Japan in the Heian Period and Cultural History: Crash Course World History

Hi, I’m John Green, this is Crash Course World History and today we’re going to return to medieval times. Mr. Green? Mr. Green? Finally, we get to watch jousting and eat with our hands and root for the Blue Knight. Yeah, No, Me from the Past, for starters, Medieval Times doesn’t closely reflect Europe in medieval times. And furthermore, we’re not going to be talking about Europe in medieval times, although we will be talking about kings and courts and aristocratic intrigue, but we’re gonna be talking about all those things in Japan. So discussions of Japanese history often focus on the Tokugawa period because it’s got ninja and samurai, but much of the foundation of Japanese culture dates to the Heian period between 782 and 1167 CE. And when I say Japanese culture, I do mean culture, because the achievements of the Heian period were primarily artistic, especially in literature.

So for most of this episode, we’ll be looking at cultural history as opposed to like economic or political history. As a novelist, and also a consumer of culture, I’m a big fan of cultural history. What I love about it is that it embraces the human imagination. I mean, you can’t just make up economic theories. Just kidding, you can. Anyway, for our purposes, Heian culture is the high culture of the upper-upper-class aristocracy, and obviously focusing on this tiny sliver of the upper class leaves out the experience of most Japanese people. But we know a lot more about the elite than we know about everyone else because it was the elite who were doing all of the writing things down and they were writing about the people they found the most interesting – themselves. In fact one of the reasons we know a great deal about the Heian aristocracy is because of Japan’s first great novel: The Tale of the Genji, by Lady Murasaki Shikibu. Now the historian James Murdoch called the Heian aristocracy “An ever-pullulating brood of greedy, needy, frivolous dilletanti – as often as not foully licentious, utterly effeminate, incapable of any worthy achievement”.

But when you boil all the unnecessarily fancy words out of that quote, that sounds like people I’m very interested in learning about. In fact, I love some fallicentuousness. So one of the first things we learn from texts about the Heian aristocracy is that the aristocracy was dominated by a craze for things Chinese. Now Chinese visitors to Japan thought the country was backwards and out of the way and uncivilized. But one of the reasons the Japanese seemed backwards to Chinese visitors is that the Japanese in the 10th century admired Tang China, which had flourished a couple of hundred years earlier. But there was also the fact that the Japanese blended Chinese ideas, especially Chinese Buddhism, with native traditions. In fact one of the most interesting aspects of Heian Japan was the overall attitude of the aristocracy, which was characterized by a love of color, and grandeur, and ceremony, and ritual, that was tinged with some Buddhist-inspired ideas.

You know, it’s sort of like how everyone in Canada wears powdered wigs and knee breeches to look like 18th century England. And one of the central ideas in Buddhism is that everything beautiful, and also everything not beautiful, is fleeting. Like historian Ivan Morris wrote that in the literature of the time, there was a quote “feeling that the familiar order of things will soon come to an end.” Which by the way is always an appropriate feeling. So the center of aristocratic court life was the capital, Heian Jyo, which during the Heian golden age may have had a populations as high as 100,000 people, making it much larger than most European cities at the time. It may have been a glorious capital but we don’t really know because most of the city was destroyed by earthquakes, or possibly fires, or possibly wars, or just the desire for new construction. We’re not sure. We also know that the Heian aristocracy was rigidly hierarchical, with society divided into about 30 grades based on one’s birth. The top 4 grades were reserved for princes, and the top 3, known as the Kugyō, received all the most important privileges, including governmental posts and revenues from special rice land.

These people in the highest ranks could send their children to university, wear ceremonial dress, they were given lighter punishments when they committed crimes. Can you imagine a world in which rich people systemically receive lighter sentences for crimes committed than poor people? These rules were so detailed that they even determined what type of fan you could hold. The top 3 ranks got to hold 25-fold fans. But when The Tale of the Genji was written, this rank system, like all those ranks, applied to less than 1/10th of 1% of the total population, so we’re really talking about the elites. As Ivan Morris put it: “Members of the upper class are almost all related to each other. They are totally uninterested in everyone outside their charmed circle and exceedingly sensitive in judging the precise social level of each person who does belong. In Murasaki’s milieu, to determine a person’s milieu was no simple diversion, but a matter of overriding importance.” Now that description reminds me a lot of my high school experience.

