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Reviewed by:
  • Popular Literacy in Early Modern Japan
  • Luke Roberts
Popular Literacy in Early Modern Japan. By Richard Rubinger. University of Hawai'i Press, 2007. xii + 238 pages. Hardcover $54.00; softcover $24.00.

This is a book as much interested in illiteracy as in literacy in early modern Japan. To readers used to narratives that focus just on literacy—usually a cheerful story when the context is early modern Japan—Rubinger may seem to be a bit of a wet blanket to put so much energy into investigating the illiteracy side of the equation. Yet thanks to his efforts we see more clearly the conditions of literacy attainment and its effects, including the power relations inherent in literacy's use. In addition to presenting his own findings, Rubinger brings the reader up to date on a great range of Japanese research about literacy and schooling as well as on English-language research bearing, usually more obliquely, on the topic. Altogether the book is a valuable contribution.

Rubinger makes a number of interesting arguments. He shows with multiple and diverse examples that literacy varied tremendously according to region in the seventeenth century and continued to do so into the twentieth century. Only sometime in the early 1900s, after decades of improvement in the national education system, did regional differences decline significantly. Some of the conditions influencing regional literacy rates are familiar from earlier research: highly commercialized regions, especially cities, tended to have higher literacy than less commercialized and less urban regions. Several findings concerning gender surprised me, however. That throughout Japan women had lower literacy rates than men was expected, but I did not anticipate the extreme disparity between men and women within low literacy regions. The gender distinctions in school attendance show extraordinary variation. In urban areas females attended schools at rates not far below those of males, whereas in the least commercialized rural regions the rate might be 1:20 (p. 134). The disparity may be related to the fact that in the less economically developed regions literacy was valued mainly for administrative rather than commercial purposes, and opportunities for women in administration were almost nil.

Rubinger provides evidence of the more general rule that those with power tend to have greater literacy. The forms of power are various and are related to politics, economics, and gender. In chapter 1 Rubinger emphasizes the role of political power in shaping patterns of literacy. He reminds us that the removal of most samurai to cities at the start of the early modern period and the consequent patterns of village self-administration were key to the spread of literacy among elites in seventeenth-century rural areas. To carry out their administrative duties, village headmen and other officials needed a high degree of literacy, which also gave them control over taxation and legal issues within villages. The immediate power provided by administrative literacy must have been an incentive for all villagers who could do so to invest time in acquiring such skills. Rubinger introduces a number of suits by nonheadmen villagers that attest that these villagers valued literacy so as to check the tax records prepared by the village headman and keep him honest. He notes how, at a higher level of hierarchy, villagers used the power of reading and writing to challenge the abuses of feudal governments. In later chapters he shows that wealthy villagers and feudal authorities fought back by opening schools and using texts that taught everyone the joys of filial piety and obedience. [End Page 488]

Literacy was closely intertwined with commercial activity. Where commerce flourished so did literacy, and because commerce was much less gender restricted than administration, female literacy rates approached male rates. As commercial networks increased throughout the islands, so did literacy. In chapter 5, for instance, Rubinger shows that farmer producers of market goods valued literacy for its usefulness in keeping accounts, transmitting production skills, and enhancing their ability to manage commercial transactions to their own advantage.

In this way Rubinger demonstrates that one's social and economic position was an important factor in determining who became literate, but literacy also empowered those who acquired it and facilitated the assertion of interests. Within village...


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pp. 488-490
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