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Bibliographic Data: Farris, WIlliam Wayne. Population, Disease, and Land in Early Japan, 645-900. Cambridge, MA: Harvard-Yencheng Institute, 1985.

Main Argument: Farris applies (then) modern demographic techniques to surviving records from classical Japan to argue against some now hopelessly out of date ideas about the ritsuryô period, i.e. when the Yamato state borrowed structures from Tang China and instituted a number of centralizing reforms, as well as the ideal of government, and provincial division, that existed at least until the 20thC. Applying statistical methodology to surviving demographic data (which are relatively plentiful, if objectively not unproblematic) and linking population, land and disease as interdependent explanatory factors sheds a powerful new light on the events of early Japanese history and shows that there was not sustained population growth in the classical era.

Historiographical Engagement: William McNeill, Plagues and Peoples; various Japanese and Western historians

Introduction: Argument, Sources, Examples Farris' central contention is that a) the introduction of rice farming allowed the economy to grow to such an extent that social classes, and eventually primitive forms of political organization, appeared in Japan at the end of the yayoi period, and that by the beginning of the ritsuryô period in 645 CE, Japan's population was somewhere between 3 and 5.5 million people; b) that Emperors Tenmu and Jito were the primary architects of the ritsuryô state, introducing a number of policies that were brought to fruition by Jitô during her sole reign (Japan's first systematic law codes, population registration, tax collection, state land allocation, and the construction of Japan's first Chinese-style capital, Fujiwara), for which she was the first sovereign to be hailed as tennô in her lifetime; c) the adumbration of the Taihô codes, which subordinated the imperial house to the council of state and returned broad powers of administration to provincial governors, had as their aim the control of commoners.

Chapter 1: Argument, Sources, Examples This chapter examines "Fertility, Mortality, and Life Expectancy in the Early Eighth Century" using surviving Japanese census data, the census first being implemented in 670, after "the crushing defeat at the Battle of the Pakecheon River in 663" (19). Surviving data take the form of household register (koseki, still an important tool of administrative control in Japan today) and tax registers (keichô); of the forty-eight of these that survive from 702 to 1004, five sets of documents are complete enough to be worth analyzing. After reverse-testing the data for coverage and accuracy, and converting ages to Western counting and age-smoothing, several conclusions can be drawn: 1) "life expectancy at birth corresponds well to longevity figures posited for populations in medieval Europe and Tokugawa Japan"; 2) "infant mortality was high" (47); 3) at the beginning of the eighth century the population was increasing fairly rapidly, leading to what seems to have been official worries about rural overcrowding by the mid-720s.

Chapter 2: Argument, Sources, Examples Chapter Two looks at "Population Trends and Epidemic Disease" and is set up to test William McNeill's hypothesis in Plagues and Peoples that due to geographical isolation 1) the Japanese population was protected from continental epidemics and 2) no herd immunities were created because when plagues did hit the archipelago, residual immunity levels quickly receded to pre-plague levels. There are some problems with immunological history in early Japan, namely 1) chronicles do not specify geographical extent of outbreaks of disease; 2) the disease is rarely identified; 3) calculating mortality is often guesswork. However, the Great Smallpox Epidemic of 735-37 is an exception to all of these rules and makes a testable case. Farris calculates a general mortality rate of 25 to 35 percent in all of Japan, with the death toll exceeding 60 or 70 percent in some areas. (For reference, a 30% death toll is roughly the threshold at which historians begin to expect the extreme social dislocation familiar from the ravages of the Black Death in medieval Europe.) "Given the lethal effects of smallpox in other cultures [without reservoir immunity], most remarkably on the Incas and Aztecs, a death toll of 25 to 35 percent may actually be somewhat conservative" (66). Most intriguingly, Farris hypothesizes that the fact that Kyûshû--in the pre-classical period a center of culture, population, and trade--may have been permanently devastated by this plague, and eventually reduced to "backwater status" in the medieval era (67). The government responded in four crucial ways: 1) the 715 Ordinance creating new households and administrative villages was rescinded in 739; 2) the system of provincial loans was reorganized in 745, replacing it with tax-farming; 3) state support for Buddhism became massive and systematic (viz. the construction of Tôdaiji with imperial support); 4) in 743, those who cleared land were given the right to hold it in perpetuity. Together, these reforms would eventually threaten and/or end the ritsuryô state. Taking this evidence in combination with other scattered references to smallpox and other epidemics, the McNeill thesis is sustained. Not until the 1200s did smallpox and messes become endemic in the Japanese population.

Chapter 3: Argument, Sources, Examples Chapter Three deals with land clearance, which had previously been seen as continuous in the classical period--highly questionable given Farris' demonstration of a pattern of demographic boom and bust in the 8th and 9thC. Previous evidence for continuous land clearance mainly took the form of numerous laws and regulations exhorting land clearance (which is frankly boggling, because one doesn't make laws or regulations to encourage things that people are already doing). A closer look at the evidence, however, reveals that "the long range-problem was not too many people for too little land, but too few farmers sporadically cultivating wide-open spaces" (81). Until at least the end of the Heian period, the conversion of wilderness to productive agricultural land "was not a linear progression yielding a constant increase of food, but rather a continuing cycle of clearance, abandonment, and then in time, clearance again" (93).

