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Bibliographic Data: Smith, Thomas C. Nakahara: Family Farming and Population in a Japanese Village, 1717-1830. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1977.

Main Argument: Demographic data from a pseudonymous village in Tokugawa Japan strongly indicate that villagers routinely practiced fairly rigorous family planning, including infanticide, as a means of maximizing the family's economic potential as a corporate unit. Japan's modern prosperity, therefore, had premodern roots in that its low premodern birth rate positioned the country well for industrialization, comparable to many regions of western Europe.

Historiographical Engagement: Arguing against the mostly unnamed previous generations whose habits of thought were in service to their preconceived notions, not struggling against them.

Chapter 1: Argument, Sources, Examples In the 1960s historians and social scientists began to realize that they were totally wrong about the origins of what was then called, with absolutely no compunction, contemporary "economic backwardness" among "backward" (i.e. non-Western, non-industrialized) countries. Rather than "backwardness" (i.e. crushing poverty and underdevelopment) being the result of "a cultural obstacle, expressed as an almost capricious insistence on irrational, self-defeating behavior" (1) [those non-white people! Totally generalizable and non-rational, amirite?] it was realized that Western countries were and are rich now because they were already rich at the advent of industrialization and modernity. Population growth, or more precisely its slowness, played a large role in the economic growth of Western Europe. Smith sought to test the hypothesis that "low population growth over a protracted period was essential to subsequent industrialization" (4) by looking at census data from Japan, and in particular from one village in modern Gifu that Smith pseudonyms "Nakahara." Its demographic data supports the broad trends that had already been observed in Japanese population data, namely that the Edo period was not a Malthusian dystopia of high deaths and stagnant economic growth, but rates of mortality and fertility that are "moderate or even low by [Western] preindustrial standards" (10). Eventually Smith concluded that "the population was practicing sex-selective infanticide…and there was a tendency to use this practice to balance the sexes of the sibling set at each birth order after the second" (14). Infanticide was not a choice made out of desperation brought on by poverty but a conscious, rational choice made out of long-term planning for what the family could afford and what it needed.

Chapter 2: Argument, Sources, Examples This chapter examines the Nakahara sources, essentially three separate types of population register and tax registers. There are some peculiarities of the Japanese records that have to be accounted for, many relating to the registration of births of children and the lunar calendar then in use--children entered the registers as "aged 1" at any point from six to eighteen months of age, and any children that died before six months of age are unaccounted for. Tax registers are also inaccurate, or at least extremely crude, because they only list village landholders and their landholdings (kokudaka), and there were no land surveys undertaken anywhere in Japan in the 18thC. Nonetheless, "the kokudaka data seem to point to real economic and social differences between households, since rather clear and consistent differentials in demographic behavior appear between holders of different size" (32).

Chapter 3: Argument, Sources, Examples In this chapter Smith surveys both the physical and social characteristics of the village. Rather than a village "composed of the same group of families occupying the same land and houses for generations" (36) examination of the records showed near-constant turnover in the number of independent households, some of which survived and some of which died out: "it was the loss of property that made continuation as a group in the village impossible" (37). The crude birth rate in the village was also, even as the population grew over the period surveyed (compared with a flat national population), relatively low, approximately comparable to 18thC Sweden. The crude death rate was also low, with an unweighted mean of 26.5 that is probably too pessimistic. Surprisingly to Tom Smith, land in the village also changed hands frequently on the order of decades. Over time, land ownership became more and more concentrated, but it appears that "tenancy may have tended to equalize access to land" (44), a finding that is indirectly confirmed by the fact that households of all classes were essentially the same size by the end of the period, whereas in the beginning there were marked differences in household size according to household wealth. Farming remained a highly competitive occupation, a competition not only for land but also for the ability "to achieve a sense of continuity with ancestors and the hope of continuity with descendants" for which "a family would go to great lengths" (46).

Chapter 4: Argument, Sources, Examples This chapter covers mortality in the village over the period surveyed: "mortality in Nakahara was not radically different from that in other Tokugawa villages for which there are estimates, though there are good reasons to believe that it may have been rather low in comparison to mortality in preindustrial French parishes" (47).