Aristocrats dominated the government, which over time became more and more ceremonial and ritualistic. In fact by the 10th century, much government work was carried out at night and consisted almost entirely of ceremonies. The nice thing about doing boring ceremonial work at night though: there was a lot of wine. So yeah, that doesn’t make for like, excellent government efficiency. Heian Japan’s economy was not much better than its governance. There was very little trade and attempted land reform, which was supposed to grant every citizen a parcel of public domain land, totally failed. Meanwhile, aristocrats accumulated vast agricultural land holdings, and by the 10th century court nobles were largely supported by these tax-free estates called manors. Now interestingly, the nobles didn’t technically own the land outright, as they did in much of Europe. Instead they owned the rights to income from the land and then those rights could be transferred to their heirs, so it was similar to ownership, but it wasn’t quite ownership. Also different from Europe: upper-class Japanese women could hold the rights to a manor, and thus have a rather impressive degree of economic power.

And that matters a lot because women played a key role in the flourishing of Heian literary culture that makes this period of history so interesting to study in the first place. Like over all this inefficient corrupt cronyism of Japan’s government and economy definitely weakened this state. But it also provided time and money for the aristocracy to make beautiful and interesting things. Let’s go to the Thought Bubble. Heian aristocrats were expected to feel melancholy over the transience of existence. “In Murasaki’s time,” according to Ivan Morris “periodical protestations of melancholy and gloom were essential for people who regarded themselves as sensitive,” and sensitivity especially to art was the hallmark of aristocratic breeding. The aristocratic gentleman is exemplified by prince Genji himself: quote “With his gentle nature, his sensitivity and his wide range of artistic skills, who represented the ideal of the age and who set the tone for the social and cultural life of the good people” Buddhism was very influential on the aristocrats aesthetic ideal that beauty must be cultivated because it is so impermanent.

This quote from the tale of Genji illustrates this focus on impermanence: “‘Like the waterfowl that play there on the lake, I too am floating along the surface of a transient world’ I could not help comparing them with myself. For they too appeared to be enjoying themselves in the most carefree fashion; yet their lives must be full of sorrow.” Stan, are you sure that’s from the tale of Genji? I think I’ve seen that quote attributed to me on Tumblr. But we don’t only know about the emotional state of the aristocracy, we also know about their pastimes. We refer to nobles as the leisure class for a reason after all, they spent a lot of time playing games, and engaging in contests. Poetry contests were popular, as were board games, like Go, and much of their time was taken up with ceremonies and rituals. Here is an example from the court calendar: “18th day: Bowman’s Wager, the new year’s celebrations are concluded by an archery contest which is held in his majesties presence between officers of the inner and middle palace guards.

This is followed by a banquet during which court dances are performed and prizes awarded to the winning side. Members of the losing side are forced to drink the cup of defeat.” Thanks, Thought Bubble. I’d like to make an announcement here at Crash Course from now on whenever we refer to anyone losing anything we will say that they were forced to drink from the cup of defeat. So you know other than pure Game of Thrones style drama, this highly ritualized very insular social order of the elites of the elites of the elites isn’t usually the kind of stuff we’d study at Crash Course. But first, thinking about the lives of the Heian aristocracy tells us something about the lives of the rich and powerful generally. Like obviously they had to increasingly separate themselves from each other to feel more and more wealthy and powerful.

Which progressively led to them being more and more separated from, you know, the vast, vast majority of people living in Japan. But also they produced and consumed cultural artifacts that came to define the style of the age but also have continued to shape culture. Heian aristocracy and the documents that describe it tell us a lot about women, who as we’ve seen are often left out of historical narratives. The Heian period, at least culturally, was dominated by women, particularly Murasaki Shikibu and Sei Shōnagon. So in some ways at least, unlike almost everything we’ve studied, our view of the period is dominated by women’s perspectives, although it is the perspective of the most privileged women. And what we see is consistent with a lot of upper-class mores: these women are obsessed with their looks, and especially with their clothes which were cumbersome and heavy. They were expected to wear their hair very long, preferably reaching to the ground. They had to powder their faces and blacken their teeth and they lived the circumscribed lives typical of upper-class women throughout the world.

