The Industrious Peasantry of Tokugawa Japan
Basil Hall Chamberlain, the British scholar who first translated the Kojiki (Record of Ancient Matters) into English, introduced a new entry, “Industrialism,” in the third edition (published in 1898) of his much-acclaimed Things Japanese. Chamberlain, who at the time was a professor at the Imperial University of Tokyo, began the article with the following recollection: “When the present writer landed at Nagasaki in the spring of 1873, there existed in the whole country not a single workman using that term in its modern semi-political acceptation. There were workers of course, the peasantry and also men employed in the making of sundry articles of daily use or of luxury. Many of these were artists,not great artists perhaps, but still artists. Each object was fashioned separately, and each was no less charming than original.” (1)
Another scholar who taught zoology at the same university at about the same time, Edward Morse, left a somewhat different but complementary description of the state of industrial activity in the late nineteenth century. After traveling through the Tôhoku region (the northern part of the main island of Honshû), this American professor recorded his impressions of the industrious villagers: “Everybody works; all seem poor, but there are no paupers. The many industries, which with us are carried on in large factories, here are done in the home. What we do by the wholesale in the factories they do in the dwellings, and as you ride through the village you see the spinning, weaving, the making of vegetable wax, and many other industries. In these operations the entire family is utilized from a child above babyhood to blind old men and women.” (2)
Both these accounts jibe with the fact that there had existed no “modern” industry in Japan until after the Meiji Restoration (1868), when the new government started building Western-style model factories. In the Edo period (16001868) there were no factories equipped with steam-powered machines of iron, nor were there working-class families, so that, as Chamberlain implied, there were no class-struggle-type confrontations between management and labor. In the eyes of foreign observers, Edo-period and early Meiji Japan was a “preindustrial” society.
Within this society Chamberlain found two contrasting groups of working people: peasants and artisans. While the peasants ceaseless drudgery is not explicitly mentioned in the above quotation, it is evident that the latters craftsmanship and artistic skills attracted much of the British professors attention. For example, Japanese-made fine porcelain and lacquerware had been known and highly valued among European bourgeois and aristocrats since the early seventeenth century. Kakiemon vases from Arita, for example, were shipped by the Dutch East India Company to European palaces. And lacquer became known simply as “japan,” suggesting the superiority of Japanese artisans products over their European equivalents. Even ordinary Edo-period artisans exhibited considerable dexterity. It is no surprise, therefore, that their products, “sundry articles in daily use,” such as netsuke, also attracted Western art collectors attention.
Whereas Chamberlain found a small group of fine, if not great, “artists” amongst the practitioners of the multitudinous occupations of the day, Morse called attention to the industrial activities of the peasantry, who comprised about 80% of the nations workforce. His observation, “The many industries, which with us are carried on in large factories, here are done in the home,” seems, on the face of it, to suggest that the yarn, cloth, wax, and many other items the entire family produced were for home consumption, since peasant families certainly did not specialize in manufacturing. However, Morses additional remark, “What we do by the wholesale in the factories they do in the dwellings,” points to the existence of merchants in the villages; it is likely that they were part-time wholesalers whose business was to buy up what poor peasant families manufactured in their cottages and market the goods in cities and towns. Cottage industries were undertaken in most cases not for home consumption but as cash-earning activities. In addition to their backbreaking toil in the rice fields, the members of peasant familieswhether male or female, young or oldwere also engaged within their dwellings in the work of making processed goods for the market.
Indeed, it is expansion of this type of rural industry that characterized the late Edo and early Meiji economy. It was not conspicuous, since the production was conducted within farm families homes, and the sales of the goods were handled by merchants in both country and town. Yet it was this change in the rural economy, not in the urban economy of artisanship, that gave a sort of dynamism to the preindustrial society of Japan from the late Edo period on. One might ask whether this cottage industry was a rural version of the so-called sweated trades. In other words, did the impetus come solely from the tapping of unlimited cheap labor? But before answering this question, we need to look a little more closely at what took place in the Japanese economy during the two and a half centuries of the Edo period.
