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Infanticide and Population Growth in Eastern Japan, 1660-1950

Fabian Drixler

Publication Year: 2013

This book tells the story of a society reversing deeply held worldviews and revolutionizing its demography. In parts of eighteenth-century Japan, couples raised only two or three children. As villages shrank and domain headcounts dwindled, posters of child-murdering she-devils began to appear, and governments offered to pay their subjects to have more children. In these pages, the long conflict over the meaning of infanticide comes to life once again. Those who killed babies saw themselves as responsible parents to their chosen children. Those who opposed infanticide redrew the boundaries of humanity so as to encompass newborn infants and exclude those who would not raise them. In Eastern Japan, the focus of this book, population growth resumed in the nineteenth century. According to its village registers, more and more parents reared all their children. Others persisted in the old ways, leaving traces of hundreds of thousands of infanticides in the statistics of the modern Japanese state. Nonetheless, by 1925, total fertility rates approached six children per women in the very lands where raising four had once been considered profligate. This reverse fertility transition suggests that the demographic history of the world is more interesting than paradigms of unidirectional change would have us believe, and that the future of fertility and population growth may yet hold many surprises.

Published by: University of California Press

Series: Asia: Local Studies / Global Themes

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. iii-v


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pp. vii-ix


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pp. x-xii

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pp. xii-xvi

At the beginning of this project, I knew little of the hypnotic power of documents and databases. I also had no notion of the many debts I would incur. It is a pleasure to acknowledge some of them here. During my doctoral years at Harvard, Andrew Gordon formed my sensibilities, catalyzed my ideas, and encouraged my conceptual ambitions. Henrietta Harrison energized me in long ...

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p. xvii-xvii

Until 1872, all dates are given in the Japanese lunar calendar, with Common Era (c.e.) years understood to last from the beginning of the roughly corresponding Japanese names are given family name fi rst, other than where English publica-tions by Japanese authors reverse the order. Individuals who are known under a range of diff erent personal names appear consistently under the name that is most ...

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1. Introduction

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pp. 1-22

Deep in the mountains of Gunma, a chapel stands amid cedars and forest flowers. Under its eaves, a wooden tablet has slowly surrendered its paint to two hundred years of wind and rain. Yet when the light falls from the right angle, the eroded image still calls out its warning to travelers: It is early spring. The branches of a plum tree are still bare. In an open pavilion, a woman has just given birth. Next to ...

PART ONE. The Culture of Low Fertility,ca. 1660–1790

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2. Three Cultures of Family Planning

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pp. 25-46

Sometime in the early eighteenth century, a merchant named Shinbei traveled toward the great shrine of Itsukushima near Hiroshima. One evening as he was settling down at an inn, another guest suddenly rushed out. Puzzled, Shinbei turned to a pilgrim at his side. Could it be that there were robbers among the travelers? “In the lodging that we share, an odious thing has happened,” the man ...

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3. Humans, Animals, and Newborn Children

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pp. 47-60

When Arai Nobuaki, a childrearing commissioner in Sendai domain, toured the villages of his quadrant to lecture against infanticide, he was intrigued to fi nd the countryside dotted with stelae dedicated to silkworms.1 In response to his inquiry, the locals explained that “when you boil silkworms to [harvest their] thread, you ...

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4. Infanticide and Immortality

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pp. 61-68

In the years around 1680, a population explosion caused consternation in many parts of Japan.1 Some governments encouraged emigration to rid their lands of unwanted mouths, and others closed their borders to laborers from elsewhere.2 Throughout the archipelago, village assemblies and rulers issued laws restricting marriages and partible inheritance. One of these laws was the 1677 decree of Sendai ...

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5. The Material and Moral Economy of Infanticide

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pp. 69-90

In the last two chapters, we have seen why the barriers to infanticide were relatively low and how killing newborns could be justified as benefi ting the household’s dead, living, and future members. The latter argument rested in part on the logic of the stem family, but was also rooted in a particular view of the costs and benefits of childrearing. This chapter examines four material contexts for ...

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6. The Logic of Infant Selection

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pp. 91-108

A woman who followed Eastern Japan’s fertility norm and raised only three children would still, on average, give birth about six times.1 As couples faced the decision of which newborns to keep and which to discard, they could draw on an elaborate system of evaluating the promise of each child. The needs of the household played an important role, but so did a cosmology that understood time as ...

