- Ordinary Economies in Japan: A Historical Perspective, 1750–1950
In the days before banks people without much capital had few options if they needed to raise money, whether to finance an entrepreneurial venture or see themselves through a lean season. One technique, common in many societies around the world, was for a circle of people to put up modest sums of money on a regular schedule and lend the collected funds among themselves. In Japan such circles were known as “confraternities” (kō 講). The kō were pervasive from the Tokugawa period well into the twentieth century; some forms survive even today.
Kō could serve a strictly financial function, but they often had other dimensions as well. Village women might participate in a kō less [End Page 533] for economic reasons than to socialize with their neighbors. Devotees of a particular religious site, such as the Ise Shrine or Mount Fuji, might form a kō that combined religious practice with the financing of pilgrimages by representatives of the group. Or, a group, such as the kō known as the Munakata Regular Payment of Gratitude (Munakata jōrei 宗像定禮), might act as a health insurance cooperative, dedicated to covering the cost of medicines and doctor’s visits for members in need.
The kō occupy the heart of Tetsuo Najita’s study, for they embody in practice the “ordinary economies” of the book’s title. Najita’s aim is to recover the lost history of a style of popular economic thought and practice that survived centuries of political and institutional change. Commoners, writing for other commoners, articulated these ordinary economies in readily comprehensible language, speaking for and to a world largely divorced from the realms of high intellectual discourse and official economic policy.
Najita seems to have been drawn to the kō and the broader world of ordinary economies for two reasons. The first is the way they persisted in spirit even as they were transformed in the transition from the Tokugawa period to the modern era. Sometimes, in the guise of mutual banks and insurance companies, they became part of the capitalist economy; at other times, as in the case of a neighborhood cooperative founded by a Tokyo woman during the turmoil following surrender in World War II, they survived almost as statements of protest against the human costs of capitalism. Regardless, during the process of modernization, popular economic institutions both resisted and insinuated themselves into the state. The second reason for Najita’s interest in kō—and perhaps the one most compelling to him—is the humanity and resilience he sees at the heart of the commoners’ economic thought and action. Common folk helped themselves and their neighbors, he argues, because they were unable to count on the authorities for assistance in times of need.
Najita comes to these ordinary economies through his reading of an extraordinary compilation of several dozen Tokugawa-period texts, which were published in the early twentieth century under the title Tsūzoku keizai bunko 通俗經濟文庫 (Library of ordinary economics).1 The texts, many of them lavishly illustrated, offer practical [End Page 534] advice in colloquial language to merchants and peasants. Notwithstanding obvious differences in language and presentation, Najita finds many commonalities between these popular works and the writings of men associated with the Kaitokudō 懐徳堂 merchant academy, particularly Yamagata Bantō 山片蟠桃 (1748–1821) and Kusama Naokata 草間直方 (1753–1831). (The Kaitokudō was of course the subject of Najita’s previous book, Visions of Virtue in Tokugawa Japan: The Kaitokudō Merchant Academy of Osaka.)2 Both groups of writers valorized the activities of merchants by arguing that “money was social, that it gained ‘life’ as it circulated throughout society and enhanced the flow of goods from one region to another” (p. 37).
Najita does not dwell long on the obscure texts compiled under the “ordinary economics” rubric. Rather, he examines the ways a number of other, more familiar thinkers engaged the real-life problems facing residents of agricultural communities. He discusses such figures as the agronomist and philosopher Miura Baien 三浦梅園 (1723–89); Kaiho Seiryō 海保青陵 (1755...