Japan to 1600: A Social and Economic History

William Wayne Farris

University of Hawaii Press 2009
A book review by Danny Yee © 2009 https://dannyreviews.com/
In Japan to 1600, Farris surveys Japanese social history in seven chronological chapters. Each offers an overview of key aspects of the political history, but only as context for the social and economic history. One key focus is demographics, especially the effects of epidemics and disease. Another is the development of agriculture and industry, including the effects of deforestation and soil erosion. And other topics emphasized include class structure, gender and the family, and the development of religion.
"Besides living in a dispersed pattern, rural people changed residence frequently. Lawgivers tried to bind them to the land through various means, but in the course of the 700s, the court ran out of alternatives, changing its policy a bewildering seven times. Contrary to expectations, the typical migrant was female, traveled in groups, and was often wealthy. People moved for numerous reasons: to avoid the tax collector, clear or abandon fields, find jobs in an increasingly tight labor market, fish or practice slash-and-burn cropping, or to live with a partner. Mobility was part and parcel of commoner life, and the government could do little to stop it."
"The construction boom of the period 700-750, the large consumer class residing in the capitals, and the constant movement of tax commodities made for a robust commercial sector, at least in the Kinai and adjacent provinces. The government minted copper cash and officials accumulated tidy profits in various transactions."
"The century from 1180 through 1280 is widely recognized as a period of religious ferment; both anticlericalism and heterodoxy were rampant. ... By the thirteenth century, [the exemplary monk] Ryogen had, in the popular consciousness, become a demon, known for his worldly desires. Because they could not assure salvation, other priests of several major temples were depicted in narrative scrolls as devils, too. ... Even the sun goddess, now reconceived in Buddhist terms, became a wrathful deity judging the dead in hell and threatening violence at a whim."
"The relatively lofty position of women was a hallmark of Japanese society until about 1300. Women of all classes had economic power, owned their own homes, held political rank and power, and could engage in sexual relations fairly freely. Beginning around 1300, however, many lost the independent bases of their power and influence."
"Like pestilence, famine returned to haunt the islands. Between 1450 and 1600, there was a major subsistence crisis almost twice as often as during the preceding one hundred seventy years. In other words, starvation and chronic malnutrition typified the Warring States Era. The return of cooler and damper weather may have been an important contributing cause, but climatologists are divided on this issue, with some envisioning a more temperate climate, encouraging agricultural expansion."

With just two hundred pages, Japan to 1600 is obviously limited in scope. It doesn't touch on art, architecture or literature and has little on the development of finance or technology. And there is no discussion of sources or models: population figures for Japan at different times are given, for example, but without anything about how those have been estimated.

Farris writes lively prose and breaks his chapters up into thematic sections, which makes for easy reading. A few halftones and scattered details about individuals, archaeological evidence, and primary sources provide some immediacy. There are useful maps for those not so familiar with Japanese geography, and eight pages of notes and five pages of "suggestions for further reading in English", broken down thematically. The result might be a useful overview for students, but is well-pitched for the general reader curious about pre-modern Japan.

October 2009

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%T Japan to 1600
%S A Social and Economic History
%A Farris, William Wayne
%I University of Hawaii Press
%D 2009
%O paperback, notes, index
%G ISBN-13 9780824833794
%P xix,227pp