Deference and Defiance in Nineteenth-Century Japan

Deference and Defiance in Nineteenth-Century Japan

by William Wright Kelly

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Four times in the nineteenth century, popular protest movements spread across the northern Japanese rice plain of Shonai. This study skillfully portrays the changing character of the protests, their relationship to one another, and their role in the societal transformation of Shonai first during Japan's shift from tributary polity to nation state and then from


Four times in the nineteenth century, popular protest movements spread across the northern Japanese rice plain of Shonai. This study skillfully portrays the changing character of the protests, their relationship to one another, and their role in the societal transformation of Shonai first during Japan's shift from tributary polity to nation state and then from mercantilism to capitalism.

Originally published in 1985.

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Deference and Defiance in Nineteenth-Century Japan

By William Wright Kelly


Copyright © 1985 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-09417-5


Class, Community, and Party in 19th-century Collective Protest

In the summer of 1874, a small group of ex-samurai, town merchants, large landholders, smallholding cultivators, and tenants gathered at a house in Tsurugaoka, the former castle town of Sakai Domain. Six years earlier, for much of 1868, Sakai and his retainers had remained loyal to the last Tokugawa shogun and resisted the new Restoration forces, before finally capitulating in October of that year. Initial attempts at direct administration of parts of the former domain proved too difficult for the new Meiji authorities. In late 1871, the Sakai territories — Shonai Plain and its surrounding mountains — were reconsolidated as a single prefecture, and the old domain elite was installed as the prefectural staff. It was from considerable disaffection with this restored local elite and its policies that such a disparate group secretly met in the midsummer heat. Their discussions gave rise to a radical proposal — a cultivators' shareholding company that would cooperatively market members' rice, pay their taxes, and sell them necessary supplies.

During late July and August these activitists fanned out across Shonai, explaining the plan and soliciting members at mass village assemblies. Then, after violent confrontations with prefectural troops in early September, they precipitously dropped the plan in favor of vigorous and ultimately successful popular agitations to lodge an eleven-count legal suit against the prefecture with the central authorities in Tokyo. A major demand was the reimbursement of 200,000 yen by the prefecture for illegal and excess tax levies. It was widely explained that each person would receive a share of the reimbursement monies that would fill a wappa, the local Shonai term for the shallow, round wooden container that individual cultivators used to carry their mid-day meal to the fields. This was later to give the movement its name — the Wappa Disturbances. The court hearings in 1876 coincided with the comprehensive Land Tax Reform surveys in Shonai. The court decision was at least a qualified success for the plaintiffs, and the survey produced broad reductions in the land tax burden. With this resolution, the movement dissolved.

These actions, stretching over three years, were the last of four sustained moments of popular, collective protest on this small rice plain during the 19th century. In 1840-41, an organized protest by cultivators, merchants, and domain elite had scored a rare success in reversing a direct shogunal order that would have transferred the Sakai domain lord to another fief and assigned Shonai to a notoriously harsh and impoverished family. Then in 1844, town sake brewers and residents of seventy-two villages joined in a second "anti-transfer" movement to protest the assignment to Lord Sakai of administrative responsibility for three small shogunate territories within Shonai. This time they were unsuccessful and harshly punished. The third collective protest came in 1869-71, just after the formation of the new Meiji state; the administrators it sent to the northern half of Shonai faced a series of coordinated demands for reform of taxation and local governance. Both townspeople and rural cultivators mobilized against village officers, designated merchants, and the administrators themselves. It was in the aftermath of these actions, known as the Tengu Disturbances, that the Wappa Disturbances began.

What follows is a study of these four extended moments during which large numbers of Shonai residents were moved to express their grievances and indignation. It traces in some detail the course of each movement and sifts the surviving evidence for the social composition of participants and leaders, the claims and the demands advanced, and the language and the standards by which they were justified. Moreover, these four 19th-century cases (a "complete record," as it were, from this region) are juxtaposed to permit comparison. In what ways did they share similar developmental sequences? To what degree did the Tengu and Wappa agitations of the 1870s represent a new and more intense form of protest than those thirty years earlier in the 1840s? And finally, I am seeking here to relate these periods of challenge and crisis to the broader forces transforming Shonai in the 19th century: the capitalist reorganization of the regional economy and the consolidation of the plain into a resurgent national political authority. In what manner did capitalism and nation-state formation give rise to, and give shape to, these protests? Conversely, how significant were these moments of collective action in giving direction to the particular forms of capitalist economy and state polity in Shonai by the end of the century? It is toward such questions that the study is directed.

