Mark Lincicome

Mark Lincicome is associate professor and chair of the Department of History at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he has taught Asian history since 1991. He has also directed the study abroad and Asian Studies programs at Holy Cross. A specialist in modern Japanese history, he earned a Ph.D. from the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago in 1985. Before joining the Holy Cross faculty, Lincicome served as associate director of the Asian Studies program at the University of Pittsburgh (1988-1991) and as executive director of the Japan America Society of Chicago (1985-1988).

Lincicome is the author of two books and numerous published articles, most of which focus on the history of educational thought, practice, and politics in modern Japan. His most recent book, Imperial Subjects as Global Citizens: Nationalism, Internationalism and Education in Japan, appeared in 2009.

Since his first trip to Japan in 1973, Lincicome has spent the equivalent of eight years living, working, and conducting research in that country. His professional travels have also taken him to 13 other countries throughout the Asia-Pacific.

Q: You earned a Ph.D. from the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago and have devoted your career to teaching modern Japanese history. What first led to your interest in Japanese culture and history?
A: Growing up in Seattle (“Gateway to the Orient”) may have had something to do with it. I attended an inner-city public high school (1968-71) with an ethnically and racially diverse student body that included first-generation Asian immigrants as well as third-generation Japanese Americans. My first casual encounter with chopsticks, and with the Japanese language, took place in the homes of my Japanese-American classmates. I also had my first exposure to lingering customs that provided a sense of cultural identity for members of the Japanese-American community, such as the summer O-Bon Festival held at the local Buddhist church. However, my “serious academic interest” in the study of Japanese culture, language and history had to wait until college. During my freshman year, after quickly ruling out a career in psychology, I gravitated toward the study of Chinese language and history. (Courses on Japan were not offered at my college at the time). Eventually, I decided to major in history, and to spend my junior year studying in Japan. One year in Japan stretched into two, and from then on I was “hooked.”
Q: At the Edo-Tokyo Museum, Smithsonian travelers will explore the history of Tokyo and the previous capitol, Edo. Edo-period Japan, from 1600 until 1867, was characterized by the pleasure-seeking Ukiyo, or floating world, lifestyle. Can you please describe the major characteristics of the Ukiyo lifestyle, and what factors and influences brought the Edo period to an end.
A: The term Ukiyo carries ironic connotations as applied to Edo-period Japan. At one level, it alludes to the Buddhist notion of transience and ephemerality, and so it carries an implicit warning against succumbing to fleeting desires and the pleasures of the material world. At another level, however, it became an iconoclastic, even perverse, celebration of that very world of human passion and the vicissitudes of human existence. The novels, woodblock prints, and various forms of entertainment that reflected this urban-based, plebian culture stood in marked contrast to the more refined and strictly regulated culture of the samurai officials. Yet, its considerable influence was due, in part, to its broad appeal to all urban classes: from the merchants, whose growing economic wealth made them the principal sponsors of, and clientele for, Ukiyo culture, to the ruling samurai, who were not supposed to indulge in these pastimes or mingle socially with artisans or merchants. Historians are fond of saying that Edo-period Japan was conceived as a martial society built for war, but it ushered in a prolonged era of peace, together with profound economic, political, social and cultural changes that eventually undermined its martial foundations and transformed Japan from a “feudal” to an “early modern” society. The Meiji Restoration of 1868, which brought the Edo period to an end, was prompted by the growing recognition that the laws, institutions and ideas which had governed Japan during the preceding 250 years were unsuited to the “modern” challenges—foreign as well as domestic—that confronted Japan by the mid-nineteenth century.
Q: During the group’s stay in Kanazawa, Smithsonian travelers will visit the Nagamachi Samurai district, where the ruling family’s samurai warriors once lived. What was life like for a samurai warrior, and what is their lasting legacy in this area of Japan?
