Urban and Rural Economic Development During the Tokugawa Period
The Transition of the Tokugawa Era
The Tokugawa period in Japanese history (1600-1868) remains one of the most transformative eras in the society’s history (Platt 965). At the start of the period, feudalism still dominated most aspects of Japanese culture. Caste distinctions were rigid and the social status that was afforded through this system of rough feudalism provided the primary principle of social organization. Unlike the Western colonial powers that began to interact with Japan during the Tokugawa period, there had been no middle class revolution of intellectuals and artisans to dismantle the old feudal system, as had already happened in most of Europe. Nonetheless, by the end of the Tokugawa era, this is exactly what had happened. Economic development in both the urban centers of Japan as well as the rural countryside contributed to a new social organization based on mercantilism and commercialism (Howell 105). This transformation led directly into the formation of the modern, in the Western sense, nation-state of Japan and has helped guide the development of the society in the decades since.
The purpose of this study is to examine, in some greater depth, the extent of the economic changes that occurred in both the urban centers of Tokugawa Japan as well as the rural countryside. It is evident that the pace of economic development that occurred was part of a kind of feedback loop. As relative peace and prosperity dominated Japan during the Tokugawa period, more investment could be made into the culture itself — through trade with other nations, through increases in production capacity, and through improvements in education and literacy. These social changes fed off of a developing economic affluence and the emergence of an element of society reminiscent of the West’s middle class. As this occurred, more demands were placed upon the ailing feudal system for even greater economic gains. Ultimately, the Tokugawa era can be seen as a transition moment in Japanese history when economic and market development contributed to the transformation of a feudal society to one based on capitalism and market economies. The following sections will examine the economic developments that took place in urban Tokugawa Japan, rural Tokugawa Japan, and finally conclude with a discussion of how these economic changes manifested themselves in ultimate social change.
Urban Tokugawa Japan: The Emerging Middle Class
The Tokugawa period is marked by the unification of Japan under the Tokugawa shogunate that established central control of Japan from 1603 until 1868. An opening of trade and an exchange of ideas with the West marked the period, particularly Portuguese and Dutch traders as well as Jesuits and Spanish Franciscans. Local authorities ultimately resisted the inroads that the Christian missionaries were making and expelled them from Japan by edict in 1587. This rule was not strictly enforced, but did remain on the books. When Spanish Franciscans tried to incite revolt against the shogun, all missionaries were forcibly evicted in 1612. Trade was subsequently reduced significantly, limited to only a single Dutch community and port in Nagasaki (Duiker and Spielvogel 628-630). Thus the Tokugawa period began almost simultaneously with contact with the West, a meeting that, despite attempts to control, would have significant impacts on the economic development of Japan.
Since the fourteenth century, Japan had been conducted trade with other nations. This trading was centered primarily on the urban castle cities known as daimyo (Duiker and Spielvogel 632). As might be expected, this trade was focused in urban areas, as opposed to the rural countryside. From these points, Japanese communities traded with other nations to provide for resources or goods that simply were not usually available to them. In fact, even after the shogun closed the nation to outsiders, the Japanese did continue to trade on a limited basis with the Chinese and the Dutch (Keogh 171). This commerce helped to fuel economic development in the urban areas of Japan.
Under the old feudal system, heavy-handed government control and regulation limited economic growth and trade, as would be expected in any society. But during the Tokugawa era, this control began to break down. Of course, the slow collapse of the feudal control was an excellent circumstance from the perspective of economic growth and development. There is some debate over what factors during the Tokugawa period contributed to this economic expansion. Scholars have alternately cited the lengthy peace that made merchant life more profitable, low taxes, the patronage of the upper classes, as well as an interest in producing more luxury items for sale or export (Duiker and Spielvogel 632). Whatever the case, it is a common theme in research on the subject that modernity first appeared in Japan during the Tokugawa period (Miyazaki 2). The seeds of the same market economy that had already come to dominate the West were establishing themselves in Japan throughout the course of the Tokugawa period. By the end of the era in the latter half of the nineteenth century, Japan was already taking steps to enter the world political-economy and become a nation-state in the tradition of the West.
Much of the economic expansion that fueled these changes occurred in the daimyo throughout Japan. These cities were comprised of the upper classes, as well as the new merchant class since the peasants who made up the bulk of the population lived in the countryside and were socially prohibited from engaging in any but the most menial of production tasks (Duiker and Spielvogel 632). As a result, new growth in manufacturing, distribution, and consumption took place in the cities and the general standard of living rose there, eventually diffusing and permeating the nation’s rural villages.
Economic development continued apace in the cities throughout the Tokugawa period as increased production led to increased consumption and increased demand. By the mid-eighteenth century, Edo (modern day Tokyo) had a population of over one million, a banking industry, a standardized paper currency and a stronger merchant class that was having a greater effect on the development of the nation (Duiker and Spielvogel 633). This merchant class was not unlike the middle class that had already taken hold throughout much of the West. However, during the Tokugawa period, this feature of society was still very much in its formative stages. Nonetheless, there are strong indications of the similarities between the rising merchant class in Japanese cities and the middle class of the West.
For example, by the late eighteenth century, there was a rise in popular literature throughout Japan, the equivalent of pulp fiction in the West. By that time, approximately forty bestsellers were each selling 5,000 to 8,000 copies (Griswold 235). Though this might seem to be a minor historical point, it is quite indicative of the economic changes that were taking place in Japan during the Tokugawa period, especially in the urban centers. Increased readership of popular literature suggests increases in literacy rates, which attest to a general emergence of a large group or class of people who were better educated than peasants and who had enough disposable income to purchase popular literature. Economic expansion during the Tokugawa period had noticeable effects in the cities where affluence increased dramatically. Agriculture, manufacturing, mining, and the arts were all encouraged during the period (Griswold 237).
