Against the volatile background of violence and disorder, Japan's sengoku society articulated, emphasized, and reformulated the meanings attached to blood, the vital red liquid that circulates in the arteries and veins of humans.
In fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Japan, territorial rivalry, enabled by extreme militarism, destroyed farmland and caused uncounted deaths. Political authority fragmented, and capital elites dispersed to the countryside. Status distinctions became confused as farmers abandoned fields and joined battles. Good or bad, the moment afforded opportunities for mobility, along with insecurity and risk. The climate of uncertainty, expressed especially in unpredictable social relations, caused warriors, courtiers, and priests alike to seek sobriety and a sense of order by giving new meaning to the human anatomy's most vital liquid, blood. Distinguishing it from the blood shed in violent conflict, the panel considers how blood, endowed with a symbolic value beyond its physiological functions, became implicated in reorganizing the social landscape of sengoku Japan. First, the all too frequent betrayal of lords by vassals inspired the voluntary practice of sealing a pledge of loyalty with keppan, a drop of blood from a cut finger applied near or on one's signature at the end of a document. Similarly, blood shed from self-killing redefined relations of power and generated meanings such as vengeance, atonement, and innocence. Second, the principle of symbolic blood laid the foundation for lineage formulation in the neatly configured, patrilineally descending genealogical table, which brought coherence and strength to the warrior unit by imposing clarity to the lineage's outer boundaries. Third, this period of social and political uncertainty supported the intensification of pollution taboos, many of which were centered on the defiling nature of uterine blood. It was during this era that cults to the Blood Bowl Hell, a hell in which women were tortured for the sin of polluting the earth with reproductive blood, became widespread. Through these various new practices, sengoku society sought to attain a sense of equilibrium that hung between the physical blood shed in warfare and the symbolic blood of order. Along the way, women's blood and men's blood contained contrasting meanings: the polluted and polluting blood of women and the abstract authority of male blood that produced orthodox genealogies and confirmed male-specific loyalty.