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The Agrarian Origins of Modern Japan

Author(s):Smith, Thomas C.
Reviewer(s):Saito, Osamu

Classic Reviews in Economic History

Thomas C. Smith, The Agrarian Origins of Modern Japan. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1959. xi + 250 pp.

Review Essay by Osamu Saito, Institute of Economic Research, Hitotsubashi University.

A Peasant Economy and the Growth of the Market

In the 1950s, when the late Professor Thomas Smith wrote this book, peasant farming was portrayed as a mode of production and livelihood incompatible with the market economy. Japan before Meiji was regarded as a typical example of such peasant economies. As Smith notes in the opening sentence of the book, this was to some extent true because “In the course of its long history, Japanese agriculture has in some respects changed remarkably little”: farming was a family enterprise, holdings tiny and fragmented, and cultivation methods simple — all features of a typical peasant society. Of course, there were some changes but they were never as dramatic as the agrarian changes the West experienced, so that for many scholars “it is tempting to dismiss as unimportant such changes as in fact have taken place.” Against this historiographical background, Smith argues in the book that the changes that actually took place in Japanese history, especially in the Tokugawa period (1603-1868), were in fact of great importance. His argument is that “their central feature was a shift from cooperative to individual farming” and that “if one of its causes may be singled out as especially important, it must be the growth of the market” (pp. ix-x; emphasis added).

The book is about these changes and, based largely on a body of evidence uncovered by Japanese historians, traces their social and economic consequences. It begins with a model of the traditional village society in the seventeenth century, which is set out in Part I. At the core of village society, according to that model, was a large landholder’s domestic group. It was composed of three concentric circles with the inner one being the family of the holder, the main household. The second circle consisted of a group of relatives outside the direct line of descent, and the third circle of hereditary servants and similar subordinate persons who were related to the holder by neither blood nor marriage but were nonetheless registered as part of his family group. In every village such large holder households were not many; only a few took this form of “extended family.” Other villagers were all small holders whose family form was, according to Smith, in most cases “nuclear”; and they were in all likelihood households created by partitioning. Since the partition of family land, even when practiced, was never made on an equal footing, those “new” groups of branch-family households were bound to be small holders who had to rely on resources provided by the main household as well as the village itself. Thus the structure of the traditional village was both cooperative and hierarchical, with “clusters of interdependent interests that clung together with great force and were broken up only when competitive inducements of trade began, much later, to dissolve the internal ties” (p. 54).

Such “competitive inducements” came from market growth in the countryside, which, it is suggested, was concomitant with urban growth. Thus, Smith begins Part II with a survey of the extent of commercial farming (cultivation of cotton, indigo, mulberries, oilseeds, tobacco, and other cash crops) and farm family by-employment (spinning, reeling, weaving, straw plaiting, etc.), both of which are supposed to have spread in the rural provinces during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Then in the subsequent chapters Smith traces the consequent changes: how agricultural technology changed, how labor was transformed, how wealthy landlords emerged within the village society, and how the traditional ties between households dissolved. The underlying tendency in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was for some branch families and hereditary servants to become separate from the main household. They formed their own households. Their landholding was sometimes too small to feed themselves on the farm, but thanks to the expanding market economy, they were in all likelihood able to find either by-employment opportunities or wage jobs, or both, as former labor service was increasingly replaced by live-in servants on yearly contract, who were eventually substituted by workers employed by the day. Sometimes, especially in crisis years, they had to borrow money from large holders in the village with a parcel of land placed in pawn, which in many cases ended up with the loss of its holding right: they became tenants of the large holders. The latter half of the Tokugawa period saw their numbers increasing, but at the same time it is not unlikely that increased tenancy in turn allowed them to stay on the land. With these significant, if not revolutionary, tendencies established, Smith devotes the final chapter to relating them to the making of modern Japan, placing particular emphasis on what commercial farming and expanding labor markets taught peasants in relation to the forthcoming age of the factory.