Although there were some legal protections that they enjoyed: like we talked about how they could have income from property. Laws also protected them from physical violence, specifically prohibiting a husband from beating his wife, which might not sound like that big of a deal but compared to women’s lives in Europe, that was a big improvement. And upper-class women in Heian Japan were all literate and educated, although their education was limited to the types of cultural skills that would make them attractive to men: poetry, music, calligraphy, maybe some literature. Disciplines like history and law and philosophy were mostly off limits. And that brings me to something I want to talk about: all of these privileges: from the heavy, cumbersome clothes that make it difficult to move to the kinds of education women could have or the kinds of limited legal protections they could have, all of that is evidence of a patriarchy. So we see through these women’s stories the way that they were able to express themselves and their philosophies and the way that they lived in the world.

So women like Murasaki Shikibu lived constrained, cloistered lives, but of course there were opportunities available to them that weren’t available to men. And that’s what’s so exciting about being able to read their narratives. We just don’t have many equivalents to that in Europe at the time. That noted, these women, like their male counterparts, spent most of their lives indoors, and communicated mostly by intermediaries or letters. Women couldn’t show themselves to men or make conversation with them. But there was a great deal of interest and intrigue around love and romance, not least because Heian gentlemen were expected to be polygamous and also to engage in extramarital affairs. But just because sexual relations were often divorced from marriage and love affairs were common doesn’t mean that they lacked emotional consequences.

In the stories you read about Heian Japan everybody is always worried that they’re going to like, fall out of favor with their lover or their husband or their whatever. It’s so exciting! To read about, I mean, I’m sure if you’re living inside of it it would make you very anxious. Also when courtship and marriage had political dimensions, as they did in the highest noble ranks, women were often in danger of being displaced by a more advantageous match. And we know from the stories that all of this combined into pangs of jealousy and fear of being abandoned and then pain when you actually were abandoned. And those kinds of stories, I’m sure I don’t have to tell you, have a kind of universality about them. The last thing I want to say here is that power works differently when you’re not in power, right? Like if you’re a student in a high school classroom the teacher has the power, but you have some power.

And the most interesting thing about the stories from the Heian aristocracy is the ways that women used the power that they did have to bring about change in their own lives and in their communities. So by looking at history through the lens of literature we get a very different perspective than if we were to focus on government documents, or archaeology, or descriptions of war. This helps us to try to develop a sense of how people at the time felt, although we’re only dealing with a very limited group of people, obviously. The cultural achievements of the Heian Period, described and exemplified by The Tale of Genji, were considerable, especially when compared to what Europeans were accomplishing at the time. And it’s another reminder that we need to be careful when we talk about the 9th and 10th centuries as the Dark Ages.

It’s also interesting that the Heian Period in Japan wasn’t particularly successful politically or economically, but that it did lead to great cultural achievements. And almost all of the literary achievements were made by women, which as Morris points out is “a rare, if not unique, phenomenon in cultural history.” For Heian Japan the historical record was written primarily by women. And while The Tale of Genji doesn’t discuss politics or economics the way that we usually imagine them, and while it describes a world that leaves out 99% of Japanese people during the period, it has a lot to tell us about the way that at least some people felt and lived, which is more than can be said for a lot of history books. And that’s a type of history that most of us can relate to more than stuff with generals and kings in it. For instance when I look at the history of my own life I find that generals and kings have played a very minor role. Jealously on the other hand: not insignificant. Thanks for watching. I’ll see you next week.

Crash Course is filmed here in the Chad & Stacey Emigholz Studio in Indianapolis. Thank you for watching and as we say in my hometown: don’t forget to be awesome..

World War II, A War for Resources: Crash Course World History #220

Hi, I’m John Green and this is Crash Course World History and today we’re going to talk about World War II. But we’re not going to look at it as a battle between good and evil, but instead as a war for resources, particularly a war for food. Wait, Mr. Green, Mr. Green, what about like Rosie the Riveter and Pearl Harbor and Nazis and Hitler? Yeah, Me From the Past, I mean if the question is was Hitler evil? Then, yeah. But evil people generally can’t, like, cause massive world wars on their own. So instead of talking about, uh, you know, the personality driven model of history, I want to talk about resources, specifically my favorite resource: food. So the story of World War 2 is commonly told as a narrative of good vs. evil, and it is. But we can also look at the second world war through the lens of resource allocation, and I think if we do it tells a story of both causes of the war and one of the ways that it impacted both soldiers and civilians.