From Wealth to Capital, from Subject to Citizen

There was at one time a history of Tokugawa Japan whose line of narrative might be glibly summarized as follows: expanding markets and commercial transactions underwrote the rise of a merchant class; in turn, this spelled the decline of the political elite, while the peasantry and the rural economy stagnated as one exploitative master replaced another. Our understanding now is quite different. We realize that a burgeoning economy did not debilitate a brittle polity. Seventeenth-century Tokugawa political theory to the contrary, there were no necessary contradictions, but rather an essential mutualism between the tributary relations of overlord and subject and the commercial activities of the merchants, with their circuits of trade in the surpluses of the tribute-takers and the producing subjects. By the mid-17th century, symbiotic ties were fashioned between large urban merchants and shogunal and certain domain authorities, and it was this nexus of the sword and the abacus that was threatened by upstarts — who turned out to be other samurai and other merchants. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, urban merchant domination of commercial activity was challenged by rural processors and traders, resulting in a competition for market control and, eventually, a "rural-centered growth" (Smith 1973). At the same time, as Bolitho (1974) has demonstrated, the balance of political power was shifting from Edo to the domains, as the domain lords came to behave less as vassals of the shogun and more as rulers of domains. Aggregate per capita output in the rural economy expanded as population stabilized, agricultural production rose, and by-employments increased. Thus, the 17th- and 18th-century collusions of the great merchant houses like the Konoike and the shogunal magistrates in Osaka and Edo yielded in the mid-19th century to the mutual dependency of such prospering rural merchants as Shibusawa Ichiro and his local Okabe Domain elders (Chambliss 1965:22-25).

Still, these were at best tendencies of the late Tokugawa. The changing personnel and the shifting political-economic center of gravity were neither uniform nor completed processes. The shogunate endured as the polity's carapace, and large urban centers continued to be the principal markets. Tokugawa society from the mid-1600s through the mid-1800s remained an interlocking mercantile economy and tributary polity.

However, this political and economic decentralization did foster some radically new arrangements, such as protoindustrial manufacturing in some countrysides, and it catalyzed severe ideological debates about the legitimacy of rule and the bases of authority. Just how serious a rupture was precipitated or how smooth a transition was accomplished in the mid- and late 19th century is a matter, we will see shortly, that fundamentally divides historians. But few will deny that by the turn of the 20th century, Japan was an interlocking capitalist economy and constitutional state, and the movement from wealth to capital and from subject to citizen were central developments of the 19th century.

I should add that my particular characterization of these developments rests on notions of "capitalism" and "nation-state" that are partisan, though neither polemical nor idiosyncratic. With Eric Wolf (1983) and others, I hold it useful to distinguish between mercantile activity, seeking profits in trade, and capitalist investment, seeking a return in production by deploying purchased labor to produce other commodities:

Wealth in the hands of holders of wealth is not capital until it controls means of production, buys labor power, and puts it to work, continuously expanding surpluses by intensifying productivity through an ever-rising curve of technological inputs. ... As long as wealth remains external to the process of production, merely skimming off the products of the primary producers and making profits by selling them, that wealth is not capital. (Wolf 1983:78-79; emphasis in original)

Merchants may, as they did for much of Japanese history, draw goods into spheres of trade without directly intervening in the production process itself. Profits become capital only when they seek to direct the means of production and reorder the relations of production. The differences are of profound social consequence, and the distinction should be crucial for non-Marxists and Marxists alike. For only this distinction can deflate that great, putative prime mover of 19th-century social change, commercialization. The tributary polity and mercantile economy was already extensively commercialized at the outset of the century. Shibusawa Ichiro, a rural sericulture promoter who appeared in Chambliss's study of Chiaraijima Village, was a rural merchant of a type common in the late Tokugawa countryside. But his son, Shibusawa Eiichi, was a capitalist, Meiji Japan's preeminent industrialist and banker (Chambliss 1965). It was a capitalist transformation of the economy, not commercial acceleration, that divided father and son. There was money before merchants, merchants before manufacture — and manufacture before capitalist manufacture.

Similarly, there were states and nations before nation-states. The formative processes of nation-states are various and complex, but I am persuaded by Reinhard Bendix that all center on a reconstitution of authority, "as the rule of kings [is] replaced by governments of the people" (1978:4). The nationalization of the state and the politicization of the nation in the last two centuries has involved a redefinition of the legitimacy of authority, from the religious sanctions of kingly rule to the exercise of authority in the name of the people. However, Bendix has cautioned, this modern shift from subject to citizen has not always brought greater popular participation in government; dictatorships and monarchies, too, have ruled "in the name of the people." Indeed, I would suggest that how far the popular mandate has entailed popular participation has depended in each instance on the particular meanings that have been attached to "accountability." In this sense, the two decades between the announcement of a nation-state in the Charter Oath of 1868 and its ratification in the Constitution of 1889 were but the intense midpoint of longer, rancorous debates on just this issue of accountability.

