The Ōbe Estate Research Project was launched at USC in 2006 to examine the history of an agricultural holding of the Nara monastery Tōdaiji. Our research group is composed of scholars and students from Japan, USC, and elsewhere in Southern California and the U.S. We are currently translating and analyzing documents related to phenomena such as the relationship between religious institutions and economic development; day-to-day management of estate affairs, including the opening of agricultural land, the construction and repair of port and other shipping facilities, and the remittance of rents to Tōdaiji; internal disputes involving local warriors, monks, and peasants; practices related to the inheritance of estate income rights; and the role of women in managing the estate. Our eventual goal is to publish a book of essays exploring these and other issues, along with translations of selected documents.
The estate, located in present Ono city, Hyōgo prefecture (just north of Kobe), was developed in the late twelfth century and has a history extending to early modern times. Some four hundred documents related to the estate, dated from the late twelfth through the sixteenth centuries, have been collected and published in Volume 4 of Ono shishi (History of Ono City). The existence of these materials in printed form and all in one place makes possible a comprehensive study, not only of the estate itself, but also of the broader historical developments mentioned above.
Although the development of the estate is well documented, written records do not cover all its significant aspects. In particular, we must turn to archaeological findings to understand just how previously uncultivated land was developed and port facilities and temple and shrine buildings were constructed. Combining archaeological and textual evidence can support an analysis of the development process from two different perspectives. For example, texts enable us to see how estate managers obtained authorization and protection from the court and how they guaranteed Tôdaiji’s hold over the estate, while results of archaeological excavations enable an on-the-ground view of land reclamation efforts and the construction of irrigation systems. From the latter, we can draw at least tentative conclusions about the contributions of ordinary people to developing and maintaining the estate, a topic that rarely finds its way into official documents. Since many old structures—including a late twelfth-century temple building containing an early thirteenth-century triad of Buddhist images—remain at the Ôbe site, some of us have visited the site and others plan to go in the future.
Past events that the Ōbe Estate Research Group have been involved in include the 2012 International Conference Reassessing the Shōen System