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Reviewed by:
  • Hard Times in the Hometown: A History of Community Survival in Modern Japan by Martin Dusinberre
  • Brian Platt (bio)
Hard Times in the Hometown: A History of Community Survival in Modern Japan. By Martin Dusinberre. University of Hawai‘i Press, Honolulu, 2012. xiv, 247 pages. $55.00.

This original, engaging book is a history of Kaminoseki, a coastal town on Japan’s Inland Sea. One can appropriately call it a work of local history, but it occupies a unique position among the various books on Japan that fit in that methodological category. Most works in that category have focused on a particular locale in order to illuminate a specific historical development—social conflict, economic development, education, and so on. More recently, historians such as Simon Partner and Gail Lee Bernstein have written local histories that take the individual or household as the unit of analysis, telling life stories in order to highlight key themes in the historiography and put a human face on the broader narrative of modern Japan.1 Dusinberre takes a different tack, however, focusing on a community as a whole and narrating its history over a long period, from the Tokugawa era to the present.

This story of “community survival,” as Dusinberre puts it in the subtitle of the book, begins with a portrait of a glorious past during the Tokugawa era. Though Kaminoseki was physically remote from the center of economic and political power at the time, Dusinberre emphasizes that it was no backwater. Due to its position as a stopping point for both Korean embassies and powerful daimyō heading to Edo on alternate attendance, it was a relatively cosmopolitan place. Moreover, for Kaminoseki the Tokugawa period was a time of economic vigor. The opening of a “western circuit” by which rice [End Page 123] from Japan’s northeastern region could be shipped to Osaka via the Inland Sea generated a range of economic opportunities for local residents. As a result, during the second half of the Tokugawa period, a growing proportion of Kaminoseki’s population turned partly or wholly to by-employments for their livelihoods—a development that, in Thomas C. Smith’s formulation,2 put the region on the cutting edge of Japan’s economic modernization. Finally, Kaminoseki was in Chōshū domain, and Dusinberre shows how the community’s ties to the anti-bakufu movement gave it a supporting role in the Meiji Restoration. Dusinberre thus positions Tokugawa-era Kaminoseki at the vanguard of a whole range of proto-modern developments.

The next section of the book, which focuses on the Tokugawa-Meiji transition in Kaminoseki, offers a pause in the narrative. Dusinberre’s emphasis in this section is on the continuity in Kaminoseki’s leadership and social structure across the early modern–modern divide. Other scholars of the Tokugawa-Meiji transition have developed this point at some length. Partner, Bernstein, and William Steele,3 for example, have tracked elite families across the nineteenth century and have examined the strategies by which they maintained their status—sometimes by taking advantage of new economic opportunities, and sometimes by investing in other forms of capital in order to make up for a decline in their economic position. Dusinberre addresses this issue as well, but his greater contribution lies in his efforts to trace out how premodern, hierarchical social networks in Kaminoseki continued to shape local life in the modern and contemporary periods. For example, he examines the kanmai festival, a centuries-old Shintō ritual in Kaminoseki, to show how political and economic leadership in the community was rooted in historical narratives and ritual practice. He also demonstrates how the relationships forged under the kabu-uchi system of shared land ownership in the Tokugawa era continued to shape patterns of local social cooperation (business ties, marriage choices, etc.) throughout the twentieth century. His points about the multistranded nature of local political authority and the persistence of hierarchical social networks will be familiar to historians, but Dusinberre’s knowledge of the people and places in Kaminoseki enables him to develop these points with remarkable specificity and richness.

As Dusinberre turns his attention to the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, he traces the persistence of these...