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Wind, Forest, Fire, and Mountain 風林火山: The Evolution of Environmental Management and Local Society in Central Japan, 1450-1650



Wind, Forest, Fire, and Mountain 風林火山: The Evolution of Environmental Management and Local Society in Central Japan, 1450-1650


John Elijah Bender

What role did contests over environment play in the large scale transition from war to peace during Japan’s long sixteenth century? This study examines the question by focusing upon how people dealt with environmental challenges and disputes during an age of instability, institutional failure, and war. Japan’s late medieval (ca. 1450-1600) environmental management regime underwent important changes that proved crucial in ending a long period of warfare and formed the basis of an even longer era of stability. The construction of stable patterns of environmental management depended upon a significant increase in de facto local autonomy, coupled with the rise of authoritarian regional states. Although these developments sometimes stood in opposition to one another, they ultimately combined to reorganize the environmental management regime in Kai and Shinano Provinces.

Central Japan became a crossroads of multiple struggles during the late medieval period. The Takeda warrior house of Kai Province eventually emerged from a pool of contenders to claim supremacy in the region in the first few decades of the sixteenth century. Like other regional magnates (daimyo), the Takeda had an interest in ending warfare and tapping into local productivity within their territory. They did so in ways that effectively turned the Takeda into local patrons who had the means to act as a guarantor of local interests. Communities had been largely forced to fend for themselves during the civil war, or Warring States, era (1467-1600). As a result, they developed administrative and defensive procedures independently. The Takeda worked to integrate these communities by leaving most of those local practices in place, deputizing a class of officials, and negotiating set tax rates on local production. Residents did surrender some of their prerogatives, but collectively gained a more favorable institutional framework. Takeda and their officials were able to mediate local disputes, something that previously could only be done by two parties directly, often resulting in violence. Crucially, the Takeda possessed the wherewithal to enforce dispute settlements. They also supported regional infrastructure projects and policies that required various communities to coordinate certain management practices. These projects ultimately increased efficiency, and linked villages in ways that created a set of complimentary interests between different socioeconomic classes.

The development of complimentary interests in turn created a vested interest in maintaining new sociopolitical relationships. As these bonds strengthened, they became more regularized, more reliable, and more stable. This gave added momentum towards the reestablishment of order at the close of the sixteenth century. The local settlements worked out at this time remained the basis of local administration well into the early modern period. Forged as they were over generations of upheaval, these practices favored maintenance of stability over other concerns. Often, that entailed relatively hands-off treatment from political superiors. The flexibility between the authoritarian discourse of samurai rule, and the actual latitude afforded local communities in their affairs, significantly contributed to the remarkable durability of the Tokugawa system.

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