This is an original, fascinating, hard-to-classify book, full of hints and portents about present-day troubles—Japan’s, and therefore the rest of the world’s. Screech states his aim clearly enough in the opening pages: ‘This book is about building a boundary to construct a centre’. It is a study of ‘the invention, formalization and fixing of a “Japan” supported by its nodal city and canopied by a presence that was to be defined as tangible “Japanese culture”.’ A symbiosis, then, of art and politics, subjects not always considered together. Yet artworks, rightly read, may bear witness to the times in which they were created as much, and sometimes more honestly, than written testimony; particularly in cultures—Japan’s is a good contemporary example—in which the interpretation of the past is a weapon in the hands of the present, and the ideal of objective history, dubious everywhere, has yet to establish itself.

But Screech’s book is also an illustrated biography of a powerful noble and minister of state, Matsudaira Sadanobu, who was, during the last decades of the eighteenth century, the effective ruler of Japan. The epitome of the neo-Confucian scholar-gentleman in its eclectic and all but vanished Japanese variant, Sadanobu was not just a politician but also a philosopher, poet, painter, educator and musician. Analogies are often deceptive in explaining East to West, or vice versa, but as rough equivalents we might think of Thomas Wolsey, Lord Chancellor to Henry VIII and one of the creators of the Tudor civil administration, or of Cardinal Richelieu, who did much the same for Louis XIII of France; systems which continue to this day. The most striking difference is in their cultural practice. Sadanobu was not simply a patron, or a dabbler in the arts. Screech reproduces two of his self-portraits. The first, dated 1787, a hanging scroll, colour on paper, shows a stern young intellectual prince with piercing eyes, aquiline nose, set mouth and strongly jutting jaw. It was Sadanobu’s leaving present to the retainers of his own domain as he departed for the shogun’s court, a watchful image, executed in browns and creams and black. The kneeling figure’s robes are utterly plain and conventional; all attention is focused on the face. The second self-portrait—colour on silk—shows Sadanobu at the age of 54. Again, the face is the centre of interest. With hairline brushstrokes, Sadanobu depicts his now straggly, greying eyebrows and thickening jowls; marks of resignation crease his cheeks. His gaze is less icily determined now: more far-seeing. It is an extraordinary image, both compelling and moving, of the concentrated fusion of political and intellectual power.

Sadanobu (his given name by which, in royal style, he is remembered) might well himself have become a shogun, or hereditary military dictator—one half of what Screech calls Japan’s ‘bicephalic monarchy’, the other being the emperor—rather than chief minister of the boy-shogun Ienari, in nominal power. Born in 1758, in Edo—now known as Tokyo: the ‘Eastern Capital’—into one of the collateral branches of the Tokugawa shogunal family, he was the grandson of Tokugawa Yoshimune, eighth of the line. Sadanobu’s education in the Confucian classics, calligraphy, the composition of Chinese and Japanese poetry and swordsmanship, among other subjects, was indeed that of a potential shogun. At sixteen, however, the hapless victim of a castle intrigue, he was ordered to be adopted by the Matsudaira family of Shirakawa, not under the direct control of the shogun; and at twenty-five succeeded his adoptive father as daimyo (‘great name’, or lord) of the domain.

Japan—or ‘the Japanese states’, as Screech calls the mosaic of feudal daimyates that then covered the archipelago—had just been plunged into the start of a five-year famine, result of the dismal Asian combination of poor rice harvests, weak distribution and the inflexible exaction of rents in kind from peasant farmers; possibly linked to the same El Niño effect that has been cited as a contributing factor to the French Revolution. The 1780s famine claimed uncounted millions of obscure lives; when it ended, all noted that not a single person in Sadanobu’s domain had starved to death—a brilliant and compassionate administrative feat. In 1787, Sadanobu was summoned to Edo as chief minister of shogun Ienari, replacing a predecessor both incompetent and corrupt.

Screech’s period is that of ‘the rise of the merchant’, now often read as a moment pulsating with democratic promise. ‘Scholars’, Screech writes, have been ‘wont to side with the forces of alterity and unrest’. But for Sadanobu and his contemporaries, as he points out, the age was one of disastrous decline: famines, fires, storms and shipwrecks accompanied the shift of wealth from an older to a newer elite. In the growing cities, enterprising merchants bribed corrupt officials; starving farmers rioted; the roads were dangerous. The shogunate seemed threatened with collapse. This is the ‘fear’ in Screech’s subtitle: Sadanobu’s management of ‘creativity’ was aimed at restoring shogunal authority through the reconstruction of a unifying cultural order. Screech himself is rather sympathetic to this: ‘Their elite aim was not just to shore up a “Venice preserv’d” but to avoid waste and warfare.’ The shogunate itself could not last forever—in fact, not beyond 1868. But the ‘Japanese culture’ that Sadanobu confected is, he argues, still with us to this day.

The Japanese states of Sadanobu’s day were not a nation, and had no idea of becoming one. There was neither a national treasury, army nor administration. The Tokugawa shoguns directly ruled only a third of the archipelago, including the major cities of Edo and Osaka. Some 280 daimyates occupied the rest, in a patchwork best (if imperfectly) compared to the fractious dukedoms and principalities of the Holy Roman Empire. Japan, however, had no Austria or Prussia, much less a France nearby. Since 1644, China had been under the secretive, non-Chinese Manchu or Qing dynasty, and offered no threat. The moribund kingdom of Korea, Japan’s traditional danger quarter, was now theoretically a tributary of both China and Japan, and the occasional Korean embassies carried banners reading ‘Foreign Envoys Bearing Tribute’. The cultural and political borders of ‘Japan’ were vague—a fuzzy frontier to the north, beyond which the hunter-gathering Ainu lived in the still largely undisturbed island of Yezo, called Hokkaido by its eventual Japanese occupiers (‘shogun’ translates as ‘great barbarian-conquering general’, meaning the inoffensive Ainu); and to the south, a porous cultural border in Nagasaki.

Foreign trade had been confined to this one city ever since the Edo shoguns seized power in the seventeenth century, and had long been restricted to the merchants of three nations: feeble Korea, Qing China, and the long-domesticated Dutch, who stuck strictly to business and made no attempt to spread subversive doctrines like Christianity—they had, in fact, curried favour by lending cannon to help the shogunate suppress an uprising by persecuted Japanese Christians at Shimabara, near Nagasaki, in 1637. From the 1770s, however, new and far more formidable barbarians began to knock at Japan’s indistinct doors, north and south. British ships were sighted off the Kyushu coast, looking for business openings; in 1792 the Russian Adam Laxman tried to establish official trade relations in the north.