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 …

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