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7. The Ghosts of Missing Children

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pp. 109-125

The preceding chapters have explored the understandings of human life, family, responsibility, and time that permitted, motivated, and patterned infanticide. This short chapter attempts to quantify its frequency through four different approaches. The first of these consults the reports of contemporary observers who stated clearly what proportions of infants were killed at birth. The other ...

PART TWO. Redefining Reproduction

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8. Infanticide and Extinction

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pp. 129-137

In the 1820s, the villagers of Aoki in Hitachi’s Makabe district chiseled the names of extinct households onto a large rock. In this village of 39 remaining households, their number came to 59.1 For more than a century, the logic of Funerary Buddhism and the stem family had held out the promise of achieving immortality with a little help from infanticide (see Chapter 4). The extinction of so many family ...

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9. “Inferior Even to Animals”

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pp. 138-157

In the early winter of 1857, a group of fourteen men celebrated the completion of a hundred-temple circuit by dedicating a votive tablet. Fashioned from six wooden boards, this ema shows a young woman clad in layered robes of red and green. Still wearing the sweatband typical of women giving birth, she smothers a child on a reed mat. Diagonally above, she and the dying child appear once again. Her skin, ...

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10. Subsidies and Surveillance

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pp. 158-182

For all the passion their creators poured into them, pamphlets and paintings were relatively cheap. The perceived urgency of fighting infanticide is more impressively evinced by the prodigious resources that governments and individuals poured into far costlier countermeasures. If moral suasion redrew the boundaries of humanity and argued that infanticide was not compatible with a pleasant afterlife, childrearing ...

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11. Even a Strong Castle Cannot Be Defended without Soldiers

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pp. 183-193

In the culture of infanticide, reproductive restraint was a mark of responsibility toward others. As we have seen, it was considered the prudent alternative to “afflicting six children with hunger and cold” or to “selling them in the spring of their sixth or seventh year.”1 Thinning out children was an act of filial piety for those who “struggled to nourish their parents.”2 Even where a fourth or fifth child ...

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12. Infanticide and the Geography of Civilization

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pp. 194-207

In 1794, Hara Nan’yō, personal physician to the lord of Mito, sent his newest book manuscript to Fujita Yūkoku. Fujita was young enough to be Hara’s child, but his actual parentage was far less illustrious. Th e second son of a used-clothes seller in Mito’s castletown, he had shown such prodigious promise as a scholar that at the age of eighteen he was raised to the rank of a warrior and made an editor on Mito’s ...

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13. Epilogue

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pp. 208-231

The final chapter of habitual infanticide in Japan makes for a story full of surprises and contradictions. After the Meiji Restoration of 1868, infanticide briefly stood at the center of attention but then largely dropped from view. Abortion was designated a crime, but annual convictions remained in the hundreds at a time when late-term abortions and infanticides alone numbered in the tens of thousands. Imperial Japan ...

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14. Conclusion

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pp. 232-243

Eastern Japan’s culture of infanticide lasted longer than the modern reproductive system of reliable contraceptives and safe abortions has so far endured in any part of the world. In some areas, it spanned more than two centuries, assuming its distinctive characteristics in the late seventeenth century and persisting into the age of cinema and motorcars. Infanticide was rooted in the most fundamental ...

APPENDIX ONE. The Own-Children Method and Its Mortality Assumptions

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pp. 245-252

APPENDIX TWO. Sampling Biases, Sources of Error,and the Characteristics of the Ten Provinces Dataset

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pp. 253-260

APPENDIX THREE. The Villages in the Ten Provinces Dataset

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pp. 261-275


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pp. 276-280

APPENDIX FIVE. Regional Infanticide Reputations,According to Contemporary Statements

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pp. 281-284

APPENDIX SIX. Scrolls and Votive Tablets with Infanticide Scenes

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pp. 285-286

APPENDIX SEVEN. Childrearing Subsidies and Pregnancy Surveillance by Domain

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pp. 287-288


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pp. 289-352


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pp. 353-395


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pp. 397-417

E-ISBN-13: 9780520953611
Print-ISBN-13: 9780520272439

Page Count: 439
Publication Year: 2013

Series Title: Asia: Local Studies / Global Themes