is an argument against the conventional received wisdom that "traditional" Japan was dominated by, or fundamentally grounded in, agricultural production, and that rural communities were self-sufficient and profoundly isolated from one another. Instead, he suggests that a great many rural people were engaged in a variety of trades - including fishing and other maritime activities, artisanal or craft work, and shipping & merchant activities - and that through these activities, rural communities were quite connected with one another, in wide-ranging communication and trade networks.

Amino also argues against the notion of a relatively continuous "Japanese culture" or "national character," homogeneous across the archipelago and developed in an unbroken fashion over the centuries into something profoundly unique, as a result, in part, of Japan's relative isolation from the Asian continent. Rather, he emphasizes the ocean, and the Sea of Japan in particular, as conduit rather than obstacle, and highlighting regional difference and disunity within the archipelago. Further, he identifies the 14th century as a turning point of profound significance, suggesting that much of the fundamental structures of Japanese life of the early 20th century in which he grew up could be traced back to developments since the 14th century, and that Japanese society prior to the 14th century was profoundly different, having far less bearing on the character of modern Japan, and being far less recognizable and more alien to modern Japanese eyes.


Born in 1928 in Yamanashi prefecture, where he also grew up, Amino was 17 years old and on the verge of being eligible for the draft when World War II came to an end. Entering the University of Tokyo as an undergraduate student, Amino, like many at that time, saw the study of history as crucial to the political and social construction, or development, of post-war Japan. Prominent ideas at the time included a feeling that prewar and wartime understandings of Japanese history and national character were profoundly flawed, and in need of dramatic correction, as well as the idea that by understanding "feudal" Japan, and the ways in which Japan was, perhaps, still "feudal," one could understand what "went wrong" with the path taken thus far by modern Japan (i.e. since the Meiji Restoration), what sort of path Japan should follow in the post-war, and how to pursue it.

Amino became devotedly engaged in leftist popular & student activism during his college years, and for a few years after his graduation from the University of Tokyo in 1950. He worked for a short time as a researcher at the Institute for the Study of Japanese Folk Culture, and also married around this time, shortly after his graduation.

The Institute he had been working at was shuttered around 1953, and Amino did a number of odd jobs before finally becoming a high school history teacher. He has said that teaching high school history, which required him to cover the history of Japan in a broad manner, simplifying and distilling complex concepts, provided the opportunity and impetus to rethink some of the broad-ranging underlying assumptions inherent in the mainstream interpretation of Japanese history.

Around this same time, Amino came to reject the modes of scholarship popular at the time, which focused heavily on fitting Japan into conceptual frameworks such as Marxist historiography, instead shifting to focus more on a document-based approach to understanding Japanese pre-modern culture and society within its own context.

He continued teaching high school for a number of years, before in the late 1960s taking a position teaching at Nagoya University. His research at this time focused chiefly on medieval shôen estates, and in the late 1960s through early 1970s he published a number of works on that subject. Disillusioned, however, with the standard historical narrative being taught in high schools, by the late 1980s he was making arguments with much more broad-ranging implications, addressing understandings and interpretations of pre-modern through early modern Japanese history more broadly. His earliest groundbreaking work in this vein is said to have been Muen, kugai, raku ("Disconnectedness, Public Space, and Markets"), published in 1978. He would later expand upon these ideas in a book entitled Nihon no rekishi wo yominaosu ("Re-reading the History of Japan", 1991), and in a continuation volume, published in 1996. These have now been translated by Alan Christy and released in English as the single volume Rethinking Japanese History (2012).

During the 1990s, Amino was so prominent that bookstores often devoted entire shelves, or sections, to his works. Even at this time, however, school curricula and textbooks remained powerfully constrained by the need to "teach to" college entrance exams, which themselves were based on the standard interpretations of history; though Amino was approached at times to help produce educational materials, such materials very often went unused, as they challenged the understandings students would need to memorize in order to succeed on their exams. By the end of his career, Amino had penned over four hundred works.

Following Amino's death in 2004, many of his works were republished, many of them as part of a newly compiled series entitled Amino Yoshihiko chosakushû (The Collected Works of Amino Yoshihiko). This set consists of eighteen volumes plus one additional volume (bekkan).

Selected Publications

  • Higashi to nishi no kataru Nihon no rekishi 東と西の語る日本の歴史 ("Japanese History Speaking of East and West"). Tokyo: Soshiete, 1982.
  • Nihon chûsei no hinôgyômin to tennô 日本中世の非農業民と天皇 ("Non-Agricultural Peoples of Medieval Japan and the Emperor"). Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1984.
  • Ikei no ôken 異型の王権 ("A Different Royal Prerogative"). Tokyo: Heibonsha, 1986.
  • Nihonron no shiza: rettô no shakai to kokka 日本の視座:列島の社会と国家 ("Perspectives on Japan Theory: Societies and States of the Archipelago"). Tokyo: Shôgakukan, 1990.
  • Nihon no rekishi o yominaosu 日本の歴史を読み直す ("Reconsidering Japanese History"). Tokyo: Chikuma, 1991.
  • (Gavan McCormack, trans.) "Deconstructing 'Japan'." East Asian History 3 (1992), 121-142.
  • Umi to rettô no chûsei 海と列島の中世 ("The Middle Ages of Sea and Archipelago"). Tokyo: Nihon Editor School Shuppansha, 1992.
  • (with Mori Kôichi). Uma, fune, jômin: tôzai kôryû no Nihon rettôshi 馬、船、常民:東西交流の日本列島史 ("Horses, Ships, Commoners: The History of the Japanese Archipelago and its East-West Communications"). Tokyo: Kawai Shuppan, 1992.
  • (Alan Christy, trans.) Rethinking Japanese History, Center for Japanese Studies, University of Michigan, 2012.


  • Amino Yoshihiko. "Deconstructing 'Japan'." East Asian History 3 (1992), 121.
  • "Amino Yoshihiko," Nihon jinmei daijiten 日本人名大辞典, Kodansha, 2009.
  • Alan Christy, "Translator's Introduction," and Hitomi Tonomura, "Afterword," in Alan Christy (trans.) Rethinking Japanese History, Center for Japanese Studies, University of Michigan (2012), xiii-xxxii, 277-286.