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Whereas material culture is often addressed from the viewpoint of cultural history, raising issues of meaning and values associated with Japan's entry into modernity, Susan Hanley is mostly interested in questions of economic history, although her treatment and interpretation of archival data differs from the approach usually followed by economic scholars. Her core hypothesis is that the study of material culture, defined as the physical objects that people use or consume in their everyday lives and the spaces they inhabit, reveals the patterns and characteristics of domestic consumption, which in turn determines the physical well-being of the population, which gives an idea of the quality of the lives they live.
A study of material culture during Japan's Tokugawa period through its material culture raises two paradoxes. First, Marxist economic historians have divided the Tokugawa period into two: rapid growth of both the economy and population in the seventeenth century, followed by stagnation in both economy and demography for the next century and a half. However, viewed from the vantage of material culture, the Japanese continued to grow more prosperous in the second half of the Tokugawa period, though the growth and rate of change were not as rapid as in the first half.
Demographic studies initiated by Akira Hayami, the leading authority in historical demography in Japan, suggest that a major reason for the leveling off of population's growth in much of the country was deliberate efforts by the Japanese to control family size in order to maintain or improve their standard of living. Having a large household burdened a cultivator with extra mouths to feed and labor that could not be effectively used. Through the ie system, the Japanese began to practice what was ideally primogeniture but in actual fact could be more correctly described as single-heir inheritance. Adoption was commonly practiced, and thus a family could limit the number of children without endangering the line. All children who were not to carry on the family line had to leave the family. Girls usually married out, and younger sons either were adopted into other families or left home to make their fortune elsewhere. Late marriages, abortion and infanticides were other means to control family size. What is remarkable is that people were limiting their families even in villages in which people were relatively well off and in times in which the economy was expanding.
Distribution patterns also show interesting trends. While the income of the samurai--who constituted no more than 7 to 10 percent of the population--either held steady or deteriorated, most of the rest of the Japanese enjoyed a rising standard of living. What happened is that many commoners, first merchants and city dwellers, then peasants and villagers, started to enjoy what previously only the elite among the samurai had consumed: tatami in place of earthen or wooden floor, cotton clothing and bedding, more spacious styles of housing with sliding doors (shoin style), tempura and other new foods, and baths. The result was a "samurai-zation" of Japanese material culture, which created a very different national culture by the nineteenth century than existed in the Western industrializing world.
By and large, the material aspects of daily life borrowed from the samurai lifestyle of the Tokugawa era remained in the Japanese tradition until well into the twentieth century, and this continuity helped the Japanese cope with the rapid institutional and technological changes brought by the Meiji restoration. Greater demand for traditional goods and limited demand for imports meant that craftsmen were not suddenly out of work or technologically obsolete. "Just as Fukuzawa Yukichi held to traditional family values and the Japanese system of arranged marriage even while serving as a proponent of so much that was Western, the Meiji bureaucrats in their Western dress could retreat by modern transportation to their traditional homes, change into kimono, and enjoy a Japanese meal."
The second paradox is that although Japan spent more than two centuries in isolation, it didn't lag considerably behind Western countries in terms of physical well-being, and it was able to catch up economically and technologically in a short span of time. Although the average income of the Japanese in the 1860s was not quite as high as that of the English in the eighteenth century, the author argues that the level of physical well-being was at least as high as that in England in the nineteenth century, at a time when Japan had not yet begun to industrialize and England was already an industrial nation, and certainly as high as when England began to industrialize.
Convincing proof that the level of physical well-being in Japan was similar to that in the West in the mid-nineteenth century is that life expectancy was similar. The Japanese prior to industrialization lived as long as did the English a century after they began to industrialize. In particular, a strong case can be made that sanitation in Japan through the mid-nineteenth century was as good as or better than in the West. Edo's water supply was as good as or better than London's, and the sewage system far superior though technologically more primitive. Cholera, typhoid, and other bacterial diseases spread by filthy conditions were endemic and epidemic in America, English, French, and certainly other Western towns and cities because of polluted water supplies and inadequate sewage and garbage disposal. In contrast, during the Tokugawa period, Japan's water supply and waste disposal methods were generally efficient and relatively hygienic in both rural and urban areas.
Susan Hanley argues that the Japanese lifestyle was also more hygienic and resource-efficient than the Western one. Estimations of calories intake indicate that Japanese in the mid-nineteenth century had sufficient nutrition for their body stature, although height is partially determined by nutrition. Bathing was a regular part of life by this time, people customarily drank their water boiled in the form of tea, and they carefully collected their bodily wastes to be used as fertilizer. The author finds numerous examples--in housing, in cuisine and in clothing as well as in the decorative arts--when the Japanese were thriftier or made better use of scarce resources than people in the West. By making optimal use of resources in the long run rather than maximum use in the short run, the Japanese were able to maintain a dense population on a relatively small amount of land on which to live and feed themselves.
The image that emerges from Japan's material culture corresponds to the characteristics and values traditionally attached to Japan. The Japanese like to think of themselves as a thrifty, industrious people that is accustomed to a parsimonious lifestyle and that finds beauty in simple things. Susan Hanley's history of everyday life could have extended to these values and modes of thinking, instead of perpetuating a strict separation between the material realm and cultural history. But her focus on how the Japanese lived in the Tokugawa era should provide an interesting reference to students of Japanese culture and to economic historians specializing in other regions and periods as well.