Chapter 5: Argument, Sources, Examples This chapter examines fertility and infanticide in the village: "marital fertility in Nakahara was about median for the Japanese villages for which we have estimates. …it was distinctly low compared to the European parishes, with two exceptions" (59). Smith and his collaborator "argue that the primary reason [for this low marital fertility] was the practice of infanticide, less as a desperate act in the face of poverty than as a form of family planning" (61). Via a lot of population mathematics, Smith and his collaborator eventually conclude several things: villagers routinely practiced sex-selective infanticide, spacing out the children they allowed to live for the convenience of the mother (particularly for the second birth), avoiding a particular sex in the next child after having had children of the other, and having only as many children as they intended: larger families had more equal balances of sexes among children, while the smaller the family, the higher the proportion of boys. Along with the size of house holding, whether families stopped having children early or later was independent and of equal importance in determining family size. In contrast to the "infanticide as desperation" and "Tokugawa period as dystopia" images then current in the literature, and the strong moral and class bias against infanticide in contemporary sources, Smith and his collaborator conclude that villagers practiced sex-selective infanticide with specific goals that "required foresight and the ability to carry out long-range plans, qualities not usually associated with demoralized or desperate people" (83).

Chapter 6: Argument, Sources, Examples This chapter is concerned with nuptiality, by which Smith means "(1) the promotion of the population who never marry, which in practice is taken to be those persons not married by age 50, and (2) the distribution of others of each sex by age at first marriage" (86). Broadly speaking, demographers have found two historical patterns of nuptiality: "the 'non-European' pattern of early and nearly universal marriage, and the pattern of late marriage and frequent celibacy [= refraining from marriage, not necessarily from sex] that came to prevail over most of Western Europe about the sixteenth century and, so far as is known, has not occurred elsewhere. … However, for reasons not well understood the European pattern tends to be linked with distinctly higher age-specific fertility in marriage" (86-87). Nakahara marriages for males were in general late, and marriages for everyone were strongly influenced by class. To quote their conclusions: "1. With rare exceptions, only males who were or became family heads married. …By contrast, early and nearly universal marriage was the rule for women. 2. Both men and women tended to marry younger in upper-class than in lower-class families. … 3. A substantial number of marriages were incomplete owing to the death of one spouse" (105). When the surviving partner had children, remarriage was uncommon, but when they did not, it was usual. "4. Marriages in the middle and upper classes had a much better chance of completion than those in the lower class, owing to the more favorable mortality in those classes. … Nearly 10% of all marriages ended in divorce" (105-06). Finally, both nuptiality and fertility may have been affected by the deficit of females in the population as a result of the bias against females in infanticide, although given the abnormal sex ration of the national population in 1732 (converging back to normal between then and 1872), more data would be needed.

Chapter 7: Argument, Sources, Examples This chapter attempts to elucidate the "rules" of infanticide by looking at the relationship between family and farming in the village. This relationship was central and incredibly close, given that whether a family survived depended on its fortunes at farming, which was in turn directly influenced by whether it could provide the labor that was required to farm. All told, "competition for land exerted a constant pressure on family decision-making" (111) because the amount of available land was essentially fixed, and because restrictions on land transfer were honored more in the breach than the observance. (Again unlike Europe, by the 18thC in Japan essentially all arable land was owned by commoners, who were legally peasants.) Farming was intensely competitive at the family level (this is both reflected in and a consequence of the attitudes described in countless Tokugawa farming handbooks) It was easier for families to move up than down, and both happened quite frequently, although as time goes on the increasing uselessness of the tax registers demonstrates "a radical divergence between land holding (registration) and land use" (125). Smith concludes that "family size and composition varied directly with holding size, and that family size changed within a short time when holding size changed" (130). It was routine to make decisions about entries and exits to/from the family (marriage, adoption, divorce, etc) in all other ways, and morally praiseworthy to subordinate personal considerations to the family's long-term interests as a unit; together, these must have made infanticide easier.

Chapter 8: Argument, Sources, Examples This chapter looks at marriage and the family, specifically at the timing of the former and its influence on the latter: "Marriage in Nakahara showed a tendency for peasant families to adjust their size and composition to the requirements of farming. The family's phase of maximum farming efficiency was prolonged by postponing the heir's marriage as long as possible, and by detaining other children in the family in the meantime" (145). All together, the evidence suggests that village families routinely made such decisions consciously, and were not wholly in thrall to custom for its own sake but because of its rational benefits.

