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  • Mabiki: Infanticide and Population Growth in Eastern Japan, 1660–1950 by Fabian Drixler
  • Luke S. Roberts
Mabiki: Infanticide and Population Growth in Eastern Japan, 1660–1950. By Fabian Drixler (Berkeley, University of California Press, 2013) 439 pp. $75.00

Mabiki, the Japanese title of this book, literally means thinning or pruning. It is a euphemism for abortion and infanticide, the implication being that if a family does not have too many children, it can provide better care for those that it raises. Infanticide immediately after birth was surprisingly [End Page 567] common practice in large parts of Japan during most of the period under study, but it aroused a powerful moral debate. After a period of slow decline beginning at the end of the eighteenth century, it underwent a rapid decline during the early twentieth century, resulting in increased family sizes in those regions.

This book looks at the statistical realities and cultures of infanticide within Japan from the mid-seventeenth century to the mid-twentieth century. In addition to a geographically and temporally precise statistical analysis of the evidence available from Japan’s extraordinary surviving population records, Drixler also studies the beliefs and economic factors that made the practice common in parts of Japan. In subsequent chapters, he also looks at the beliefs and activities of people opposed to infanticide and abortion, the activities of certain feudal governments to prevent infanticide, the rapid changes in the terms of debate following the revolution of 1868, and the surprising persistence of infanticide in some areas well into the twentieth century. Drixler primarily uses the statistical approaches of historical demography (in particular, the own-children method) to infer trends in infanticide, skillfully integrating a sensitive and perceptive cultural history of ideas and debates. Each method sheds light on the facts of the other; together, they enable discoveries of great import not only to Japanese history but also to demographic history in general.

One surprising finding challenges prevailing demographic transition theory by showing how an increase in state capacity, literacy, and regional integration went hand in hand with an increase in family size rather than the predicted decrease. This reverse fertility transition is best understood by changes in beliefs about family and society that occurred in Japan, indicating that population theorists need to take culture into account. Conversely, Drixler’s statistical approach reveals a surprising persistence of infanticide into the early twentieth century in some parts of Japan despite the fact that the topic almost disappeared from public discourse. The culture of silence led to the impression that infanticide was a phenomenon of the feudal world but not one of the modern national period. Drixler shows that vocal and active movements against the practice in certain jurisdictions of the feudal premodern period helped to lower infanticide rates locally, but other areas were largely unaffected. The early twentieth-century decline happened for reasons other than concerted government or social intervention.

This complex and immensely valuable book is certainly essential reading for historians of Japan. However, because Drixler presents many of his statistical conclusions in numerous useful maps, tables, and diagrams, with extensive documentation of his sources and methodology, historical demographers of other places and times will find the book informative as well. [End Page 568]

Luke S. Roberts
University of California, Santa Barbara


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