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  • Introduction to the Hinin Taiheiki: The Paupers’ Chronicle of Peace
  • Kyoko Selden

In the Edo period, famines occurred frequently, imposing disaster. Major famines occurred in roughly thirty to forty or fifty to sixty year cycles, with minor famines interspersed. Typically in Kansai (western Japan), the direct cause was drought, while in Tōhoku (north eastern Japan) it was cold, but floods could also wreak havoc in many areas. Famine was also the product of the political and social system.

Two severe famines occurred during the Enpō (1673-81) and Ten’na (1681-83) eras, although neither is ranked among the four or five major disasters of the Edo period (1603-1868). Repeated storms and floods in the summer and fall of the second year of Enpō (1674) led to a nationwide disaster known as the Enpō Famine. Just six years later, in the eighth year of Enpō (1680), inclement weather caused crop failures in many provinces, and in the spring of the ninth year of Enpō (1681, renamed first year of Ten’na on the 29th of the ninth month), starvation spread across western Japan. The weather was unfavorable in 1682, raising the price of rice and leading to mass starvation in western provinces. Known as the Ten’na Famine, this disaster lasted well into the early summer of the following year. In Kyoto and surrounding provinces, epidemic diseases raged.

By the early seventeenth century, the kamai system of compulsory shipping rice (and often soy beans) to sell to large cities had been imposed. Rice was measured by koku or hyō. One koku, 1,000 Japanese cups or approximately 180 liters, was said to be the amount that fed one person per year. One hyō, a straw bagful, was 0.35 to 0.4 koku. Among fiefdoms in northern Japan in the 1650s, Sendai was already shipping 150,000 to 160,000 koku of rice. In the 1670s, Hirosaki shipped approximately 25,000 koku to Kansai alone, and in 1670 Akita sent 11,000 bags to Osaka.1 This meant that following a bad crop, there was no rice at home, and the price jumped in cities. It was impossible to buy rice from nearby provinces, as each attempted to secure its own provisions by kokudome, prohibiting shipment of grain to other domains.2 Occasionally, rice was [End Page 26] borrowed from the shogunate, but it typically arrived too late or not at all, due to shipwreck or plunder. Even if monetary payments were made to facilitate such borrowings, there was no guarantee that rice would be included in the delivery.

The government responded with a few measures, including relief and restrictions on processed foods and rice storage. If a boat carrying rice was shipwrecked, it was to be helped; plunder was to be reported.3 Stockpiling rice during times of famine was forbidden and distribution of rice gruel was encouraged.4

The Enpō 9 (or Ten’na 1, 1681) section of the Jōken’in zō daishōkokukō jikki (Factual Account of Shogunal Lord Tsunayoshi Who, in Death Was Given the Title of Grand Minister) volumes of the Tokugawa jikki (Record of True Events of the Tokugawa Period)5 notes that the three bugyō (magistrates) and ōmetsuke (government inspectors) were summoned before the shogun and told that each should organize relief activities for their localities because “the peasants were reportedly experiencing hardships due to frequent rain storms” the previous year.6 In En’pō 8 (1680), the shogunate issued a directive that sake brewing be reduced to half that of the previous year and sake not be sold until the second month of the following year.7 A directive the following year ordered that sake brewing in all provinces be reduced to half of the previous year until the following fall.8

Because of the kaimai system, large cities had an abundance of rice, even in times of famine. Consequently, large numbers of people left their farms and drifted to Edo, Osaka, and Kyoto. These refugees were called kinin (飢人, also pronounced uenin), the starved, or komokamuri (薦被, literally “mat-wearers,” because beggars often dressed in mats). Together, they constituted a class of hinin (非人also written 貧人 and 疲人), or paupers. (They were...