- Mabiki: Infanticide and Population Growth in Eastern Japan, 1660–1950 by Fabian Drixler
Fabian Drixler has written a book that is at once structured around sophisticated analytics, packed with thoughtful interpretations, and polished off with questions that extend beyond the confines of Japanese history to challenge long-held assessments about worldwide demographic trends. For a volume as richly textured as Mabiki: Infanticide and Population Growth in Eastern Japan, 1660–1950, it is difficult to concisely sum up the full range of the author’s findings, and surely different readers will wish to highlight various aspects of this work. For me, however, the core analytical thread wove itself around Drixler’s efforts to map population growth in the region he labels “Eastern Japan” over nearly three centuries of time, on one axis, [End Page 383] against the practice of infanticide, on the other. His chief conclusions begin with the notion that the life practices of ordinary people in Eastern Japan touched off a “demographic revolution” during the eighteenth century as many parents decided to “kill some of their newborns” (p. 2). In contrast, the decades after 1868 witnessed a stunning decline in infanticide, resulting in an abrupt jump in the population of Eastern Japan (which doubled between the 1870s and the 1930s), and the legalization of abortion in 1949 brought a close to the practice of terminating the lives of the newly born, subsequently unleashing one of the most rapid fertility declines in world history.
So, what is noteworthy about Drixler’s findings? Several things, as it turns out. First of all, Mabiki appreciably expands our understanding of family limitation practices in Japan during the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries by gently, but firmly, challenging some current interpretations. The author carefully, and fairly, outlines the chief contentions in the existing corpus of scholarly literature on Japan, yet in the end concludes that whereas most researchers assume a two per cent “thinning of the rice seedlings” rate, his data suggest that the proportion of infanticides and abortions reached closer to 40 per cent in Eastern Japan in the decades when they were most frequent. The consequence was a much steeper decline in population levels in the mid- to late Tokugawa era than was previously suspected. In addition, in chapters 3 through 7, Drixler delves deeply into the cultural reasons that motivated parents to do away with their young. In doing so, he generates new insights about how parents viewed the newly born as “liminal beings” rather than as full-fledged humans; how they defined the relationship between household size and multigenerational, stem-family prosperity in a way that was accountable not just to the economic well-being of present and future generations but also was responsive to the obligation to promote a “serene” afterlife for ancestral deities; and about how they devised rationales and protocols to assist themselves in identifying promising newborns who deserved to live and others who were destined for “thinning.”
Drixler also is concerned with discovering how his findings for Eastern Japan align with broader, universal conceptualizations about the premodern-to-modern demographic transition. In his gloss, the generally accepted mode of thought (the so-called Demographic Transition Theory, or DTT, which Drixler traces to the work of the American demographer Warren Thompson in 1929 and reaffirms with references to contemporary reports published by agencies of the United Nations) holds that high fertility rates predominate in premodern and agricultural societies since life expectancy for infants is fragile. Then, in the “transition to modernity” period, populations grow rapidly as parents continue to rear multiple children even as “modern” improvements in sanitation, nutrition, medicine, and so forth reduce juvenile death rates. Finally, family planning and a desire to enjoy [End Page 384] a life rich in opportunities drive down birth rates and lead to population equilibrium.
Drixler’s findings confound this general proposition. In Eastern Japan, premodern fertility rates were relatively low; indeed, in the eighteenth century, commoners in Eastern Japan commonly “thinned” so many newborns...