Chapter 9: Argument, Sources, Examples Taken all together, the evidence from Nakahara indicates that villagers routinely practiced what can only be described as a form of family planning. Suggesting that premodern peasants are capable of this kind of long-range planning has been heretical, but shouldn't actually be. Moreover, it seems clear that the fall in the sex ration from 1732 to 1872, from 115 to 103, was at least partially a consequence of the rising economic value of female labor, specifically in the form of by-employment (which other scholars have shown was probably more wealth-making than agriculture in some areas by the end of the Tokugawa era) and non-agricultural employment. Demographic data from Chôshû in 1843 show that the sex ratio was strongly correlated with economic prosperity: areas with higher per-capita incomes were much more likely to have a ratio that was closer to normal than areas with lower per-capita income. A contributing factor to this may have been that increasing by-employment and non-agricultural employment for men may also have increased the demand for wives. Women's work, by the end of the Edo period, was a force to be reckoned with.

Critical assessment: It's something of an odd experience to read a book whose conclusions are so fundamental to your previous education that it can be a shock to remember that those conclusions once had to be proven. This is probably the most enjoyable book I've read about historical demography in a long time, if not ever, and I really appreciated getting to watch Thomas C. Smith strike a serious blow against the classism of modernization and development theory. 

Indeed, it's a tribute to Smith and his co-authors that the work here is now fundamental to our understanding of Tokugawa Japan and--as my copy of The Great Divergence attests--to our understanding of Asian history as a whole. For all that his conclusions are revisionist, if not revolutionary, I also appreciated, as always, the economy and grace of Smith's prose as well as his punctilious refusal to make more assertions than he can prove, a trait not shared by all scholars. This is, on the whole, a brilliant little book. 

I do wonder, however, why Smith et al. felt the need to give "Nakahara" a pseudonym. Reading what he writes about the town and five minutes on Google maps reveals that it's almost certainly modern Wanouchi in Gifu city. Their reason for doing so is almost the only thing left unclear in the entire text. 

Further reading: Farris; Hanley and Yamamura

Meta notes: It's amazing how far not being classist and presentist can get historical inquiry. Or not.

(no subject)

Date: 2013-07-21 15:03 (UTC)
lnhammer: lo-fi photo of a tall, thin man - caption: "some guy" (Default)
From: [personal profile] lnhammer
I do wonder, however, why Smith et al. felt the need to give "Nakahara" a pseudonym.

Ya. That strikes me as very odd scholarly practice.

---L.

(no subject)

Date: 2013-07-21 17:24 (UTC)
thistleingrey: (Default)
From: [personal profile] thistleingrey
Hmm, it makes sense to me--the people living there are descended from those summarized and analyzed, and even if the veil is thin, it accords them the courtesy of privacy. (Also, obvs, no GMaps in 1977.) Like, if one is close enough to the town and inhabitants to be able to identify them from the book, one is invited to uphold the courtesy by the fact that a thin veil exists, and if not, their privacy is maintained anyway.

(no subject)

Date: 2013-07-22 05:20 (UTC)
thistleingrey: (Default)
From: [personal profile] thistleingrey
I do agree that it'd help for him to say so.

(no subject)

Date: 2013-07-21 17:31 (UTC)
thistleingrey: (Default)
From: [personal profile] thistleingrey
This chapter is concerned with nuptially

"Nuptially" is meant as a noun? That's the part that strikes me as odd. :) Is it a French calque, like "problematic" as noun?

A little part of me is like, "Duh, infanticide," but perhaps it was less discussed in English circa 1970s. (Koreans practiced it to cull infants unlikely to survive, whether because they had physical flaws hindering their full participation in society as adults or because there wasn't food enough to feed them. But I can't back that up with a study; to me it's inherited common knowledge. I don't know whether the average adult child of someone who left Korea after the 1970s would know, for that matter--it's not talked about much now.)

(no subject)

Date: 2013-07-22 05:22 (UTC)
thistleingrey: (Default)
From: [personal profile] thistleingrey
I see--makes sense. I should clarify belatedly that I didn't mean to imply an equation of Japanese and Korean cultural practices; they do share certain geographical limitations re: agriculture and reliable year-to-year diet which'd foster this particular practice, however, what with too much seawater on one side and too much mountain on the other.

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Andrea J. Horbinski

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