Above the Clouds: Status Culture of the Modern Japanese Nobility
By Takie Sugiyana Lebra
Berkeley University of California Press, 1993.
Cultural anthropology has a long history of studying the societies of so-called "common" people, while the mysterious world of nobility has been left mostly unexplored. Despite this historical trend, Lebra dedicated many years to the understanding of the inner workings of Japan's former and modern nobility, and has compiled her research into a book that investigates the oppositional relationship between nature and culture as it is found in almost every aspect of life for the elites of Japan: gender roles, heredity and the continuance of a family name, and the nobility's relations to other members of society.
Lebra's methodology is very sound. As a graduate from Gakushuin, an extremely prestigious school known for its imperial and noble alumni, she was able to call upon her distinguished and influential former classmates in order to establish a network of contacts with the elite members of society. Although Lebra is of Japanese origin, her association with the United States created a distance between her Japanese roots and how the interviewees perceived her. They viewed her as an "outsider," and while this may seem like an obstacle when trying to integrate into an exclusive sector of society, Lebra claims that it aided her in gaining their trust; they felt obliged to teach her, the outsider, and in order to do so they were willing to divulge secrets and information that they might have otherwise left unsaid. With all of these advantages, over a period of several years she proceeded to interview more than one hundred people between the ages of twenty-five and ninety-one.
While she did have some younger informants, the majority of them were elderly, since the main focus of the book is on pre-World War II Japan, when the nobility was in its prime. Thus, Lebra relies heavily on the recollections of older interviewees - however, the information provided in the interviews was thoroughly researched and verified, and Lebra is well aware of the fact that memory can be unintentionally reconstructed, such as through the influence of the plethora of slightly fictionalized historical documentaries that are so popular in Japan, as well as influenced by emotion and several other important factors. She does an excellent job of sifting through many versions of the same event to get the most unbiased version possible. This takes skill and experience, and is an admirable talent. The use of relevant personal narratives in conjunction with researched data allows for a more engaging style, although the book retains the characteristics of a typical textbook in many areas.
Throughout the book, the nobility, or kazoku, is divided into three parts: the kuge, or nobles of the Emperor's court, followed by the descendants of military leaders (mostly daimyo and shogun) from the Tokugawa period, and then the shin-kazoku, or kunko-kazoku, who are the new nobility who earned their titles through personal achievements. There are several different layers to each section with complexities and nuances that are fascinating yet difficult to follow, as well as complicated relations between the three groups. The importance of status, titles, and hierarchy is made clear from the very beginning.
With the importance of hierarchy so vividly displayed, the distinction between nature and culture becomes apparent. While nature tends to be disorganized, unpredictable, and chaotic, the aristocracy is completely structured in very rigid, interlocking relationships that often contradict what might be considered to be "natural" in another context. The most obvious example of culturally derived status as opposed to natural titles is shown in the Japanese patterns of adoption. Although nature cannot be controlled, such as in the case where a woman does not produce an heir to continue the ie, a son may be adopted into the family. Although he will not naturally belong to the bloodline he is meant to continue, the cultural ritual of adoption allows him to identify more with the family into which he is taken than with the one he left. Adoption allows the family to "cope with the inevitable discrepancy between rule and reality [culture and nature]” (214).
Another angle of the same situation may be when the househead has a child with a woman other than the honbara (legitimate, "main womb"). The honbara will nonetheless have a higher status than the true, biological mother (known as the wakibara, or concubinal, "side womb") of the heir; even the biological son of the wakibara will treat her with less respect than he treats the honbara. Culturally derived titles are elevated above the biological ones in order to promote the hierarchy of the kazoku.
In a slight contradiction to the status distinction made between women in relation to the legitimacy of their relationship to the househead, Lebra nevertheless makes strong arguments to support the claim that gender roles are even more defined in the elite society of Japan than they are in the commoner's lives. Women are identified as "natural," the wombs of society. Even the word for "womb" is integrated into their titles (as shown above). On the other hand, men are seen as the carrier of cultural identity, whose blood is needed to pass on the culturally defined genes to the next generation, and the karibara ("borrowed womb") through which he perpetuates his genes is really not an issue, just as long as an heir is produced. Thus the distinction between female statuses is minimal when viewed in light of male dominance.
In addition to being identified as little more than karibara, women are also extremely restricted in their daily activities. While the househead is permitted to go anywhere he pleases for the most part, women are restricted to certain parts of the house. They know where they can and cannot go based on the categorization of the house into a "tridimensional domestic space" (159). The higher a woman's status in a household, the more forbidden certain areas of it are to her. Many women confess that they are completely unfamiliar with certain sections of their own household where the servants usually predominated, since the women are expected to remain in the oku ("interior") areas. In fact, one of the many interesting explanations for the nomenclature in Japanese society can be explained by this limitation placed on kazoku women; the lady of the household in called okusama, or okusan today. These tidbits of information make the book a joy to read.
Even though women of high rank were not supposed to mingle with servants for the most part, there is still a very important "vertical symbiosis" (339) between the aristocracy and those who attend them. Servants are eager to accept positions working for the aristocracy and consider it an honor due to the tremendous learning experience it provides them. From their employers, they learn how to speak in a very formal style, and often learn skills that can be used later in life when negotiating marriage or raising their own families. In this respect, servants rely on their masters to teach them. But at the same time, servants impose upon their employers a certain responsibility and expectation to behave in a manner befitting their social status; that is to say, by having servants in the household, the noble family’s status is reinforced.
Although Above the Clouds is meant to be informative and groundbreaking, some of the terminology is a little esoteric. The phrase "asymmetrical dyarchy" is liberally applied in several examples, and while the meaning can be discerned through external sources (a dictionary or prior knowledge), the context in which it is found in the book does not lead to a clear understanding nor does it add any special significance to those particular words in conjunction with each other. However, one can certainly appreciate Lebra’s attempt to create new vocabulary to freshen the otherwise predictable vernacular of a scholastic publication.
Regardless, Above the Clouds does an excellent job filling a void in cultural anthropology publications by presenting a detailed and comprehensive study on Japan's kazoku. Lebra does not limit herself to a well-rehearsed subject matter, and is tenacious enough to explore relatively uncharted territory while maintaining a strong theme throughout different aspects of the kazoku lifestyle. Although the book might not appeal to people outside of a scholastic or intellectual realm, it is definitely a worthwhile contribution to the anthropologically inclined and Japan enthusiasts’ world.