JAPAN IN WORLD TRADE: BEFORE AND AFTER THE SECLUSION
It is well known that for much of the Edo period Japan was under a policy of national seclusion (sakoku) imposed by the Tokugawa shogunate, which ruled from 1603 to 1867. Although the term “seclusion” might be a misnomer, since the shogunate never officially proclaimed the country closed to foreigners, it is nonetheless true that overseas trade diminished drastically from the midseventeenth century, when the government imposed a set of strict controls on external contacts, through the midnineteenth century, when the weakened shogunate was forced to open the country. It is also well known that after this opening, Japan saw a sudden influx of manufactured goodscotton and woolen textiles, armaments, machines, and so forth.
Records for the years 186567, shortly after the seclusion was lifted, reveal that textiles (cotton and wool) comprised as much as 70% of total imports, armaments and metal products a little over 10%, and sugar 6%, as shown in the upper portion of the attached chart. A vast majority of the goods in the first two categories were products of the Industrial Revolution, such as cotton cloth from Manchester and firearms from Birmingham. Turning to exports, we find that the commodity structure of trade was much simpler, as the lower diagram indicates. Silk, at over 70% of the total, was the single most important export commodity, followed by tea, accounting for a little over 10%. At this point Japan had a trade deficit, which persisted as a tendency until after World War II. So if raw silk had not been marketable overseas, the Meiji-era (18681912) economy would have suffered from far more serious trade deficits, which in turn could have hindered the nations further development.
This picture may be compared with one for the period before the Tokugawa shogunate imposed tighter control over trade with foreign countries. Unfortunately there are no readily available statistics for the early seventeenth century. However, records from the major trading posts of Nagasaki and Tsushima allow historians to conclude that silk, sugar, and, to a lesser extent, ginseng products were the major imports, which were matched by a vast outflow of silver from newly developed domestic mines. Silver was the standard medium of exchange for world trade in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and Japan had no other major export commodity to offset the inflow of silk, sugar, and other imports. In short, Japans overseas trade in those days was basically a silk-for-silver exchange.
Comparing the seventeenth-century pattern with the statistics for the 1860s, we find two points worth noting. First, silk, one of the major import commodities in the seventeenth century, headed the list of exports in the 1860s. Second, sugar, while still appearing in the list of imports in the latter period, was in fact no longer a major item for which Japan had to rely on foreign supplies. All this suggests a typical process of what development economists call “import substitution,” meaning that domestic production increases, replacing formerly imported goods in whole or in part and sometimes developing to the point of producing goods for export.
A process of large-scale import substitution, under any circumstances and at any time, requires a transformation of the domestic industrial structure. What made such a transformation possible in Tokugawa Japan? Was it simply the combined outcome of several invisible hands at work, or was it a product of the visible hand of a policymaker?
There is evidence that by the end of the seventeenth century the silk-for-silver trade had become unsustainable. The principal reason was the tendency to diminishing returns in the domestic silver-mining industry. So gradually silver bullion was replaced by copper as the staple export, and the volume of trade declined. In the 1690s, agronomist Miyazaki Yasusada (Antei) called for the nation to reduce the import of Chinese silk by producing it at home, writing: “How can we allow our countrys wealth to be another countrys gain? It is simply because the people of our country do not know the art of planting and misunderstand the principle of the land.” (3)
It was not until the 1720s, however, that the cause of import substitution was taken up by the shogunate. One of the matters that concerned the eighth Tokugawa shôgun, Yoshimune, was overseas trade, especially the issue of silk imports from China and Korea. As of 1716, when Yoshimune became shôgun, imported silk still accounted for 58% of the raw material used by the Nishijin weavers of Kyoto, who were the major producers of exquisite fabric for fine kimono. Yoshimunes many-faceted reform efforts included the easing of restrictions on access to foreign-language books, the establishment of a horticultural testing station, and the promotion of production of higher-quality silk and cultivation of sugar cane, sweet potatoes, ginseng, Chinese sesame, and rape seeds. The decree of 1720 allowing the sale of foreign books even to common people was followed by an increase in the number of books imported; Western and Chinese learning was tapped as a source of practical knowledge, and this fostered a variety of attempts to test new plants and crops.
