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The Lowest Depths

Peasants, Rebels, and Outcastes: The Underside of Modern Japan

by Mikiso Hane
Pantheon, 297 pp., $20.50; $9.95 (paper)

The tourist industry makes its living from the fact that Florence is unlike Milwaukee (except in the provision of hotels and services which visitors from Milwaukee will find acceptable). But how important is it for the historian of modern industrial society to bear in mind that the Japanese are unlike, say, the Italians?

The question is raised by the publication of Mikiso Hane’s Peasants, Rebels, and Outcastes: The Underside of Modern Japan, which sets out to tell us about “the actual experiences of ‘ordinary’ people” during the extraordinary process of Japanese modernization from the Meiji Restoration to World War II. It consists of a series of chapters, some overlapping, on the farming population and its difficulties, on women, textile factory workers, coal miners, the outcaste groups now called burakumin, and various aspects of changing life among the common people, rounded off by an epilogue on the dramatic transformation after 1945. The material is overwhelmingly drawn from Japanese publications, and thus most of it will be quite unfamiliar to Western readers.

It is, of course, absurd to suppose that anyone would not know that this book is written about Japan, even if all references were omitted, all proper names changed, and another set of dates substituted. But it is not absurd to ask how much of Mikiso Hane’s account could be transferred, without much loss of understanding, to a book about any other country at an equivalent stage of historical transformation, because a surprising amount of it is familiar to any historian of common folk during the transition to industrial capitalism.

In one sense this is obvious. If one wishes to concentrate, as the author understandably does, on “the pain and sorrow, the anguish and anger, the hunger and disease, the stench and filth that continued to be ever-present realities for the vast majority of Japanese,” one automatically emphasizes what they had in common with the majority of non-Japanese. Tears and TB, hunger and filth, are much the same anywhere. Moreover, there are situations so extreme that cultural differences recede into the background.

Extreme poverty and famine are among these. “Around 8 AM my aunt from the next village came. She says that for the past four or five days they had nothing to eat, so she has been boiling a mixture of weeds and roots of flowering ferns. They have been eating this concoction three times a day.” A report from the Sahel in the 1970s or Brittany in the seventeenth century would, apart from botanical variations, not read very differently from this diary entry from Hokkaido in 1934. The contrast that counts here is not between the cultural or other differences between the stricken regions, but between Hokkaido and Maine in 1934, or—more strikingly—between Hokkaido in 1934 and Hokkaido forty years later. What justifiably impresses the reader is the sheer depth of poverty in which so many (rural) Japanese lived as late as the 1930s; or alternatively, the sheer speed of material improvement since then. Yet both facts raise problems about the specificity of the Japanese experience. It is not quite enough to write a book showing the Japanese to have been poor like so many others, maybe even poorer.

There is another, and more illuminating, level of analysis which also lets the cultural, historical, and other differences between countries recede into the background. Logically, structurally similar situations, with men and women who come to terms with them by the same mechanisms of thinking and imagination, may produce behavior which is substantially the same from China to Peru. Reading Hane’s book one is constantly struck by such cross-cultural parallels—or rather such parallels virtually independent of local culture.

Some are based on material imperatives.

Farmers must have children. Three children are not enough…. If a farmer has too few children, the world will close in on him. If he has too many, he will have trouble supporting them, but there must be at least five working hands in the family.

The logic of this argument would be accepted everywhere on certain kinds of small family farms—I have heard it on small pioneer holdings in the Argentinean Chaco—though peasant strategies to deal with the situation may differ. It is quite irrelevant that Hane’s witness wears a kimono.

Other parallels may be based on what might be called a general human structuring of the cosmic order. The response of one peasant, “A famine like this shows that the end of the world is at hand,” is in no significant sense Japanese, any more than the belief of peasants that the Meiji Restoration would lead the government to decree the cancellation of debts and the redistribution of the land in equal shares. What else ought (and therefore “would”) a major revolution in the social order produce for peasants? Every historian is familiar with such waves of countryside rumor at historically appropriate times.

Yet other similarities may perhaps reflect both such general human structural patterns and more specific parallels between the Japanese and some other societies. Both Japan and preindustrial Europe contain mild versions of caste structure, generally neglected by historians, by which certain occupations are classified as outcaste on the grounds of their “impurity.” (The inferiority of women is also usually justified on such grounds.) As Hane’s chapter on the burakumin shows, these “polluted” occupations are very much the same in Japan as in Europe: those dealing with materials derived from dead animals (e.g., skin and leather), sweepers, certain entertainers and occupational vagrants—but also low-level policemen, prison guards, and executioners. There is little in this chapter that would surprise such historians as Professor Bronislaw Geremek, the well-known expert on the history of late medieval marginality in Europe who is now interned in Poland for his activities in Solidarity.

