Benevolence, Charity, and Duty: Urban Relief and Domain Society during the Tenmei Famine
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Benevolence, Charity, and Duty
Urban Relief and Domain Society during the Tenmei Famine

In the fifth lunar month of 1783, the people of Ōno 大野 were startled by a roll of thunder that returned over several weeks and reminded them of giant drums or cannon shots.1 The source of this menacing noise was Mt. Asama 浅間, a large volcano in neighboring Shinano 信濃 province, which subsequently erupted later in the summer. A small domain set within the mountainous hinterland of Echizen 越前 province, Ōno was too far away to be directly affected by the eruption, but the noise proved an unlucky omen nonetheless. In 1783, after a cold and rainy summer, the peasants of the Ōno plain suffered what they called a “crop failure” (fusaku 不作). This came in the wake of a meager harvest the previous year and was followed by two more years of dearth in 1784/85 and 1786/87.2 Ōno, together with many other parts of eastern and central Japan, had entered one of the worst and longest food crises of the Tokugawa period: the Tenmei 天明 Famine.3 [End Page 55]

This article discusses how Ōno’s domain authorities and the people of the castle town (also known as Ōno) organized hunger relief for the town’s commoner population during the Tenmei Famine. Relief institutions for townspeople in Tokugawa Japan differed from those for villagers because governments were particularly eager to prevent unrest around their seats of power, and because towns were centers of commerce and home to a very diverse mix of nonagricultural livelihoods. Most previous research on urban famine relief has focused on the “three capitals,” Edo, Osaka, and Kyoto.4 Consideration of the situation in Ōno adds a new dimension to such studies by exploring how different schemes of hunger aid were managed, funded, and modified in a much smaller setting. The article argues that famine relief in Ōno was structured by the local social order, especially the roles assumed by urban status groups, which served as a coordinating framework for charitable interactions. As such it also addresses the question of what relief activities reveal about society and domain rule in a small castle town in the late Tokugawa period.

The shogunate and domain lords administered their territories by relying on the self-governing capacities of groups such as peasant villages, neighborhoods (which were largely occupation based), guilds, and fraternities of various kinds. Although the warrior authorities expected these groups to submit to their control and could impose their will by force if necessary, they also allowed such entities autonomy in many situations and secured their allegiance by granting them privileges and protection. In return, status groups provided the rulers with duties in the form of goods and services that reflected their particular expertise. Famine relief was shaped by this style of governance, which relied on powerful bonds of mutual obligation and group cohesion. Much of what may at first appear like individual acts of charity actually hinged on the givers’ status ties with the authorities, while the government exercised “benevolent rule” by relying on the contributions of commoners. Commoner and seigneurial interventions in hunger relief were closely intertwined and cannot be understood in isolation from one another. [End Page 56]

Two types of status entities stand out as particularly relevant for urban famine relief in Ōno and elsewhere: neighborhoods (chō 町) and various forms of guilds (nakama 仲間). Chō were small, self-governing units of house-owning townspeople through which warrior governments exercised their rule over the town population. They typically comprised the two rows of houses on either side of a block-long street section. Mutual help, including assistance to needy neighbors or tenants, is often identified as one of two major responsibilities of the chō, and especially the five-household groups within them—the second being mutual supervision and control.5 By comparison, the involvement in famine relief of other officially recognized groups in Tokugawa society, such as guilds, has not received much scholarly attention. In Ōno, the sake brewer guild, the purveyor guild, and the beggar guild (a group of mendicant outcastes) all played important roles in the organization and funding of town-wide systems of relief. Their participation in these...