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Reviewed by:
  • Community and State in the Japanese Farm Village: Farm Tenancy Conciliation, 1924-1938
  • Simon Partner
Community and State in the Japanese Farm Village: Farm Tenancy Conciliation, 1924-1938. By Dimitri Vanoverbeke. Leuven University Press, 2004. 200 pages. Softcover €34.00.

Dimitri Vanoverbeke offers an interesting account of the creation, implementation, and effectiveness of the government-sponsored conciliation procedures implemented under the Farm Tenancy Conciliation Law of 1924. As one prong of a manifold response by concerned bureaucrats to the unfolding crisis of poverty and disaffection in the countryside, the Conciliation Law and its implementation was an important complement to the Economic Revitalization Movement of the 1930s, portrayed in Kerry Smith's case study A Time of Crisis: Japan, the Great Depression, and Rural Revitalization (Harvard University Asia Center, 2001). Vanoverbeke might also have looked to Smith's study (of which he was apparently unaware—he cites neither the book nor the 1994 thesis on which it is based) as a model of how to balance detailed case material with analysis of the complex economic, political, and philosophical background to the bureaucratic initiatives. [End Page 533]

Instead, Vanoverbeke devotes rather more than half of his book to a rambling account of three hundred years of landlord-tenant relations, which I frankly found both simplistic and confusing. The author begins by painting a rosy picture of rural society during the Tokugawa period, in which farmers enjoyed "strong government protection against potential abuse of the tenants by the landlord" (p. 31). Which government, I wonder, is Vanoverbeke referring to? The government of the shogunate, which was limited in matters of rural administration to the direct holdings of the bakufu? Or the hundreds of more or less independent daimyo and hatamoto domainal administrations, with their variety of approaches to dealing with the farming population? Vanoverbeke then uses this simplistic portrait of "traditional" rural society as a foil to contrast the depredations of the Meiji period—reduced protection of tenants' rights, impoverishment caused by the new tax system and the cash economy, and the strong pro-landlord bias of the Meiji Civil Code of 1898. But he fails to note the enormous changes that took place in rural society during the Tokugawa period; changes that caused increasing conflict within village communities and contributed to the breakdown of the Tokugawa order. Vanoverbeke would have done well to refer to Herman Ooms's study of the growth of a rural underclass during the Tokugawa period (Tokugawa Village Practice: Class, Status, Power, Law; University of California Press, 1996).

Vanoverbeke then presents an analysis of landlord-tenant relations from the Meiji period up to the escalating disputes of the 1920s. This section is confusing because, although it purports to provide background about the situation prior to 1917 (the first year in which the government kept records of tenant disputes), the last forty or so pages (pp. 64-102) of this long introductory section are actually about disputes in the 1920s and 1930s. Part 2, which is the substantive part of the study, then returns to 1921, leaving this reader quite confused about the structure of the narrative and the author's argument.

More importantly, Vanoverbeke simplifies the complex taxonomy of tenant disputes during the 1920s and 1930s in misleading ways. He claims, for example, that the fundamental cause of escalating tenant organization and protest was the breakdown of the paternalistic relationship between landlords and tenants (pp. 61-64). The assumption underlying much of Vanoverbeke's argument is that modernization resulted in tenants awakening to the oppression under which they labored. This premise is valid up to a point, but it does little justice to the subtleties of existing scholarship on tenant disputes, much of which points to the relative affluence of the most aggressive protesters of the 1920s, who were concentrated in the nation's commercial heartland and who were among the least oppressed (see Ann Waswo, Japanese Landlords: The Decline of a Rural Elite; University of California Press, 1977, p. 103).

Nor does Vanoverbeke do justice to the shift in power relations in favor of the landlord that underlay the increase in disputes during the 1930s. Far from being an escalation of organized protest, many disputes...


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