jomin 2445


Takami Kuwayama

Jomin is a central concept in Kunio Yanagitas
research into Japanese folklore. Yanagita (1875
1962), founder of Japanese folklore studies or
folkloristics, invented this term by combining
two characters jo (also pronounced tsune), used
either as a noun or a modifier, meaning usual,
ordinary, average, or conventional, and
min, a noun meaning people. Jomin thus
means common people as distinguished from
both elites in the ruling class and people placed
at the bottom of society, including outcastes. No
proper equivalent is found in European lan
guages, but its meaning is close to that of the
German Volk or the English folk.
The importance attached to the study of jomin
in Yanagitas research may be explained in terms
of his theory of history. Defining folkloristics as
a historical science, Yanagita contended that
orthodox historiography, using almost exclu
sively written documents as data, merely
recorded the lives of great individuals and dra
matic events. Commoners, who made up the
majority of the population, were described as
the anonymous masses without emotion and
character, if described at all. Dissatisfied with
this practice, Yanagita placed jomin at the center
of historical inquiry. He also proposed new
methods for studying history. Instead of doing
archival research, he conducted fieldwork.
Yanagita reasoned that, since Japan modernized
relatively late, premodern manners and customs
were still practiced among the commoners. Even
if they were no longer practiced, they could be
reconstructed, Yanagita thought, from the
memory of living people. Thus, he extensively
used interviews, in addition to the observations
of actual behavior, as a tool of investigation into
the past. In Yanagitas mind, history did not
refer to past events, but rather the past within
the present. In todays terminology, he wrote
the social history of the Japanese people at
large, using the ethnographic methods that were
developed in the early twentieth century.
There is agreement among Japanese folklor
ists that jomin embody Japans folk culture. Put
another way, ordinary people are understood as
active agents of historical development, not as
passive subjects, who, with their own will,
observe and pass on tradition from generation
to generation. There is, however, some ambigu
ity as to the exact meaning of jomin because
Yanagita neither defined it precisely nor used
it consistently, as was often the case with other
concepts he proposed. Despite his admiration
for science, Yanagita was essentially a man of
letters, whose influence derived more from his
literary talent than from his scientific achieve
ment. Among later generations of scholars,
therefore, there has been much debate about
the meaning and the significance of jomin for
folklore research. Even today, it continues to be
debated, with new interpretations presented
from various fields.
One of the best interpretations has been
presented by Ajio Fukuta, Japans leading folk
lorist. Fukuta examined the frequencies of
Yanagitas use of jomin, as well as its mean
ings, in his voluminous works. Having found
that Yanagitas usages had changed over time,
Fukuta classified them into three periods: (1)
from the 1910s to the 1920s; (2) around the
mid 1930s; and (3) after the 1940s. In the first
period, when Yanagita first made his name as a
governmental bureaucrat and later, after his
resignation, as a pioneer in folkloristics, jomin
was used to mean peasants who had settled in a
particular community located on flat land, as
contrasted with non peasants, such as hunters,
wood turners, and some sorts of religious prac
titioners, who moved from community to com
munity in the mountains. In the second period,
when Yanagitas scholarship fully developed,
jomin meant not simply peasants but ordinary
peasants, excluding the hereditary upper class
peasants who owned massive land and thus
dominated local politics. Fukutas interpreta
tion is based on Yanagitas classic statement,
made in his 1935 book Kyodo Seikatsu no Ken
kyuho (Methods in the Study of Local Community
Life), that jomin were found in between the
upper and the lower classes of people in a farm
ing community, the former pointing to the her
editary ruling class, and the latter pointing to
people engaged in specialized occupations, such
as smiths, coopers, and itinerant priests. These
people refused to settle in one community. In
the last period, when Yanagitas research inter
est shifted from the study of local customs to
that of Japans national culture, jomins meaning