Tohoku University of Arts and Design Special Lecture Series
Rediscovering the Landscape of Tohoku: Part 5 (May 16, 2006)

Landscape of the Middle Ages

On the original landscape of an agricultural village as portrayed in contemporary illustrated maps
(Professor of History, Department of Historic Heritage, Tohoku University of Art and Design)



Two illustrated maps dating from the Kamakura period (1185–1333) and preserved at Chūsonji Temple, Hiraizumi, depict the rural landscape of the Honedera (Hondera) district of present-day Ichinoseki. At the time pictured, this area was the private estate of Chūsonji, and the rural village landscape of these illustrations remains remarkably unchanged to this day. This tightly enclosed valley with the majestic Kurikoma Range in the background is exemplary of the ancient agricultural village landscape of the Tohoku region, making these maps a rare cultural asset, and both the maps and Honedera itself an indispensible part of Hiraizumi’s World Heritage inscription effort. This lecture explores the life and land usage of the medieval Japanese (Tohoku) village as depicted in these illustrated maps and in comparison with the current lifestyle of the Honedera area.
  • Hiraizumi, capital of Tohoku, and the Ōshū Fujiwara ruling family
  • The social system of the medieval agricultural villages and private estates (shōen)
  • Cultural value of Honedera, including land usage, irrigation, and belief systems
  • Issues and outlook for community development and vitalization, including challenges facing World Heritage inscription
Expert in Japanese history. Particular interest in Tohoku and Hiraizumi began with involvement in preservation efforts for Hiraizumi’s Yanagi no Gosho Site.
1952: Born in Miyagi prefecture, Japan. 1968: Withdrew from Tohoku University PhD candidacy (Japanese History). 1968: Assistant, Tohoku University Faculty of Arts and Letters. 1972: Lecturer, Yamagata University Faculty of Liberal Arts. 1981: Assistant Professor, Tohoku University Faculty of Liberal Arts. 1993: Professor, Tohoku University Faculties of Arts and Letters, and International Cultural Studies. 1996: Professor, Tohoku University Center for Northeast Asian Studies and Faculty of International Cultural Studies. 2005: Retired from Tohoku University and subsequent university visiting professorship. 2006: Professor of History, Tohoku University of Art and Design Department of Historic Heritage. Publications include Toshi Hiraizumi no Isan (Heritage of the city of Hiraizumi), Hiraizumi Fujiwarashi to Nan’ō Bushidan no Seiritsu (The Hiraizumi Fujiwara and the establishment of the southern Tohoku warrior bands), and Hiraizumi-Koromogawa to Kyō-Fukuhara (Hiraizumi-Koromogawa and Kyoto-Fukuhara).

Original Landscapes—Urban and Rural

I have been asked to speak today about cities and villages in Japan. Let me begin by remarking that Hiraizumi was the first truly Japanese city, and it is Hiraizumi which led to the later development of Japan’s major castle-centric cities like Kamakura, Edo (Tokyo), and Sendai.
What I mean by this is that Kyoto and Nara are not exactly “Japanese” cities. The ancient capitals of Japan were modeled on China’s capital city, Cháng'ān. These cities laid out on a Chinese-style grid pattern were ill-suited to Japan’s culture and climate; Hiraizumi was the first example of a city based and built on Buddhist principles that matched Japan’s spiritual and cultural tenor.
Simultaneously, as Buddhism penetrated Japan’s agricultural villages, the rural landscape we associate with Japan’s traditional village took shape—a world of rice paddies, temples and shrines, and satoyama (foothill buffer zones between arable land and the surrounding mountains). Of course, prior to the appearance of Buddhism, there were no temples. In any case, the original form of the traditional Japanese agricultural village dates from just about the time that these maps were drawn, offering a unique opportunity to step back in time seven or eight hundred years to observe the origins of Japan’s rural village landscape.
Honedera is, in this sense, like the eye of a historical hurricane viewed from above: everything around is shrouded in thick clouds and obscured by sheets of rain, but Honedera is a miraculous open window into the past. It is for this reason that Honedera has been included in Hiraizumi’s World Heritage bid.
Put in the broadest terms, Buddhism entered Japan in the southwest, setting down deep roots first in the old capitals of Nara and Kyoto. As Buddhism subsequently spread to the countryside, it accommodated itself to the pre-existing conditions of rural life in Japan. This process of Buddhist assimilation into Japanese rural life gave birth to Japan’s traditional agricultural village landscape, and it is this process about which I will speak today because Honedera is the oldest extant example of the original form of this Japanese rural landscape.

詳細絵図(トレース図) 1. Illustrated map of households in Honedera from Chūsonji collection.


簡略絵図(トレース図) 2. Illustrated map of shrines and temple in Honedera from Chūsonji collection.

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