The presence or absence of food affected everyone involved in World War II. In the most stark terms, the absence of food led to the deaths, directly or indirectly, of at least 20 million people during those years, as compared to 19.5 million military deaths. Now, of course, both the Nazis and the Japanese were militaristic and expansionist in the 1930s. And they were both definitely motivated by nationalism, but they were also seeking something called autarky. You can remember this term by conjuring the feeling one gets near Thanksgiving: “Aw, turkey”. You can also remember it when thinking about the collapse of the Ottoman Empire: “Aw, Turkey”. Anyway, autarky is a form of self sufficiency in a world where, increasingly, people were reliant on world trade, and that made nations more and more dependent upon each other to meet basic needs. Both Germany and Japan lacked the resources within their borders that they needed to build their growing industrial states, and the resource that concerned them most was food.

And this was a big part of what motivated their imperialist expansionism. Like, Hitler talked all the time about expanding German territory to acquire “lebensraum,” or living space. But what this meant, of course, was agricultural land to feed Germans, that’s what living space is really about on Earth. And most Germans of the time remembered the blockade during World War I, which had led to acute food shortages. For the Nazis, to quote Collingham, “Lebensraum would make Germany truly self-sufficient and immune to blockade and this would eventually enable Germany to challenge British and American hegemony.” Meanwhile, in Japan the need for food was also spurring imperial ambitions. If anything, Japan’s limited space created a sense of crisis and made colonies seem necessary. Like Japanese colonies in Korea and Formosa, taken in the Sino-Japanese war of 1894-1895, provided 20% of the Japanese domestic rice crop by 1935.

And then the Great Depression and Japan’s growing population made the situation appear even worse and probably led to the decision to annex Manchuria after 1931. So the Germans’ plan was to open up Poland, and eventually parts of Russia, to German farmers. The Japanese plan was to resettle farmers in Manchuria to provide food for the homeland. So if the desire for more food was one of the initial causes of World War 2, it also shaped the actual strategy of the war. This was especially true with one of the stupidest decisions of the war, Hitler’s decision to invade the Soviet Union. A German agronomist named Hans Backe put forth something called “the Hunger Plan”, and in doing so convinced Hitler that in order to become self-sufficient, Germany had to invade the Soviet Union. And everyone knows that you cannot successfully invade Russia unless you are the Mongols. Anyway, the plan was the Ukraine and western Russia would be transformed into a huge breadbasket that would feed both the German armies and German civilians. This was never fully implemented, because, you know, the Nazi’s could never successfully nail down all of the territory, but Collingham argues that it was a primary motive for Hitler’s disastrous invasion of the USSR.

And then on the Western front, the so called “Battle of the Atlantic” was largely about shipping arms, material, and food from the U.S. to Britain. This was incredibly important in the opening years of World War 2. Like, Winston Churchill once said that “the Battle of the Atlantic was the dominating factor all through the war. Never for one moment could we forget that everything happening elsewhere, on land, at sea or in the air, depended ultimately on its outcome.” In short, it was Britain’s dependence upon other parts of the world that ultimately made it stronger than Germany’s attempts at self-sufficiency. Starvation never became an issue for the Brits, but fear of running out of food, especially of running out of food for the troops, led to policies that made starvation a reality for many people in British colonies.

In British Africa, for instance, colonial policy forcing production for the war instead of for domestic food consumption meant shortages that were only made worse by wartime inflation. Crop failure in Rhodesia in 1942 meant widespread hunger and famine. And, in an echo of what happened at the end of the 19th century, World War II and British colonial policy spelled disaster for India. Japan had seized Burma in early 1942, cutting off 15% of Bengal’s rice supply. And when harvests failed later that year, hunger turned to famine. Now, the British could have alleviated the suffering but they were afraid to use supply ships that might be needed for the war effort to bring food to starving people in India. When you take into account hunger-associated diseases, between 1.5 and 3 million Indian civilians died, more than the total number of Indian combatants killed in World War 1 AND World War 2 combined. In the United States, meanwhile, there was no starvation, but there was some rationing.

