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Muen

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  • Japanese: 無縁 (mu en)

Mu'en (lit. "without connections") was a term used in medieval Japan to refer to places outside of the realms of political and economic authorities. The term kugai (公界, "public realm") was used very similarly, originating in referring to particular areas within Zen temples set aside for free public use. Both terms came to refer a bit more broadly to spaces such as Buddhist temples, graveyards, marketplaces, and riverbanks, which functioned as a sort of free space, for free public use, which were not too directly controlled by political authorities.

Both terms then came to refer to a broader and more abstract concept, of a meaning or sense of the word "public" that was distinct and separate from governmental or other authorities. Unlike the standard Japanese word for public, ôyake, or (公), which incorporates within itself the idea of government ownership or control (as the English term "public" as in public library, public park, or public funds does), muen or kugai referred to, as Eiko Ikegami puts it, "society's public," "the domain of [public] that had nothing o do with the power of the state, but was related to seken [imagined community, society]."[1] Thus, the terms came to encompass not just specific spaces, but a sort of imagined community, or conceptual space of community being or activity, along with the people and places associated with it. Traders, peddlers, boatmen, and others who lived between or outside of set spaces of belonging, as well as mizunomi, outcastes, and the like, came to be associated with muen.

These concepts were also important to the formation of za associations, and aesthetic and artistic circles and practices (such as renga poetry and tea ceremony) which acted as social spaces outside of formal hierarchies, where people were free to put aside their outside identities, and associate more freely regardless of official status or identity.[2]

The concept was introduced to the historiography and described at length in Amino Yoshihiko's 1978 book Muen, Kugai, Raku, which was fairly groundbreaking in its implications for scholars' understandings of medieval (and early modern, and modern) Japanese history.

References

  1. Eiko Ikegami, Bonds of Civility, Cambridge University Press (2005), 90.
  2. Ikegami, 80-81.
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