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  • Public Goods Provision in the Early Modern Economy: Comparative Perspectives from Japan, China, and Europe ed. by Masayuki Tanimoto and R. Bin Wong
  • Guillaume Carré (bio)
Masayuki Tanimoto and R. Bin Wong, editors. Public Goods Provision in the Early Modern Economy: Comparative Perspectives from Japan, China, and Europe. Oakland: University of California Press, 2019. xiii, 331 pp. Paperback $34.95, isbn 978-0-520-30365-2.

In his introduction R. Bin Wong defines a problem and a method. The problem, now classic in the field of economic history as envisaged by the sinologists of the California School since the end of the twentieth century, appears at first glance to conduct comparison between Europe and East Asia's early modern times to test the pretensions of a particularism of Western history. In this case, it is the notion of "public goods," and the role they played from the end of medieval times in the transformation from patrimonial to modern State, with the question of the birth of public finances as a key issue. On the other hand, the methodological propositions of the book present a relative novelty, at least in the comparative perspectives of American sinology. Bin Wong recognizes the contributions and originality of early modern Japanese sources, much more abundant in testimonies produced directly by local societies than imperial China, thus offering the opportunity to reflect on archives comparable to those of Europe, and even often richer. This finding, evident to researchers already familiar with the rich and ancient Japanese historiographic tradition, is illustrated by the results of this work conducted with a team of Japanese scholars whose contributions feed most of the book, under the direction of Masayuki Tanimoto.

The first chapter written by Tanimoto draws a panorama of the action of the Japanese warrior authorities in the equipment of public goods during the Edo period, and there emerges immediately a problem of definition, a classic distortion in history between emic and etic vocabulary. Indeed, what we can equate with "public works" was referred to in Edo's time as the rather vague term fushin, which can be translated as "works" or "repairs," and could also have been employed in a private context, for example when a farmer or merchant made some constructions in his own house or on his property. Tanimoto emphasizes that the great works by the seigniorial powers (daimyo and bakufu) are concentrated in the seventeenth century, during the phase of establishment of the regime, and edification of the feudal principalities.

They consisted of building infrastructure such as roads, harbors, watercourse enhancements, and also the construction of castles, and this last point shows that the notion of "public good" was not yet clearly distinguished from ruler's own interest, at this time of a patrimonial conception of the authority: the primary concern for the seigniorial powers, which were conceived as family and vassal structures, was to equip themselves with instruments allowing them to increase their power and their incomes. The support given by the warrior houses to the extension of cultures or facilities [End Page 86] and equipment thus proceeded mainly from a will to increase the tax revenues, themselves intended to maintain firmly a military power whose castles were the costly symbols. Consequently, such "public works" as extension of roads and communication networks, particularly impressive at the beginning of the seventeenth century, even if they could benefit the whole population, remained primarily oriented by the interests of the rulers of Tokugawa regime, rather than by a benevolence towards their subjects, who, in fact, were often literally taxed to death at the beginning of the period.

Therefore, the "public" investments of the Tokugawa regime seem to manifest the same tendencies that historians have brought to light for Western Europe in early modern times before the 18th century: the maintenance and development of military power occupied the largest share. Tanimoto, however, points out that the bakufu's decline in infrastructure spending during the 18th and 19th centuries masks probably a change in public action made possible by the pacification of the country, with the Edo government using its authority to impose on the other warrior houses to manage public works, and bear the costs, in...


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