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Economic Thought in Early Modern Japan

Author(s):Gramlich-Oka, Bettina
Smits, Gregory
Reviewer(s):Hellyer, Robert

Published by EH.NET (November 2011)

Bettina Gramlich-Oka and Gregory Smits, editors, Economic Thought in Early Modern Japan. Boston: Brill, 2010. xxii + 298 pp. $154 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-90-04-18383-4.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Robert Hellyer, Department of History, Wake Forest University.

While recent scholarship has shed new light on many facets of early modern Japan, less has been written about economic issues, making this a welcome volume.? Emerging from international conferences held in Germany and the United States, this book is the first installment in a Brill series, ?Monies, Markets and Finance in East Asia, 1600-1900.?? At the broadest level, Gramlich-Oka and Smits seek to ?deepen and revise our understanding of early modern Japan,? and also ?enlarge and refine the analytical vocabulary for describing early modern economic thought and policy? (back cover) — goals they have certainly achieved.

In the introduction, Smits and Mark Metzler note perceptions of early modern Japan, still found in some survey histories, that the volume seeks to contest: a Confucian disdain for commerce that stifled economic growth, commercial and intellectual networks defined primarily by a rigid Confucian-style class structure (samurai-agriculturalist-artisan-merchant), and a politico-economic order of ?collective feudalism? (the bakuhan system).? Following recent studies (such as Ravina 1999 and Howell 2005), this volume successfully challenges those perceptions and adds much to our knowledge of early modern Japan by presenting fresh insights on economic theories, commercial ideologies, as well as case studies of individual merchants and intellectuals, domains, and the Ryukyu Kingdom (present-day Okinawa prefecture).

In the first chapter, Ethan Segal offers useful avenues to consider the economic transition from medieval to early modern, highlighting the monetization that began in the thirteenth century and despite the political dislocation of the Warring States period (1467-1573), continued into the seventeenth century. Kawaguchi Hiroshi?s subsequent chapter, ?Economic Thought Concerning Freedom and Control,? is less engaging but does offer some intriguing conclusions, such as the fact that during the Edo period (1603-1868), the word jiy?, which commonly connotes ?freedom? in modern Japanese, ?indicated a state without stagnation, not autonomous agency implied by the modern sense of ?freedom?? (p. 50).? Smits? examination of the Ryukyuan official, Sai On, presents a portrait of a Confucian-educated leader trying to develop state infrastructure, such as a network of harbors, and pushing to ?tweak laws and regulations so that individual profit-seeking ended up contributing to the common good? (p. 88). Ochiai K? describes the development of a domestic sugar industry in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, stressing how Tokugawa leaders encouraged production to reduce the outflow of bullion used to obtain brown, white, and rock candy sugar from Dutch and Chinese merchants.? Nonetheless the leaders of the shogunate also feared that as farmers cultivated sugar and other valuable cash crops, they would neglect essential grains, most notably rice, central to the feudal tax structure.? In her chapter, Gramlich-Oka delivers an informative and valuable discussion of Kud? Heisuke, a physician from a domain in northern Honshu, who operating in late eighteenth-century social networks of high-ranking officials, daimyo (lords), doctors, and scholars, offered informed critiques and policy proposals concerning foreign trade and colonization of Ezo (present-day Hokkaido). Jan S?kora also focuses on the role of non-governmental actors and social networks with an examination of Sh?ji K?ki, a merchant and self-made intellectual, whom S?kora asserts ?played a part in preparing the intellectual background for the profound economic and political changes? that unfolded in the Saga domain (today?s Saga prefecture on the island of Kyushu) in the mid nineteenth century (p. 176).? In the subsequent two chapters, Mark Ravina presents a fascinating look at the community granary (shas?) as a legitimized lending and credit agency within the Confucian inspired, state-sponsored orthodoxy; Ishii Sumiyo details the life of It? Y?z?, an entrepreneur who more than adeptly navigated the political and social upheavals that marked the transition from Tokugawa to Meiji in the late nineteenth century.? While maintaining his family business, It? not only founded a silk promotion institute, a railway company, and a commercial bank but also found time to establish two schools and to run for the Diet. In the concluding chapter, Metzler slices the Edo period into novel units defined by ebbs and flows in land and non-land tax revenues, monetary expansion and restraint, domestic exchange rates as well as price movements.? His use of modern terminology and points of analysis, such as the notion of ?big government? and comparisons to the Japanese experience in the twentieth century, are fruitful and provocative.?

All told, this volume provides many valuable takeaways including: an increased understanding of the complex and varied networks of people, ideas and, of course, goods, that defined early modern Japan; the energy with which state and non-state actors brought to formulating and implementing pragmatic solutions to pressing economic problems; and perhaps most of all, the broad influence of economic thought centered on the ?benefit of the country/national interest? (kokueki), a term used, apparently quite frequently, by intellectuals and domain and shogunal officials alike.? Nonetheless this reader was concerned that at times, the volume presents too rosy of a picture of samurai-commoner relations in the early modern Japanese polity.? To this point, I was reminded of another eighteenth-century physician/economic theorist not noted in the book: And? Sh?eki, who bitterly criticized the warrior class as socially useless consumers, benefiting from an economy that exploited peasants (Norman 1949).

This caution aside, in multiple ways this book enhances our understanding of the early modern Japanese economy and should be read by both scholars and students of Japanese history.? As the editors aim, it will also interest scholars of economic thought outside of Japan and East Asia (although the decision, in some chapters, to provide the translation for every Japanese term may distract the non-specialist reader). One also hopes that a more affordable paperback edition will be published to allow it to be assigned in undergraduate courses on early modern Japan.???????


David L. Howell (2005). Geographies of Identity in Nineteenth-Century Japan. Berkeley: University of California Press.

E. Herbert Norman (1949). ?And? Sh?eki and the Anatomy of Japanese Feudalism,? Transactions of the Asiatic Society of Japan, Third Series, Vol. 2 (December 1949): 1-340.

Mark Ravina (1999). Land and Lordship in Early Modern Japan. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Robert Hellyer is Associate Professor of History at Wake Forest University.? His recent publications include Defining Engagement: Japan and Global Contexts, 1640-1868 (Harvard University Asia Center, 2009).? (

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Subject(s):Economywide Country Studies and Comparative History
History of Economic Thought; Methodology
Geographic Area(s):Asia
Time Period(s):16th Century
17th Century
18th Century
19th Century