Megan E. Gilbert

Postdoctoral Fellow in JapanLab, University of Texas at Austin
Faculty Adviser: Thomas D. Conlan

Conciliators and Fixed Points: Dispute Resolution in Fifteenth Century Japan


This dissertation examines the role of intermediaries and ritual in reconciling conflicting interests in fifteenth century Japan. The first half of the century was a moment of comparative peace but also desperate improvisation. Administrative and judicial institutions survived but overlapped and were mutable, bending to the erratic demands of warlords. The dissertation argues that oaths and ceremonies provided certainty where institutions no longer could, structuring communities to enable conflict resolution at relatively predictable intervals. Unofficial intermediaries, here called conciliators, stepped in for devalued official ones, using their prestige to intercede with authority figures and buffer disputes or reinforce settlements. These pragmatic expedients fueled the personalization of power, revealing the process by which individuals absorbed the power of institutions.Central Japan in the fifteenth century produced an unusual preponderance of materials that reveal the negotiations underlying official action. These include diary-chronicles (kanbun nikki), many of them by professional intermediaries and others by people who relied on their aid; the lists, drafts, social poetry, and other semi-ephemeral documents on the reverse sides of the paper used to produce the diary-chronicles (shihai monjo); and the meeting records of councils that governed a large and wealthy temple. These, supplemented by sources more focused on final outcomes, are analyzed through two primary lenses: ritual and communication via intermediaries. Both intermediaries and ritual, individually and in concert, bridged the gaps between institutional structures and what the people inhabiting them could achieve and accept. By examining the ways that these strategies served communities’ needs while widening the very gaps they bridged, the dissertation illuminates a change often dismissed as mere decline: the loss of interconnected multi-regional institutions—even as inter-regional trade and communication expanded—in favor of the increased authority of individuals over their immediate communities.