All of these conditions are tied together with the rise in popularity of popular literature during this period. It suggests that the artisans and merchants of Japanese society in the Tokugawa period were growing in scope and strength. By the end of the Tokugawa period, the emergent middle class would help spell the doom of feudal Japan with their power and control over society. Their economic success, combined with improvements in education, was empowering and helped the class recognize the stifling treatment it was receiving under feudal control (Griswold 237). The collapse of the Tokugawa period and development of a modernized Japan had much to do with the economic changes that took place in daimyo throughout Japan in the Tokugawa era. Similar changes to the economy of the rural countryside were also taking place during this time, which would lead to further improvements in education, affluence, and even social uprisings among the peasants and the agricultural economy of rural Japan.
Rural Tokugawa Japan: Improvements in Education and Affluence
The changes that took place economically in rural Tokugawa Japan are less well-known. Unfortunately, record keeping was not as precise or extensive in rural, generally less educated, regions than they were in the cities and urban areas. Nonetheless, there were definite effects on the rural population thanks to the economic developments that were taking place at this time (Duiker and Spielvogel 635). The new focus on trade and consumption in the cities meant that some farmers would have been able to prosper by focusing their agricultural efforts on cash crops. In addition, many lords began opening up schools to the commoners by the last three or four decades of the Tokugawa period, indicating a real push for social change (Platt 965). To some degree, this may be considered a concession to peasants who were largely upset with their station in life as urban areas benefited more significantly from the economic expansion. There is little indication that prosperity was widespread among the peasant classes during the Tokugawa period. Other historical signs point to the real possibility that most farmers suffered during this period.
In fact, much of the economic woes for rural Japan at this time can be traced to developments that were taking place in the cities because of the still feudal organization of Japanese society. The daimyo were lords in the feudal sense; though their holdings varied, agricultural lands — and taxes on those lands — formed the basis of their wealth and power. Therefore, when the shogun made it law that each daimyo had to keep up a residence both in their own hometown as well as in Edo, and that the family of the daimyo had to stay in Edo in the absence of the lord, it put these theoretically autonomous daimyo in a difficult position. In addition to their families effectively being held hostage, there was an added economic pressure of having to keep up and maintain two residences with all the pomp and circumstance that these lords were accustomed to (Duiker and Spielvogel 632). Because Tokugawa Japan was still a feudal system, the costs that the lords incurred in this way were passed immediately on to the peasants who farmed their lands in the countryside in the form of higher taxes, up to 50% in some cases (Duiker and Spielvogel 635).
Under such economic conditions, it is not surprising that many popular uprisings occurred Japan’s rural areas during this era. Social riots and uprisings were relatively common throughout the period among the peasant classes (Miyazaki 1). In many cases, this should be understood as all but historically inevitable. For peasant farmers facing decreases in rice prices (the staple crop for most farmers) and crippling taxes, social uprising would have seemed all the more appealing. More than that, however, the peasant classes in the country must have been at least obliquely aware of the increased affluence and consumption that was taking place in the cities. They would have heard tales of daimyo who kept two large estates — never mind that this was required by the shogun. Stories of trade goods, new products for sale, and a merchant class of individuals who were succeeding despite not being a part of the aristocracy would have surely filtered their way into the countryside. Open rioting was really just inevtiable at this point. The reality is that the economic expansion that took place during the Tokugawa period was more beneficial to urbanites that it was to the rural peasant.
Conclusion: Economic Development in an Historical Perspective
Despite disparate effects on urban and rural economies, the Tokugawa was a period of dramatic economic change. From the start of the period and increased contact with Western powers, trade and commerce in Japan began an upswing. Feudal deregulation led to advances in manufacturing productivity as well as demand for consumable products. A merchant and artisan class — a forerunner of a more established middle class — began to develop at this point as well. By the end of the Tokugawa period, urban economies were much stronger, varied, and progressive than they had been at the start of the era. Positive changes were slower to occur among the rural peasantry, with increasing economic pressures leading to open riots in many cases. Ultimately, however, the progressive changes that occurred in the cities filtered their way into the countryside, improving productivity, education, and freeing the rural economy from its dependence on feudal lords. Ultimately this has been the lasting effect of the Tokugawa economic expansion: the dismantling of the feudal system that had dominated for centuries and the creation of a Japanese nation-state.
Duiker, William J. And Spielvogel, Jackson J. World History Volume I: To 1800. 2nd ed. London: Wadsworth Publishing Co., 1998.
Griswold, Susan. “The Triumph of Materialism: The Popular Fiction of 18th-Century Japan.” Journal of Popular Culture 29.1 (Summer 1995): 235-245.
Howell, David L. “Territoriality and Collective Identity in Tokugawa Japan.” Daedalus 127.3 (Summer 1998): 105-132.
Keogh, Annette. “Oriental Translations: Linguistic Explorations into the Closed Nation of Japan.” Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation 45.2 (Summer 2004): 171-191.
Miyazaki, Katsunori. “Characteristics of Popular Movements in Nineteenth-Century Japan.” Japan Forum 17.1 (Mar. 2005): 1-24.
Platt, Brian. “Japanese Childhood, Modern Childhood: The Nation-State, the School, and 19th-Century Globalization.” Journal of Social History 38.4 (Summer 2005): 965-985.
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