A: Kanazawa is a classic example of the many “castle towns” that dotted the Japanese landscape throughout the Edo period. They owe their existence and design to the samurai class and its original role as that period opened around 1600. The castle town was the military and administrative headquarters of the lord in charge of the surrounding domain, and the castle was both the symbol and locus of his power. Under the laws of the Tokugawa shogun, a lord’s samurai vassals were required to reside in the castle town, and their residences were strategically located so as to defend the lord and his castle, and also to police the townspeople. Being service providers to the lord, who paid for their service through stipends redeemed in rice, the samurai were, in turn, dependent on artisans and merchants residing in the castle town to provide them with a variety of goods and services, which the samurai purchased with their stipends (and, as time went on, with money borrowed from the merchants). The Nagamachi district in Kanazawa reflects the urbane, sophisticated lifestyle that status-conscious samurai began to covet as their role in Edo society evolved from warrior to administrator and bureaucrat, and as social class divisions between the samurai and merchants began to blur. Because their role evolved during the Edo period, the legacy of the samurai for modern Japan is mixed. Many historians credit a notable group of young samurai with joining together to topple the Tokugawa regime, restore governing authority to the Meiji emperor in 1868, and transform Japan into a modern nation-state and colonial power as founders and leaders of the new Meiji government (1868-1912). Tellingly, one of their most important decisions came in 1876, when they formally abolished the samurai class and its former privileges. From the mid-Meiji Period through the end of World War Two, leaders of the Imperial Japanese Army appealed to bushido, the putative “code of the warrior,” in their efforts to instill in the new conscript soldier the “traditional” samurai values of loyalty, courage, and sacrifice. Perhaps the most conspicuous legacy of the samurai in contemporary Japan are the traditional arts which they sponsored and practiced for centuries, including ikebana (flower arranging), chado (tea ceremony), and the No Theater.
Q: This program features three World Heritage sites in Japan: the historic monuments of ancient Kyoto, ancient Nara, and Shirakawago Gasshozukuri Village. Can you please shed light on what makes each site significant.
A: While neither Nara nor Kyoto can claim the distinction of being Japan’s first Imperial Capital, they continue to be the best preserved, and their abundance of temples, shrines, statuary, paintings, gardens and so forth reflect new stages of political, religious and cultural sophistication that the country attained from the eighth century onward. The Nara Period (710-784) is notable for the heavy infusion of continental Asian—especially Chinese and Korean—cultural influences that bequeathed to Japan its first writing system, literary forms such as dynastic histories and poetry anthologies, and more sophisticated schools of Buddhist thought, ritual and architecture that gained official recognition and began to challenge the dominance of the native Shinto faith. During the succeeding Heian Period (794-1185), the Imperial Capital moved north to a new city of the same name (today’s Kyoto), which, like Nara, was designed in imitation of the Chinese imperial capital. While Heian-era Japanese continued to find cultural inspiration from China, the cessation of official missions to the mainland during this period encouraged distinctly Japanese forms of cultural and political practice to flourish within the imperial court, as well as among the nascent samurai class and even commoners. The inclusion of the Shirakawago Gasshozukuri on the Smithsonian tour itinerary provides a valuable rural counterpoint to our visits to the former imperial capitals of Nara and Kyoto, and the former castle towns of Edo (Tokyo) and Kanazawa. After all, peasants constituted the largest socio-economic class in Japan until the early twentieth century, and their agricultural production also remained central to the Japanese economy into the modern era. The distinctive “praying hands” architecture of these farm houses, which towers above the surrounding rice fields, possesses a beauty all its own. Extended families once occupied these multi-story dwellings, which also housed small cottage industries such as sericulture. Nestled amid the lush, forested mountains of Gifu Prefecture, and straddling the picturesque Shokawa River, the village is a testament to both the rugged demands of farm labor and to the strong communal bonds that shaped the lives and worldview of the Japanese peasant class.
Q: While in Kyoto, the Smithsonian travelers will explore the grounds and garden of the Imperial Palace by bicycle. What would you encourage our travelers to be keeping an eye out for during their bike tour through the Imperial Palace grounds?
A: The half-day bicycle tour through Kyoto, which I joined while serving as study leader for the Fall 2011 Smithsonian tour, is an excellent way to experience the city in the same way that many of the citizens of Kyoto do. Aside from the visit to the Imperial Palace grounds, most of the tour is spent traversing the quaint neighborhoods that lie off the beaten tourist path. And autumn (my favorite time of year in Japan) is the ideal season for a bike ride. The Palace served as the principal residence of the Emperor until 1869, when the Imperial Capital was transferred from Kyoto to Tokyo (literally, “Eastern Capital,” formerly the city of Edo) following the Meiji Restoration. As with many of Japan’s historic wooden structures, fire has ravaged the Palace throughout its history; the present buildings date from the mid-nineteenth century. Tourist access to the buildings is restricted, but the Smithsonian cyclists can stop in front of one of the gates to admire the cypress roof-lines and pillars that rise up from behind the surrounding earthen walls. The large Palace grounds, which now serve as a public park, combine spacious, gravel-covered processional areas with carefully manicured gardens and ponds.