In short, a great deal of what Mikiso Hane writes about is not particularly Japanese. It is extremely instructive to see this demonstrated at some length. Nevertheless, at some stage of the analysis it becomes essential to discover what is specifically and irreplaceably “Japanese” about the destiny of the Japanese poor between 1868 and 1941. Since the author does not seem clearly aware of the problem, and the reviewer knows too little about Japan, one can only make some tentative guesses. However, a reading of this book suggests at least two distinctive aspects of Japanese culture.

The first, and most tragic, concerns the situation of Japanese women. It seems clear that both Japan’s rulers and the Japanese poor tried to solve their problems largely at the expense of one sex. Japanese capitalism got from it armies of ultra-cheap girl workers, obedient in their disciplined factories and dormitories to parents through bosses, and a rural work force of women crippled by heavy farm labor, which allowed the men to migrate to city jobs and to man the armies that conquered its colonies in the name of the emperor. “A peasant woman lay on a bed like a turtle turned upside down, because her back was so bent that her hands and feet failed to touch the bed.” That is how a doctor told city women from country women.

For the poor, girls were capital assets which could be realized by systematic sale as prostitutes or by leasing them to the new textile factories. It is difficult to believe that societies not so deeply devoted to enslaving and devaluing women would have developed such practices as systematically as Japan. One might also guess that birth control by infanticide—which survived the Meiji Restoration in rural areas, often for a long time—reflects the extraordinary submission of Japanese women. For they did not get used to killing their children. “Of course, I feel love and compassion for the babies I sent back,” said an old woman. “I know that I will go to hell when I die. I have a feeling the babies are there, too. When I die I want to go to hell so that I can protect them as best I can.” It is impossible to believe that such women, if left to themselves, would not have devised other ways of controlling family size.

It is thus not surprising that the most heart-rending of the testimonies collected by Hane come from women and are about women. If there is a single text that alone makes his book worth reading, it is the account of the fate of a country woman encountered in prison by a Marxist woman labor organizer during the war. The “nonfiction novelette” describing her is called “Bog Rhubarb Shoots.” It is hard to believe that the undoubted improvement of life for the factory girls, and perhaps even for many of the prostitutes, outweighs the suffering of their sisters in the countryside. All the more so since the only life to which the factories and brothels were preferable was the appalling misery of the village.

The second specifically Japanese characteristic of this social transformation may have been the unusually dense and stable structure of a system of hierarchic social relations. For in spite of the title of Hane’s book, there are few “rebels” in it, and, after the 1870s, few rebellions of any size except the famous “rice riots” of 1918. Such rebels as occur are mostly devoted and heroic Marxist city intellectuals and untypical groups of outsiders, such as Christians. One of the few detailed accounts of a labor conflict in the book emphasizes the exceptional character of this sort of struggle, in view of the—still familiar—Japanese abhorrence for open confrontations, “the ethos…[which] favored settling disputes through mediation and conciliation” rather than direct adversary postures. In short, all the devices for welding inferiors and superiors together into a social whole with which all members identified—to the enormous benefit of the superiors—and to whose cohesion all felt themselves committed.

That a passionate militarist nationalism and emperor-worship were consciously used to encourage this cohesiveness seems clear. How and why they succeeded at the grass roots is less so. It is one of the problems the author recognizes, while being unable to solve it. How did the Japanese peasants excluded for centuries from the privilege of arms and unenthusiastic about soldiering turn so rapidly into the patriotic warriors of the twentieth century? How did a generation brought up when shogun and daimyo were the authorities to be respected develop reverence for the hitherto insignificant emperor?

The melancholy conclusion to be derived from this book is that the Japanese poor were socially more passive, and therefore probably poorer, than they might have been because of the historical peculiarities of their country and culture, and the rulers of Japan therefore had an easier run for their money than their opposite numbers in the West. They could rely on that rarest of combinations, a very cheap as well as very skilled labor force, on men whose aggressiveness could be directed outward, on women whose expectation was some kind of slavery. Still, there were Japanese who were outraged by what they saw happening to their people. The Japan of the historic period that Mikiso Hane surveys was one of the few nations in which the terms “social science” and “Marxism” became virtually interchangeable, at least in the universities. In retrospect, one can see why. One can also see why those who harbored “dangerous thoughts,” in or out of the emperor’s jails, remained an isolated, if admirable, minority.

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