The book’s major points, such as the supposition that the weight of non-agricultural income in the rural economy had become substantial by the early nineteenth century, have subsequently been confirmed by his own and other historians’ works (Smith 1969/88, Nishikawa 1987, Shimbo and Saito 2004). From an early twenty-first century vantage point, however, it is not surprising that the progress of research since then has made some of the other propositions no longer tenable. One such example is his description of a shift from “extended” to “nuclear” family. Each of the cooperative groups in seventeenth-century documents that he regarded as one large and complex family household was probably nothing but an estate organization accommodating several separate domestic groups together, most of which were family households in a much simpler form and possessed their own hearth and living space. As a unit of production, however, the structure of the seventeenth-century estate organization may have been not much different from what he described in the book: it was hierarchical and there were extra-economic ties between those households. On the other hand, the family form that he considered “nuclear” should now be taken to mean “stem family,” since by the term “nuclear” Smith meant a small family that had no lateral extension but tended to extend vertically. As far as the family system is concerned, therefore, there seems to have been little change throughout the Tokugawa period. What actually changed was the way in which farming was organized and its tasks carried out, which was not associated with a transformation in the system of family formation. Another point I have to make concerns the extent of urbanization and the role given to it as an engine of market growth. In the chapter on “The Growth of the Market,” Smith noted that “in the two centuries after 1600, urban population grew with astonishing speed” (p. 67). Probably it did as far as the seventeenth century is concerned, but we now know, from Smith’s own research work published later, that urban population did not grow in the one and a half centuries after 1700: Edo, Osaka and some of the castle towns even recorded a population decline. Market-led output growth — “Smithian growth” in recent terminology (named after Adam Smith) — that took place in the latter half of the Tokugawa period should now be considered “rural-centered” (Smith 1973/88; see also Shimbo and Saito 2004).

Such necessary revisions notwithstanding, The Agrarian Origins of Modern Japan remains a landmark achievement in Tokugawa economic history. It is not just because the book is still very informative and makes lucid reading, but chiefly because what Smith delineated with respect to “what changed” and “what remained unchanged” is largely accurate. Given the intellectual milieu of the 1950s and the 60s, however, this publication may have been considered a book about “what changed” only — a work fitting very nicely in the framework of modernization theses such as the rise of individualism and the transition from status to contract, since the “growth of the market,” the guiding concept of the book, has long been regarded as an important component of the modernization process.

However, Smith makes several important points that do not necessarily fit with the modernization scenarios. First, he makes it clear that Tokugawa Japan’s path of agricultural progress was distinctly different from the Western one, suggesting that they would never converge on a single model. As he describes in the chapter on “Agricultural Technology,” farm output rose with the expansion of commercial farming, which was closely associated with the more intensive use of fertilizers, widening plant varieties, proliferation of farming tools, and the extension of irrigation. The irrigation work, i.e. construction of dikes, ponds, ditches, devices for lifting water into paddy fields and for other purposes, required a substantial amount of capital, much of which was provided by overlords and wealthy merchants. At the same time, however, the construction work itself required a substantial input of labor. And all the other improvements in farming methods were also labor intensive. Some individual innovations may have reduced labor requirements per unit of cultivated land, but the overall effect was to intensify the use of labor. All this made farming even more labor intensive and the unit of farming even smaller, the characteristics that remained unchanged throughout the period from Tokugawa to Meiji. To put it differently, “the character of agrarian change [in Tokugawa and Meiji Japan] … was determined as much by what did not change about farming as by what did” (p. 208; see also Ishikawa 1978, Francks 1983).

Secondly, while Smith examines in detail the rise of landlord-tenant relations and its accompanying phenomenon of increasing differentiation of landholdings within the agrarian society, and also the processes of hereditary subordinates evolving into servants for yearly wages and of service agreements becoming from long-term to short-term contracts, thus describing a long-run transition to wage labor, he never speaks of the emergence of a wage earning class of landless agricultural labors. This may be interpreted as suggesting that those tendencies, together with the above-mentioned move towards the intensification in farming and the spread of non-agricultural by-employments in the rural districts, resulted in keeping the peasantry from disintegrating itself (Saito 1986).

Thirdly, therefore, all this “kept the agricultural population a relatively homogeneous class of small peasant farmers despite the presence of landlords and obvious differences in wealth; [and] it preserved the organic unity of the village community despite the growth of a nonfarming population within it” (p. 107). In other words, the coming of commercial farming and the associated growth of labor markets in the Tokugawa period did not signal the end of a peasant economy. Rather, in the Japanese past peasant farming evolved towards more uniformity as the market grew.