Chapter 4: Argument, Sources, Examples This chapter addresses land use and agricultural technology, and was the occasion for the most asinine "pedantic disagreement to show off my knowledge" digression I have ever sat through in graduate school, when an EALC graduate student completely missed Farris' point about primitive rice cultivation methods by quibbling with his translation of a verb describing sowing in a poem quoted from the Man'yôshû. Reading comprehension: it's not just for secondary school. My own digression aside, Farris argues convincingly that "rice agriculture in early Japan was beset by a fatal flaw: inadequate technology" (115). In particular, a lack of iron tools and insufficient infrastructure for artificial irrigation guaranteed that it was an unreliable source of production. To compensate, peasants planted rice in low-lying regions (which had lower yields, and was vulnerable to drought and flood); cultivated dry crops like wheat or barley, which were relatively unproductive; or practiced swidden (slash and burn) agriculture, which although it requires minimal labor and technological inputs is essentially a subsistence technique. Much like the Northern Wei land system that the ritsuryô reformers adopted in the late 7thC--not that of the vastly more productive and populous Tang--the Japanese government required continuous cultivation of a fixed area "to compensate for unsettled farming conditions" (117).

Chapter 5: Argument, Sources, Examples Chapter five looks at rural settlement, which was portrayed as having been dense and continuous, with little if any migration (a view that is itself contradicted in the law codes, given their prohibitions against it). As Farris notes, restrictions on migration imply that they "were necessary to maintain adequate tax revenues and a pool of corvée laborers" (122). Restrictions eased after the Great Smallpox Epidemic, however, and migration was, as Farris says, "an integral part of early Japanese society", fostered by four factors: "the low level of wet-rice technology, the demand for labor [corvée laborers were paid day wages in copper cash!], the abundance of livelihoods, and marital practices" (128). Moreover, archaeological evidence clearly shows that classical Japanese settlements were dispersed. These tendencies are also demonstrated, again, by the alterations that the Japanese state made to imported Tang practices, namely the failure to adopt the natural land divisions in the Tang codes because no such counterparts existed in Japan. Instead, again, the Japanese case was comparable to that of Northern Wei, where "local government was organized to facilitate the conscription of troops for the defense of the kingdom" (139). The best evidence we have is that in the 7thC the Japanese state saw, and attempted to provide for, a similar need.

Conclusion: Argument, Sources, Examples Farris argues convincingly that demographic research demonstrates that both the idea that "a Chinese-style centralized state was inherently unworkable on Japanese soil" and that "the failure of a Chinese-style centralized state lay in its inability to cope with economic growth" (141) do not hold evidentiary water. Farris' interpretation, parts of which were elaborated before Farris, is the "economic backwardness interpretation," which rests on "the debilitating effect of infectious disease" and a new view of land clearance that recognizes earlier misconceptions about wet rice cultivation (it was extensive, not intensive, in classical Japan), and the distribution of farming technology. In effect, all of Japanese society was caught in a vicious circle of "sparse population and primitive techniques" in this era, exacerbated by "the rise of selfish noble interests and the lack of administrative sophistication, especially at the local level" (145). Farris' research aids in understanding the breakdown of the ritsuryô tax system and the rise of the local magnate, as well as points towards a fundamental transformation in the economy in the late Heian and Kamakura periods, what Farris calls the "medieval agricultural revolution."

Critical assessment: Despite a rather workmanlike title, Population, Disease, and Land in Early Japan, 645-900 presents an unabashedly revisionist picture of the ritsuryô state that not only still holds water but is, in many of its details, still fresh and relevant. To be blunt, the nuanced portrait of the fortunes and policy of the Yamato polity that Farris offers is by no means patent among scholars on either side of the Pacific.

I would contest the characterization of Farris' prose as "lifeless;" the text genuinely held my interest throughout, which is no mean achievement for a study so closely tied to a very small set of data that have been lovingly massaged with statistical techniques. If anything, I found the initial framing of his study somewhat mushy, but by the middle of the book I not only could grasp where he was growing, but agreed with his presentation of his evidence and his conclusions therefrom.

In comparison with John Whitney Hall, Farris has the benefit of an additional twenty years' worth of intensive scholarship under his belt, particularly in the area of mokkan, the wooden proclamations which the ritsuryô state so loved to issue. (Aside: are mokkan classified as a form of epigraphy?) Unlike some other ancient historians, however, Farris does not make the mistake of privileging any one form of evidence over the others; instead, he uses his data to build a larger story, a story that is ultimately about the rise and fall of the ritsuryô state.

I could wish that this ur-narrative were more explicitly brought out in the text, and I take the point that there is more than a whiff of determinism about the way Farris frames his narrative, a whiff that does sharpen the enigma of the mid- to late Heian period: what was it that allowed the country to escape the demographic trap that Farris illuminates, if not explains? The answer is beyond Farris' scope, but it does leave one wondering. One also wonders whether, if he were writing this book now, Farris would be so quick to take William McNeill as a guide, given that McNeill's conclusions (though not his overall argument, namely that diseases affect human history) have been criticized since the publication of his book. Still, the McNeillian analysis of the transformative role that smallpox played in the eighth century (even to the point of, arguably, contributing to the informal disbarment of women from the throne and the transfer of the capital from Nara!) is one of the strongest parts of the book, and an object lesson in the power that this sort of demographic-centered historiography can have.

Further reading: Farris, Japan's Medieval Population: Famine, Fertility, and Warfare in a Transformative Age

Meta notes: Empress Jitô was awesome, and you should laugh in the face of the sexist haters who try to tell you otherwise. Cornelius J. Kiley, I'm looking at you.

(no subject)

Date: 2013-07-11 16:42 (UTC)
lnhammer: lo-fi photo of a tall, thin man - caption: "some guy" (Default)
From: [personal profile] lnhammer
Jitô was indeed awesome.

it was extensive, not intensive, in classical Japan

It sounds like you are using those terms in technical senses. Gloss?


(no subject)

Date: 2013-07-15 04:30 (UTC)
lnhammer: lo-fi photo of a tall, thin man - caption: "some guy" (Default)
From: [personal profile] lnhammer
Gotcha. I figured it might be something of the sort for the first, but was at a loss what the second might mean.



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Andrea J. Horbinski

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