Impressive as the range of Yoshimunes initiatives was, it is not certain to what extent each of them was successful. Nor can we be sure whether the reform package as a whole had a direct bearing on the actual processes of import substitution. What is certain, however, is that the period after the 1720s saw a turn in the tide of productive forces. Over the long run, the nations dependence on imports declined, and the variety of crops peasant farmers cultivated in various provinces increased.
Following this first wave of industrial policy came a completely separate second wave in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, involving a number of initiatives taken at the local level by the governments of han, the domains into which the country was divided. By the latter part of the Edo period, these domains, headed by samurai lords called daimyô, had come to behave like mini-states within the closed realm, and their governments focused largely on the wealth of the domain and the welfare of its people. Aiming to increase their productive base, they tried various measures to promote industry and commerce within their own territories. Of these measures, the most significant were schemes to increase “exports” from their own territorial economy, which were often combined with the issuing of paper money. “Exports” were of course not to the international market but to Osaka and Edo, the commercial centers of the day, and to other provincial towns. The commodities chosen by local governments included cotton and silk textiles, dyeing materials, and paper productscommodities that served a much greater part of the population than quality goods like the Nishijin kimono fabrics. The real significance of this second wave of industrial policy lies not in its direct effects on local trade balances but in the fact that a vast majority of those commodities were what peasant cottage workers produced in much the same way as later described by Morse.
There is evidence that the period from the mid-eighteenth to the late nineteenth century was an age of rural development in Japan.(4) Case studies by historians show that a significant proportion of the agricultural population in the provinces was involved in farm family by-employment, such as cottage industry or commercial activities, regardless of the degree to which local governments intervened in the processes. For example, a detailed study by Nishikawa Shunsaku of the economy of Chôshû (todays Yamaguchi Prefecture) in western Japan in the 1840s reveals that (1) the share of the nonagricultural sector in gross regional product was 35%, (2) within the nonagricultural sector, manufacturing accounted for about 50% and commerce for about 20%, and (3) among the nonagricultural products manufactured, cotton accounted for 28%, salt for 24%, sake for 23%, and paper for 14%. It is interesting to note that of the four products mentioned, only two, salt and paper, were made by industries over which the local government extended direct control. The development of cotton and sake manufacturing was market led, although the two industries had very different kinds of markets.
If we look at the local economies of eastern Japan in this period, we find silk reeling as a major manufacturing activity accounting for a considerably greater share of the regional product than in western provinces like Chôshû, partly because the regional concentration of silk was much greater than that of cotton and partly because the denominator, regional product, was smaller in the east, largely reflecting lower productivity of rice farming than in the west. For example, the small domain of Suwa (part of todays Nagano Prefecture) had an assessed agricultural productivity of 46,000 koku (a unit of about 180 liters, used to measure the rice harvest), not even one-twentieth of Chôshûs 990,000 koku, but its export staple, raw silk for the Nishijin weavers, alone produced gross earnings equivalent to 12,000 koku for the territorial economy.
Japans nineteenth-century rural development was accompanied by a shift of the center of gravity in production from west to east, especially from Kinai (the region around Kyoto and Osaka), where agriculture and commerce thrived but industry waned, to silk-producing eastern provinces, especially those with poor soils. This was in fact a composite of separate shifts from the town to the countryside and from the Osaka-centered trade pattern to more diversified interregional trade relations.
By-employment among farm families in the late Edo period included a wide array of activities. The operation of wholesale trade and sake and soy sauce breweries by wealthy farmers was one form of by-employment, while hired labor by poor peasants was another. These included not just casual, unskilled workers employed by the day, but also seasonal, skilled or semiskilled workers employed regularly in the breweries. Early Meiji statistics indicate that brewing, encompassing the production of sake, soy sauce, and miso, was the largest manufacturing industry in late nineteenth-century Japan. However, it was the textile sector that was most dynamic in the age of rural development. Cotton weaving, silk reeling, paper making, and even sericulture and indigo cultivation, normally considered examples of commercial agriculture, were considered by-employment in the context of Tokugawa and Meiji Japan. The common denominator to these examples of by-employment was that they were all forms of part-time work done within the household by family memberschiefly female, either married or unmarried. As Morse remarked, they were “all poor,” which was the reason why the “entire family” had to workwhich in turn meant that there were “no paupers.” Late-Edo-period development may thus be summed up as a process made possible by tapping the reservoir of farm family labor.