Thus, this 1959 book suggested that the Tokugawa peasant household, as an integral unit of production and reproduction, had a modus operandi distinctly different from those found for other early modern agricultural populations, and also that it emerged in the process of interactions with the growth of the market. Smith addressed this research question later when he worked on demography and on the history of time discipline (Smith 1977, 1986/88). In the first, he demonstrated how the Tokugawa peasant families tried, with a dim idea of family planning, to adjust their size and composition to alternating life-cycle stages and also changing economic circumstances, and in the second, how they developed a stringent sense of time discipline within the household in order to cope with the increased intensity of labor in farming and by-employment activities and, hence, an increased need for planning over the whole farming year. This latter point implies that Meiji Japanese workers did not need to be taught time discipline in the factory, which strongly suggests that there was continuity from Tokugawa to Meiji. In the former demographic study, Smith made a strong argument that Tokugawa peasants adjusted their family size and composition by means of sex selective infanticide. This provoked a debate, but as I have commented elsewhere (Saito 1989), the gist of his entire argument was that the Tokugawa peasant family household tried hard to balance its numbers with farm size and to secure the right composition in the family workforce, for which purpose infanticide was only one of the options accessible to the family. There were some other means of demographic adjustments such as abortion and the timing of marriage-out of non-inheriting children, as well as economic ones such as sending children, both male and female, into service in the village and in cities and towns, or getting them to take up an industrial by-employment at home. Those economic opportunities increased with the growth of the market, and with changes that accelerated after the Meiji reforms. This consideration, therefore, points to another element of continuity from the early modern to the modern period, the theme already explicit in the writing of The Agrarian Origins of Modern Japan.

Smith noted, retrospectively in the preface to a collection of essays he had published since the 1950s, that while writing on “how Japan became a modern society … with a generalized notion drawn from Western history of how much transformations occur,” he had “paid particular attention to factors that contributed to making modern Japanese society similar to but profoundly different from Western counterparts” (Smith 1988, p. 1; emphasis added). As such, therefore, his work collectively made a pioneering contribution to the on-going debates in global economic history.


Francks, P. (1983), Technology and Agricultural Development in Pre-war Japan, New Haven: Yale University Press.

Ishikawa, S. (1978), Labour Absorption in Asian Agriculture: An Issues Paper, Bangkok: Asian Regional Programme for Employment Promotion of the International Labour Office; reprinted in S. Ishikawa (1981), Essays on Technology, Employment and Institutions in Economic Development, Tokyo: Kinokuniya, 1-149.

Nishikawa, S. (1987), “The Economy of Choshu on the Eve of Industrialization,” Economics Studies Quarterly 38 (December), 323-37.

Saito, O. (1986), “The Rural Economy: Commercial Agriculture, By-employment and Wage Work,” in M.B. Jansen and G. Rozman, eds., Japan in Transition: From Tokugawa to Meiji, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 400-420.

Saito, O. (1989), “Bringing the Covert Structure of the Past to Light: Review Article of T.C. Smith, Native Sources of Japanese Industrialization, 1750-1920,” Journal of Economic History 49 (December), 992-999.

Shimbo, H. and O. Saito (2004), “The Economy on the Eve of Industrialization,” in A. Hayami, O. Saito and R.P. Toby, eds., The Economic History of Japan, 1600-1990. I: Emergence of Economic Society in Japan, 1600-1859, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 337-68.

Smith, T.C. (1969), “Farm Family By-employments in Preindustrial Japan,” Journal of Economic History 29 (December), 687-715; reprinted in Smith (1988), 71-102.

Smith, T.C. (1973), “Pre-modern Economic Growth: Japan and the West,” Past and Present 60 (August), 127-160; reprinted in Smith (1988), 15-49.

Smith, T.C. (1977), Nakahara: Family Farming and Population in a Japanese Village, 1717-1830, Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Smith, T.C. (1986), “Peasant Time and Factory Time in Japan,” Past and Present 111 (May), 165-197; reprinted in Smith (1988), 199-235.

Smith, T.C. (1988), Native Sources of Japanese Industrialization, 1750-1920, Berkeley: University of California Press.

Subject(s):Markets and Institutions
Geographic Area(s):Asia
Time Period(s):19th Century