Monday, 1 December 2008

Historical Periods

A few weeks back I went to a talk by a Western scholar of Japanese art history. He is doing a series of talks in English at my university. I had met him once before, when he attended a conference and gave a talk at my old university. When I was contemplating switching from history to art history he was the person I wanted to work with for my PhD. I ended up switching from history in a whole different direction, however, and felt like I was in some weird time slip at the talk.

In his talk he spoke about history and periodalization, about how different historical periods are defined, described, and delineated. To demonstrate his point he asked us when the Edo period began. The most common date is 1603, when Tokugawa Ieyasu was named shogun. But really that was just a formality, as he was acknowledged as ruler after winning the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600. But, there were still challenges to his rule until the Battle(s) of Osaka in 1614-1615. As is common in Japanese history, the period is named after a city, however, so the argument could be made for starting the period in 1590, when Ieyasu became ruler of Edo and the Kanto area. The 1630s saw the solidification of many of the laws that are now seen to symbolize the Edo period and the last large armed dispute in Japan for centuries, so this could also be the said to be the start of the period. The golden period of Edo period culture and art wasn't until later, however, and is markedly different so a date of somewhere in the 1650s wouldn't be strange either. The professor then reminded all of us that such a discussion, while usefull, is fundamentally anachronistic for none of those dates would have meant anything to the Japanese at the time. The contemporary Japanese calendar was based on era names that were chosen by the emperor and could be (and were) changed regularly. Nobody in 17th century Japan would have articulated that they were living in the "Edo period."

The professor further joked that nobody woke up and said "Yesterday it was the pre-modern period. Today it is the modern period!"

It got me thinking. It occurred to me that I had first met this professor in a different period of my own life. I was in my Boston period. I'm now in my Tokyo period. There was a Pune period in between. From the historical standpoint, all three have clear start dates and, with the exception of the current one, end points. The more I thought about it, however, I realized that this periodalization represents no more than my location. It just doesn't quite satisfy. Somewhere in between then and now I changed. I can't look back and pick out one specific date when it all changed. There was no revolution or imperial restoration, there were no bloody battles, but there were losses along the way. Its been a gradual process, built on each new experience and discovery, on thousands of little things that all add up leaving me looking back as if at snapshots in a photo album...

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