AN ECONOMY OF CHEAP LABOR
All this sounds like a typical “underdeveloped” economy. Without a capital-intensive production base, Japans per capita gross domestic product in the early Meiji years was well below Western levels. Furthermore, even where growth momentum was felt, it turned out to involve labor-intensive development.
A couple of points bear noting in this connection. First, the principal reason for the shifting of production from the Kinai region to the countryside of eastern Japan must have been the attraction of lower levels of wages. There is evidence that during the eighteenth century, reflecting agrarian growth in the rural villages around Osaka, agricultural wages in this area rose in real terms, while rural by-employment, including the spinning and weaving activities that had formerly thrived there, died back by the end of the century. A comparison of real wage levels in Kinai and the eastern provinces at the end of the eighteenth century reveals that wages were unmistakably lower in the east, and it was in this period that rural industrial districts grew up in peripheral areas of the Kinai and in more remote regions. The differences in wage costs presumably accounted for the shift of location of cotton weaving and silk reeling and, hence, for the general process of rural industrialization.
Second, all this cottage industry used little labor-saving technology. Work was done in the peasant dwellings, not in centralized workshops. The peasant families may or may not have possessed looms or reeling devices, but whoever owned the capital assets, they were not the sort of tools that one would associate with labor-saving machinery. Take silk manufacture, for example. The traditional method of production known as “sedentary reeling” (zakuri) involved reeling the filament out of cocoons using a wooden apparatus with one small spool. The reeling was performed manually by women working in their own cottages. In weaving, there were no power looms in pre-Meiji Japan, although there occurred an important transition from simpler to mechanically more complex types of loom. The earlier type, a floor loom operated by means of a foot rope, had been used to make various kinds of textiles, such as hemp, cotton, and homespun silk. During the course of the Edo period, however, there emerged an advanced type of floor loom called takahata, or “tall loom.” Looms of this advanced type, which resembled Western hand looms, were increasingly used in market-oriented cotton-weaving activities. Another development was the introduction of the draw loom, which was used for weaving intricate patterns in Nishijin. With all these improvements, efficiency must have increased considerably over the period. But the improvements all belonged to the category of manual technology.
That said, however, it should be noted that something important was taking place in this seemingly backward agrarian economy. Consider the silk industry again. Despite the lack of conspicuous progress in mechanical areas, the industry proved extremely cost effective. A contemporary writer of books on sericulture noted that over the 100-year period from the early eighteenth century, output of raw silk quadrupled while its price remained unchanged “through good years and bad.” This suggests that there were significant productivity-augmenting innovations in the manual technology of this cottage industry.
SKILLS AND SELF-DISCIPLINE
We know that similar changes happened in farming during the same period. Agricultural progress in Tokugawa Japan never took the form of labor saving. Incremental innovation and knowledge accumulation enabled peasant farmers to harvest more crops per unit of land with increasing inputs of effort. One telling piece of evidence is the publication of increasing numbers of farm manuals, including ones specializing in such fields as sericulture (Miyazaki Yasusada, whom I mentioned earlier, was one of the earliest writers of farm manuals). Having surveyed such manuals, Thomas Smith found the authors emphasizing that the most important factor separating one farms success from anothers failure was skill in “matching crops and varieties to the growing conditions of individual fields” and discipline in allocating family labor “back and forth from farming to by-employments.” Smith illustrates this point by quoting one writer on sericulture (the same one to whom I referred to above): “Spring cocoons overlap both the spring wheat harvest and the rice transplanting. It is just before the rice transplanting is completed that worms require the most care. Then comes the reeling of filament from the new cocoons, and after that, when it is time to weed the rice and the weather is unbearably hot, the summer cocoons come on and the reeling starts again. At these times, when a single days neglect means the loss of worms from death, the sericulturist is so busy he cannot tell night from day.” (5)
According to this author, it was crucially important to coordinate one task with another, to fit the new by-employment of sericulture into the households calendar of farming and other by-employments, and to display the self-discipline that would make all this coordination smooth and flexible.
