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  • Mabiki. Infanticide and Population Growth in Eastern Japan: 1660-1950 by Fabian Franz Drixler
  • Lionel Kesztenbaum
Fabian Franz Drixler, Mabiki. Infanticide and Population Growth in Eastern Japan: 1660-1950, Berkeley, University of California Press, 2013, XVII+417 p.

Demographers are the first to understand that populations are social constructions, but just how societies invent and control (categorize, etc.) their populations, and above all how these processes change over time, are questions that have not yet been thoroughly answered. The idea (or model) of a near-linear demographic transition involving a shift from natural, uncontrolled fertility (better yet, fertility indirectly controlled–through nuptiality, for example) to socially regulated or couple-controlled fertility is still widespread. This understanding, which posits a link between modernity and birth control, is challenged by the work in question, whose subject is a mode of population regulation seldom if ever mentioned and very rarely studied: infanticide. Fabian Franz Drixler’s book is a valuable contribution to the labour of historicizing fertility behaviours and investigating fertility control methods that has been under way for many years now in historical demography.

On the basis of considerable and remarkable archive study, it demonstrates just how frequent and ordinary infanticide was in certain regions of Japan up to the early twentieth century. It was perfectly acceptable, individually and socially, to kill babies immediately after birth, the reason being that they were not thought of as human beings. The work’s second crucial point is that population is an object shaped by cultural practices (especially religious ones), policies and discourses. This is not really new, but here we are given an extraordinary empirical demonstration of the way discourses and practices around population feed upon each other: “A feedback loop between demography and discourse goes through several cycles in this book. Demographic outcomes were shaped by understandings of life and death, security and status, obligations and community, the nature of time and the boundaries of humanity. These understandings, in turn, were challenged or favored by the demographic context of each historical moment” (p. 20).

Infanticide–discreetly designated by various metaphors–often botanical like the one in the title, Mabiki (), alluding to “uprooting” rice plant seedlings–was how births were controlled during certain periods in some regions of Japan; specifically, the northeast region of the main island Honshu, the island of Shikoku, [End Page 815] and a considerable part of the island of Kyushu. In those places in the eighteenth century, infanticide was not only the norm but virtually an obligation. Parents raising many children were perceived as irresponsible; they reproduced “like dogs” (p. 60). The originality and strength of this book lie in its use of distinct, complementary methods to quantify infanticide: accounts by contemporaries and, from late in the century, published statistics, but above all statistical analysis of several thousand population registries–and therefore several hundred thousand individuals followed throughout their lives–preserved throughout northeast Japan. Overall, half of children born were not raised. And the selection criteria went far beyond sex or immediate economic difficulties, encompassing an entire set of beliefs and astrological rules that described the right period to be born as determined by child’s hereditary rank and sex. Infanticide thus appears to have resulted from two sets of representations and situations: the material constraints of raising a child–together with the spiritual logic of family stock (the future of the line could only be assured by a single heir) and the understanding that babies belonged to a different world than humans–dictated to parents the approximate number of children they could raise, while child’s predicted sex, moment of birth, calendar, horoscope and boy-girl sequencing in the family determined which children parents would keep.

The end result of this “culture” of infanticide was a considerable drop in the population. After reaching a peak around 1700, the population of northeast Japan fell sharply. The authorities were already concerned about the phenomenon (notably because of the fall in tax revenues), but it was the great Tenmei famine of 1783, due to volcanic activity in Iceland, that marked a turning point in awareness of the problem. The author’s study of pro-birth nineteenth-century Japan, with...


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