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Reviewed by:
  • Cultivating Commons: Joint Ownership of Arable Land in Early Modern Japan
  • Anne Walthall
Cultivating Commons: Joint Ownership of Arable Land in Early Modern Japan. By Philip C. Brown. University of Hawai'i Press, 2011. 318 pages. Hardcover $52.00.

In this long-awaited study that analyzes practices surrounding the collective ownership of land, Philip Brown challenges the assumptions of economists and other social scientists regarding what they see as the inherent problems with sharing ownership, and he also demonstrates that the concept of "property rights" is by no means as straightforward as it might appear. To make his case, he presents wide-ranging and detailed evidence for the various ways villages redistributed their land (warichi) across Japan between the early seventeenth century and the 1970s. This was, he admits, a minority practice, found in at most 30 percent [End Page 170] of Japan's villages, but one whose very marginality sheds new light on land use issues in an agricultural setting. Along the way he engages a variety of methodologies, from standard archival research to the use of geographical data derived from satellite positioning systems.

According to Garrett Hardin, the "tragedy of the commons" is that left to themselves, individuals will follow their own interests in exploiting collectively owned resources without regard for what might remain for their fellows. Since they make no contribution to maintaining the common good, he calls them "free riders." In his view, only private property rights guarantee the conservation of resources. Brown agrees with other social scientists that even capitalist corporations have not eliminated the problem of individuals who take advantage of others' efforts while contributing nothing of value in return, but his most direct challenge to Hardin is to demonstrate that in Japanese villages, the collective ownership of land led neither to its degradation, nor to the problem of free riders. Instead collective ownership increased sociability within the community and, in certain cases, even led to documentable altruistic behavior, as when a wealthy landlord made it possible for the poor to share cultivation rights over an island subject to flooding.

Another focus of Brown's attack is the argument made by historians of Japan that Toyotomi Hideyoshi's land surveys led to the de facto creation of private property rights for farmers. After all, if the land survey identifies the cultivator of a specific plot of land, it should give him certain rights over it. Brown points out that establishing property rights was not Hideyoshi's intention, or indeed that of any of the other warlords who carried out land surveys. Each insisted, in fact, that land was not to be bought and sold; if it was alienated, the original cultivator still had responsibility for it. Even late in the Edo period, a family forced to sell its land would assume that should its fortunes improve, it would be able to buy that land back even twenty years after the original sale and regardless of whether the new owner wanted to sell.

Perhaps the most fascinating part of the book is its survey of the range of collective landownership types found in Edo-period Japan. In some cases almost all of a village's land fell under the village's collective ownership, with the exception of residential plots, seedbeds, and vegetable plots (though even land in this last category might be subject to redistribution depending on the circumstances). In others, only a portion, either dry fields or paddies, would be redistributed. Although domain officials were most assiduous in calculating the productivity of rice paddies for tax purposes, Brown's evidence suggests that farmers cared more about dry fields, because those produced the crops they ate. Although redistribution occasionally resulted from a flood or landslide that had damaged fields, Brown has found that there was seldom a direct correlation. In some villages in Echigo, redistribution occurred every four to six years; in one village in Kaga, the interval extended up to eighty years. A village might redistribute access to dry fields one year and to paddies the next, while in other years all the arable would be redistributed at one go. Occasionally a family might hold back a field from the redistribution process...


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pp. 170-173
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