The skills required in farming and in cottage industries like sericulture are likely to have been somewhat different from the skills of the artisans that Chamberlain so admired. Of course, common to both sets of activitiesand probably to all other skilled operations as wellwas the prime importance of the ability to recognize and cope with minute differences and subtle changes. However, while the skills required by the artisans of Arita and Kyoto related largely to the materials and objects they worked with, those developed within the farm household were perhaps more concerned with the coordination of tasks and budgeting of time. Acquiring skills of this kind did not necessarily lead to a reduction in the input of manual work. The number of workers needed may well have remained the same and working hours unchanged in both farming and cottage industry. A farm survey taken in 1933 reveals that average hours worked by men in the 3150 age group amounted to 2,600 a year, including both farm work and nonfarm productive tasks. The total days worked were 241, which meant that these men worked nearly 11 hours a day. Farm womens working hours were also long. Their corresponding hours of farm and nonfarm labor were a little over 1,600, plus a similar number of hours of domestic work. Young adults (2130) worked in much the same way as their parents, men for 2,700 hours a year and women for 1,600; their younger brothers and sisters (1620) worked for 2,000 and 1,200 hours, respectively.(6) This was the situation after a century-long process of agrarian progress. Throughout the traditional period, therefore, it seems that the “entire family” had to work long and hard.
Ultimately it is this combination of coordination skills in time budgeting and self-discipline within the household economy that made the two-century-long process of import substitution possible. The labor potential of farming families was not simply “tapped” by someone else. To be sure, there was external stimulus in the form of initiatives from abovefirst from Shôgun Yoshimunes government, then from the domain administrations. Stimulus also came from the marketmore specifically from the merchants who explored market opportunities at various levels and supplied the products of peasant labor to places where unmet demands existed. However, the whole process of Tokugawa economic history was certainly not simply occasioned by merchants subcontracting production to a rural reservoir of cheap labor. Nor was it made possible merely by the willingness of peasant workers to lengthen their working hours. It is true that peasant families tended to work long hours, and as illustrated in the popular teachings of agrarian moralist Ninomiya Sontoku (17871856), hard work and frugality were valued highly in society at large (one may recall that until recently, a statue of the young Ninomiya was a familiar sight in primary schools). Yet, if we take a closer look at what Ninomiya actually stressed, it is clear that he was not an advocate of drudgery; instead, he gave much attention to time discipline.
Far more significant than the abundance and cheapness of peasant labor, therefore, were the ways in which the peasant families responded to stimulus, whether from above or from the market. The path Japan took after the Meiji Restoration must have depended much on the task-coordination skills and the sense of self-discipline that the Tokugawa peasantry acquired and developed in their own households.
This article was written in English for Japan Echo.
(1) Basil H. Chamberlain, Things Japanese (Tokyo: Meicho, 1985), pp. 26667.
(2) Edward S. Morse, Japan Day by Day: 1877, 187879, 188283 (Tokyo: Kôbunsha, 1936), vol. 2, pp. 5152.
(3) Jeffrey Marti, “Intellectual and Moral Foundations of Empirical Agronomy in Eighteenth Century Japan,” quoted in Conrad D. Totman, Early Modern Japan (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), p. 147.
(4) The following two sections draw on Shinbo Hiroshi and Saitô Osamu, eds., Nihon keizaishi (Economic History of Japan) (Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1989), vol.2, pp. 926. For Chôshû see Shunsaku Nishikawa, “The Economy of Choshu on the Eve of Industrialization,” Economic Studies Quarterly, vol. 38, no. 4 (1987), pp. 32337.
(5) Thomas C. Smith, Native Sources of Japanese Industrialization, 17501920 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), p. 214.
(6) See Osamu Saito, “Gender, Workload and Agricultural Progress: Japans Historical Experience in Perspective,” in Proto-industrialization: Recent Research and New Perspectives: In Memory of Franklin Mendels, ed. René Leboutte (Geneva: Librairie Droz, 1996), pp. 12951.
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