And this was, especially relative to most recent American wars, some shared sacrifice. Americans gave up coffee and chocolate so that the troops could be well fed. So Americans and Britons hardly suffered from hunger. Neither did the Germans, actually, where memories of World War I made feeding the civilian population a top priority. Of course, millions of civilians weren’t being fed because they were being murdered or worked to death in concentration camps. But in Britain, World War II might have actually improved people’s diets. Now, Britons largely despised the whole-meal National Loaf of bread, but it was more nutritious than white bread and its flour took up less cargo space. It’s amazing to think that British people would dislike good food when there’s so much of it in their country. Stan, this is the part where in the comments all the British people say, “We are not a country, we’re four separate countries!” The “dig for victory” campaign encouraged ordinary people to plant gardens, and so they ate more vegetables. Full employment and higher wages meant that working class people also had more access to nutritious foods.

Also, you know, they had the benefit of Canada growing like, a gajillion acres of wheat. Although both the British and the Germans saw an overall reduction in caloric intake, it was nothing compared with what was happening in the USSR, Japan and China. In Russia, daily caloric intake by the end of the war was half of what it had been in 1940. And I will remind you that things were not great in 1940 in Russia, because Stalin. The daily caloric ration for Japanese women workers fell to 1476 calories, which was bad, but in China, where the corrupt Nationalist army was known to sell rice to the Japanese for profit, a famine in Guangdong claimed the lives of as many as 1.5 million peasants. And without doubt, much of the civilian suffering in the war was related to the massive amounts of food needed to keep soldiers fighting. Let’s go to the Thought Bubble. In World War 2, the US and Britain made a massive effort to make sure that their soldiers were well fed, and for the most part it paid off, even though the food that they got was sometimes pretty gross.

The British World War I diet of biscuits and bully beef eventually gave way to the appetizingly named “composite ration.” American soldiers may have complained a lot about their infamous C and K rations, but they were the best fed soldiers in the world, receiving a whopping 4,758 calories per day, including meat at every meal, because, you know… America. As you can probably guess, Soviet soldiers did not fare so well, especially when the Germans invaded because it was their policy to live off the land, which meant scrounging as much food from the Russian countryside as they could. German troops weren’t as well fed as Americans or the Brits, but they still managed to scarf down a respectable 4000 calories per day. No combat soldiers were as consistently hungry, however, as the Japanese. Japanese soldiers were expected to feed themselves and were not provided with field kitchens.

Often this meant that Japanese soldiers were fueled by little more than rice. And as the war turned against them it became more and more difficult for Japanese troops to feed themselves. On Guadalcanal the Japanese attempted to re-supply their troops with floating barrels dropped from passing ships, but by December 1942 between 120 and 130 soldiers were dying of starvation every day. The Japanese commander there estimated that while 5000 of his soldiers died in combat, 15,000 starved to death. Overall, it’s estimated that more than 1 million of the 1.74 million Japanese military deaths were caused by starvation or malnutrition. Thanks Thought Bubble. So, a quick look at the history section in your local bookstore or an IMDB search will tell you that there are hundreds if not thousands of ways to tell the story of World War II.

And this is just one history of the war, certainly not a definitive one. But examining the role of resources, especially food, in the second world war tells a story that has at least one advantage over the narrative of the triumph of Allied good over Axis evil. Because it helps us to see that the war was not only about the soldiers fighting, and it gives us a window into the way the war affected everyone who lived at the time. It also allows us to see World War II from a global perspective in a way that focusing on strategy or tactics or pivotal battles doesn’t. Like very little fighting went on in Sub-Saharan Africa or most of India, but these places were deeply affected by the war in ways that don’t often make it into history books.

Also, we live today in a thoroughly globalized world, but so did the people of the 1930s, and it’s very interesting to see some of their responses to it. That hyper nationalist idea, that we can take care of ourselves and don’t need help from outside, as long as we annex a lot of territory that’s currently outside of us – that idea is a response to globalization. But I think history shows us that it’s a horrible response. It’s a dangerous business when humans imagine others as less, when they think their land needs to become our land so we can feed our people. And in that sense at least, you can’t separate ideology from resource allocation, and as long as we live in a world of finite resources, the potential for conflict will always be there. Knowing that, hopefully, will help us to avoid it. Thanks for watching. I’ll see you next week. Crash Course is filmed here in the Chad and Stacey Emigholz studio and it's made with the help of all of these nice people and also with the help of our Subbable subscribers.

Subbable is a voluntary subscription service that allows you to contribute directly to Crash Course so we can continue its mission of keeping it free for everyone forever. So thank you for making Crash Course possible, thanks for watching, and as we say in my hometown, don’t forget to be awesome..