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  • Rice, Agriculture, and the Food Supply in Premodern Japan by Charlotte von Verschuer
  • Philip C. Brown
Rice, Agriculture, and the Food Supply in Premodern Japan. By Charlotte von Verschuer. Translated and edited by Wendy Cobcroft. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2016. 356pages. Hardcover £90.00/$145.00.

With this book, Charlotte von Verschuer has provided the first monographic treatment in English of premodern Japanese agriculture and food supply and one of the very few monographic studies in English in related subject areas since Thomas C. Smith’s monumental The Agrarian Origins of Modern Japan (Stanford University Press, 1959). Despite the global predominance of rural areas (the world population became majority urban only in 2007, according to UNESCO estimates), agriculture and agriculturalists have been relatively absent as objects of study in premodern history (especially of Japan) over the past several decades. Given Verschuer’s earlier work in English, Across the Perilous Sea: Japanese Trade with China and Korea From the Seventh to the Sixteenth Centuries (Cornell University East Asia Series, 2006), it may seem surprising that she has turned her attention to the development of premodern Japanese agriculture, but there is a connection: The transport of rice and dry-field grains from the continent into Japan (a primary focus in the current volume’s introduction), together with the reasons for some facets of continental agriculture successfully traversing the seas to Japan while others did not, constitute one significant problematic the author addresses. Further, sprinkled throughout the chapters are references to intellectual intercourse between Japan and the continent concerning agriculture. From the early years of imported cereal seeds, those associated with dry-field agriculture were better adapted to broad geographic regions of Japan and therefore, Verschuer argues, played a more significant role in the diets of ordinary people than did rice, which required special circumstances for proper cultivation, circumstances not widely present at the time of its transmission to Japan.

The key argument of this work is that reliance on direct evidence from written sources has led to both a popular cultural stress and an academic stress on the role of rice in premodern Japanese history. As discussed in the concluding chapter, this emphasis has been so strong as to result in translations of generic terms for “grain” as “rice” rather than “grain.” In contrast, Verschuer stresses a wide variety of other, non-paddy-based forms of agriculture, brought together under the term “polyculture.” [End Page 71] She makes an additional case for the continued role of foraging to supplement an ordinary diet, with foods that consisted largely of coarse grains, beans, and the like. Her examination of agriculture appears focused on farmers’ efforts to solve an array of problems in order to capitalize on local environments with the aim of maximizing caloric outputs, and she situates her findings in the context of contemporary knowledge.

The task Verschuer sets for herself is a daunting one given the silence of many ancient and medieval written historical sources on agriculture, farm management, diet, and the like—an issue the author addresses directly. Her focus on ordinary people’s livelihoods, diets, and interactions with their local environment challenges even her considerable linguistic abilities. Data of this sort was often addressed only indirectly, in documents largely recorded by ruling elites (regional or national). To address these lacunae, the author draws on literary and other sources and also employs creative strategies such as analysis of place-names and word etymology. This said, the work is thoroughly grounded in a wide array of primary sources from the premodern era. These include agricultural manuals in manuscript form from private collections, published collections of agricultural treatises, and archaeological evidence. Such sources provide extensive quotes and a basis for very detailed, sometimes highly technical analyses. Analysis in the text is bolstered extensively by the inclusion of multiple reproductions of illustrations from agricultural manuals, eight maps, more than two dozen tables, and an extensive appendix with listings (including kanji) of edible and industrial plants and a tabular presentation of the agricultural calendar from Nōgyō zue (1717; Kaga domain).

One of the emphases that I particularly appreciate is the extensive treatment of swidden (slash-and-burn) agriculture, presented in chapter 2. Often...


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