Book reviews –

Book reviews — The Demography of Sociopolitical Conflict in Japan, 1721-1846 by James W. White

Platt, Brian W

THE DEMOGRAPHY OF SOCIOPOLITICAL CONFLICT IN JAPAN, 1721-1846. By James W. White. Berkeley (CA): Institute of East Asian Studies (University of California). 1992. 101 pp. (Figures, tabs.) US$10.00, paper ISBN 1-55729-034-2.

THIS addition to the growing literature on conflict in Tokugawa Japan differs significantly from previous works in the field, both in methodology and interpretation. White’s method, in contrast to the qualitative case studies which dominate the literature, is highly quantitative and social scientific. His interpretation, while sometimes difficult to follow, provides an important alternative to those found in the existing works on the subject.

Most significant is White’s attempt to explain the coexistence during the Tokugawa period of economic growth and pervasive conflict. Until now, historians have tended to treat the two as mutually exclusive. Prewar historians like Norman and Borton emphasized the presence of conflict, but placed it in the context of a stagnant, oppressive feudal society. Postwar modernization scholars revised this image by portraying the Tokugawa period as a time of substantial economic growth, but downplayed the importance of conflict. Once again, in the last twenty years, historians like Irwin Scheiner, Anne Walthall and Stephen Vlastos (among others) have renewed the study of conflict, but their impression of peasant life is often incompatible with the modernizationists’ picture of social mobility and an improving standard of living.

White’s explicit aim is merely to explore the relationship between different demographic variables (population pressure, density, crisis) and patterns of conflict. However, in doing so, he reconciles the findings of modernizationists with those of the “protest scholars” by explaining how economic growth and proto-industrialization can be logically associated with increasing levels of contention. He suggests that while proto-industrialization caused a macro-level decrease in demographic pressure on food and a real improvement in the standard of living, it also led to a larger population of agriculturally nonproductive, and therefore vulnerable, people. Simultaneously, economic growth provided these people with an economic margin far enough above subsistence to give them the resources and opportunity to protest, and furthermore, the decreasing coercive capacity of the state convinced them that protest might go unpunished. Finally, economic crises (like the Tenmei and Tenpo famines) clashed with rising expectations to provide the spark to conflict. This argument is particularly satisfying because it incorporates not only the interests or motives of the protesters, but also (a la Charles Tilly) the resources and opportunities available to protesters. White’s argument that crisis and insecurity served as a motive for conflict is nothing new; what is novel is his emphasis on the role of economic growth in providing the opportunity.

White reminds us, however, that this model applies to social rather than political conflict; that is, conflict amoung commoners rather than protest by commoners against the state. This distinction is crucial to his argument. At first, White claims, political conflict was more prevalent than social conflict: i.e., commoners fought the state. However, over time, proto-industrialization caused the status group of “commoners” to differentiate into strata with different economic interests, rendering the state increasingly irrelevant as a target of protest. Thus the reasons for protest grew less political and more social and economic. The real enemies, White argues, increasingly took the form of other commoners.

At a time when most historians are writing synchronic, intensive case studies, White’s attempt to build a kind of national causal scheme brings welcome diversity. It is important to note, however, that White’s regression analysis does not support his scheme on a national level; as he acknowledges, it is only when he disaggregates the nation (into East and West, rural and urban, and then into narrower categories) that his model proves statistically meaningful. Therefore, ironically, White’s broad, schematic approach in fact reveals the diversity of protest, and thus reaffirms that the “intensive case study” approach is equally valid and heuristically valuable. In any case, by outlining a thought-provoking model and questioning some common assumptions about demography, economic growth, and protest, White’s work makes a solid contribution to our understanding of conflict in Tokugawa Japan.

Copyright University of British Columbia Summer 1995

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