PEASANTS, REBELS, AND OUTCASTES: The Underside of Modern Japan by Mikiso Hane

PEASANTS, REBELS, AND OUTCASTES: The Underside of Modern Japan

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Straw-men and red herrings. This is not, as the subtitle suggests, about present-day Japan--but about the period from the Meiji Restoration (1868), when Japan began to ""modernize,"" and the end of World War II. Its purpose is to demonstrate that life was not a bowl of cherries for ""ordinary"" people--something that no historian of modernization (i.e., economic development) believes or contends. It points out, again and again, that ""modernization does not necessarily create a more humane, enlightened outlook"" or ""improve the lot of the vast majority of people""--as if any informed person thought otherwise. (In excoriating modernization, it makes no distinction, moreover, between the Western model and the Japanese variant.) Behind all its talk of inequality and injustice, it is really about one major and one minor group--the peasantry and the outcast burakumin--not the un-privileged populace in general. (Textile workers and prostitutes are included because most were young farm girls; miners are included, one presumes, because they were among the most exploited.) But even accurately represented--as Prewar Conditions Among the Peasantry and Other Unfortunates--this would not be much of a book. Hane (Japanese History, Knox College) has no particular understanding of Japanese, or other, agricultural practices; to him, it is a sign of penury that Japan's small-scale farmers had to work at other trades to supplement their incomes--whereas that is a common and natural state-of-affairs in Japan and elsewhere. He refers only dismissively to Japanese agricultural advances--with the result that the country's exceptional agricultural productivity, and the farmers' very real skill, come nowhere to light. These do appear to be downtrodden brutes. Hane also tells of protests (tenancy revolts, mill-worker strikes) and some reformist movements, doomed to failure--material that's meaningless without a political context. Then, suddenly, after we've skittered back and forth over the bad conditions of 70-odd years, we are in the postwar period: the peasantry is prospering--except that now there's industrial pollution and urban sprawl! Included are many, many excerpts from annals of deprivation--but for a fleshed-out picture of prewar rural life, see John Embree's classic Suye Mura; for the postwar transformation, Ronald Dore's recent Shinohata.

Pub Date: April 26th, 1982
Publisher: Pantheon