The 19th century in Japan marked the transition from a mercantile economy and tributary polity to a capitalist economy and constitutional polity. These are the broad terms from which I begin to look for the particular formations and mutual connections of polity and economy on the small, coastal rice plain of Shonai. They are the larger movements along which I seek to plot the actions of its inhabitants. Much social theory proposes that collective protest catalyzes novel economic and political solidarities even as it arises from new economic and political forces (Thompson 1978). What were the patterns of social solidarities and modes of action by which the people of Shonai resisted or promoted (and in either case gave shape to) the new order?

Historiographic Paradigms of 19th-Century Japan

Even if it were possible to secure agreement on the general features of Japan at 1800 and Japan at 1900, students of that century would continue to divide sharply between those who emphasize the lines of continuity between the old Tokugawa order and the new Meiji order and those who highlight the disjunctures of the century. These are fault lines of both the Japanese and Western literatures. It is not relevant here to review these debates exhaustively. However, among these competing formulations, I see several recurring models of class, community, and party as the significant vehicles and products of 19th-century change. To appreciate the forms of collective protest in Shonai, we must distill these models from the literatures.

Among Japanese scholars, these competing historiographies of continuity or crisis have generally manifested themselves as fractious, internecine debates in a Marxist idiom of class struggle, ignited by the celebrated intellectual and political schism of the 1920s and 1930s between the so-called "Lectures Faction" and the "Labor-Farmer Faction" (Kelly 1982b:7-9). A central issue in these multifaceted debates has been the nature of the Meiji Restoration. Was it a true bourgeois revolution, heralding the replacement of a feudal regime by a monopoly capitalist mode of production? Or, as the majority "Lectures Faction" thinkers insisted, were the gains of the lower samurai and petty bourgeoisie in the towns and countryside usurped by the "parasitic absentee landlords," who supplanted the feudal overlords and established a semi-feudal (han hoken) mode of production, supported by an absolutist state?

Despite the bitter polemics that have divided them, both factions have tended to write unilinear histories of the 19th-century countryside, based on the "internal differentiation of the peasantry" (nomin kaiso bunkai). Commercialization of production, the success of largeholders in marketing surpluses, the ability of village officers to advance their personal positions, and the land investments of town merchants challenged feudal arrangements with a nascent capitalist mode of production and stratified the peasantry. A common grid stratifies the 19th-century countryside into large, absentee, "parasitic landlords" (kisei jinushi); "village-resident, small landlords" (noson kojinushi); "wealthy, self-cultivating large-holders" (gono); "smallholders" (shono) with varying combinations of registered and tenanted parcels; and the "semi-proletariat" (han puro) of marginal tenants, day laborers, and miscellaneous wage workers. The relative contributions of improvements in cultivation methods, structural crises of feudalism, and harvest disasters to this stratification are hotly debated, as is its late 19th-century fate (a retreat to "semi-feudalism" or advance to agrarian capitalism?). But the most typical reading of rural protest in this century has been as a class struggle within this polarizing peasantry, increasingly between the "semi-proletariat" and the resident and non-resident landlords. Class stratification and class struggle, in Shonai (Sato 1965, Igawa 1972) as elsewhere, have largely delimited the boundaries of interpretation and debate.

This analytical framework, for example, lies behind the work of Aoki Koji, which requires mention because he is widely cited to support many propositions about the changing patterns of 18th- and 19th-century protest. Building on earlier compilations of Kokusho Iwao, Aoki has made an ambitious attempt to catalogue popular protest incidents in the Tokugawa centuries (Aoki 1966) and the Meiji decades (Aoki 1967). He has revised and folded these into a single, comprehensive chronology that names, locates, estimates numbers, and categorizes 6,889 "rebellions" and "disturbances" between 1590 and 1877 (Aoki 1971). Aoki subscribes to the common tripartite division of collective action into hyakusho ikki, murakata sodo, and toshi sodo. The first is frequently translated as "peasant uprising" (e.g., Borton 1938, Scheiner 1973:590, Bowen 1980), and refers to conflicts between peasants and their feudal overlords. These are distinguished from murakata sodo ("rural disturbances"), which were agitations within the stratified peasantry. Third, there were toshi sodo ("urban disturbances"), agitations of proletarian townspeople against rich merchants, town authorities, or feudal overlords. Very roughly, Aoki and others (e.g., Hayashi 1971:3-40) have argued that the 17th and early 18th centuries were characterized by solidary "all-peasant" risings against the feudal elite, but by the 19th century, stratification was pitting dispossessed cultivators (tenants and laborers) against the privileged elite of the towns and villages. Hyakusho ikki gave way to a preponderance of murakata sodo and toshi sodo.


Excerpted from Deference and Defiance in Nineteenth-Century Japan by William Wright Kelly. Copyright © 1985 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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