Graduate Student Forum

The contradictions of Japan’s pre-war economy and the problem of peasant reproduction

Friday, 26 September 2023 | 9:00 - 9:45 a.m. (JST)
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  • Joshua LINKOUS History and East Asian Language, Harvard University
  • Sawak SHIRAHASE Director of TCJS

The enactment of the Meiji land and tax reforms, with its intent to push Japan’s peasants into capitalist commodity production, marked a historic watershed by which the sphere of peasant reproduction was substantially limited and forcefully reorganized. Though the reforms were nominally national, implementation was highly uneven, and as a consequence so too were the impacts. This talk tracks the long term effects of the reforms on the Northern Tohoku region, arguing that the deepening inequality both in the region and between regions was the product of the contradiction between the government policy of forced marketization and the slow development of widespread commodity production in agriculture. Recognizing this problem, government organizations tried to stimulate the region’s economy through various measures such as the promotion of by-employments. However, this only tended to exacerbate the problem. Change in the region’s economic structure had to wait until the post-war, when it was suddenly transformed into Japan’s center of migrant labor. I suggest that the “why” of pre-war failure, especially when contrasted with post-war developments, is useful for illustrating the limits of Japan’s pre-war economy as conditioned by its highly unevenly developed industrial structure.


Joshua Linkous is a PhD student in History and East Asian Languages, focusing on the economic, environmental, and social history of nineteenth and twentieth-century Japan. His primary region of interest is northern Tohoku (Aomori, Iwate, Akita). His broader research interests include agrarian history, political ecology, labor history, marginal groups, and empire.