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  • Everyday Things in Premodern Japan: The Hidden Legacy of Material Culture *
  • David J. Jeremy (bio)
Everyday Things in Premodern Japan: The Hidden Legacy of Material Culture. By Susan B. Hanley. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997. Pp. xiv+213; illustrations, tables, notes, glossary, index. $35.

At a time when rising wealth appears to bring rising ill-health, this fascinating volume challenging conventional notions about the standard of living will have a wide appeal. It bridges cultures (Japanese and Western), impinges upon a number of specialties, and bears on big issues. Susan Hanley, a professor of Japanese history, approaches everyday things in premodern Japan not as a museum curator interested in the artifacts as aesthetic or functional objects but as a demographer seeking evidence about the standard of living, which she begins by redefining.

She unexceptionably agrees that quantitative data are insufficient to plot standards of living. Real per capita gross domestic product is not the only indicator of living standards. Beyond income is Amartya Sen’s “quality of life,” comprising elements such as life expectancy, health care, education, work patterns, freedoms, and relationships. Confronted with the imperfect historical evidence on Tokugawa Japan (1600–1868), Hanley suggests that “the level of physical well-being” is the measure historians should use. She defines this as “the standard of living plus ‘quality factors’ that can be positive or negative” (p. 10). Assuming that a society’s income is rising and wealth is reaching the lowest as well as the highest level of that society, what determines physical well-being is the net effect of the positive and negative quality factors. This net effect will differ from one society to another. Thus in one society rising incomes may lead to more healthy dwellings, clothing, diet, and family economy and reproduction arrangements. In another, rising incomes may result in the reverse. The first society therefore may enjoy a higher level of physical well-being than the second. This is a large hypothesis, and Hanley sets out to investigate what happened in Japan during its two-and-a-half centuries of stasis prior to the Meiji Revolution (1868) and the high speed modernization that followed.

In turn Hanley examines the physical and documentary evidence (thus far produced by specialist studies) relating to Japanese housing and furnishings, food and clothing, bathing, urban sanitation, personal hygiene, life expectancy, family structures, and birth control. She examines the impact of the transition to modern society (after 1868) on these quality factors and then concludes the volume with a chapter comparing Japan to Europe and the United States.

What are her main conclusions? Remarkably, and probably controversially, she finds that Tokugawa Japan witnessed shifts in the main quality factors that improved the level of physical well-being beyond that experienced by Western societies. With housing, for example, commoners’ houses [End Page 122] were increasingly built with foundation stones and wooden walls and, later, wooden floors. Tatami matting was adopted. Living space was separated from work space. All this improved the health of occupants by diminishing damp, reducing drafts, increasing warmth, and minimizing vermin. Consequently, housing in premodern Japan seems more healthy than that endured by Europe’s nineteenth-century slum dwellers.

A second conclusion emphasized by Hanley is that Japan’s preindustrial quality factors evidenced resource efficiency. Given their shortage of land it is not surprising that the Japanese pursued technological alternatives that saved resources. “The two traditions, movable furniture and sitting on the floor, enabled the Japanese to develop lifestyles that even at their more luxurious were resource-saving” (p. 58). Another example: in Osaka night soil was efficiently and (for the citizens of Osaka) healthily removed by the inhabitants of surrounding farm villages to be used as fertilizer. Rights to fecal matter belonged to the owners, not the occupants, of buildings in Osaka. Similar use of human excreta occurred in nineteenth-century Britain, but it was discontinued as being unhealthy for the inhabitants of the countryside.

All this is intriguing, sometimes surprising, particularly the picture of positive ratings for all the quality factors in Japan. However, I was left with a number of questions. Are the examples cited typical of the wider situation in premodern Japan? Does...

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