A History of Japan, 1582-1941: Internal and External Worlds

By L. M. Cullen | Go to book overview

3
The Japanese economy, 1688–1789

The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries offered sharp contrasts: rapid economic growth in the seventeenth century, slower growth in the eighteenth century; at the same time the eighteenth century was free from the recurrent fears in the past of invasion. Yet if there was no serious external threat on the horizon, a sense of crisis, social or economic, permeated contemporary accounts. Are the ikki (or unrest) and the famines so prominent in many modern accounts of Japan an embodiment of real crisis, or is their extent and significance exaggerated? Is the sense of crisis more an expression of the pessimism of samurai, victims, through the fiscal constraints on han rulers, of falling incomes? And are the contemporary population estimates which seem to support a picture of stagnation seriously flawed? In this chapter the evolution of the economy is studied together with the urban society and industrial sector which Japan's advanced agriculture of the eighteenth century sustained. Osaka's importance in trade and banking, and the existence of separate Osaka and Edo currency zones are likewise examined. Osaka was at the zenith of its business in the eighteenth century: hence a look backwards to its rise and forwards to later change is relevant. In the following chapter (chapter 4), economic crisis, famine and unrest are examined. Amid general economic expansion, fixed public income entailed constraints, even crisis, in shogunal and daimyo expenditure, and hence also in the incomes of their direct employees or samurai. As the concept of crisis raises political and intellectual issues as well as economic ones, the political and intellectual discourse of the century is central to understanding Japan aright.

Military campaigns and later mining boom had started the process of rapid change on both sides of 1600. A growth of both foreign and inland trade and the economic role acquired by Osaka are some of the obvious results. Over the century, Osaka's role as a commodity market and as a source of loans to daimyo steadily became more dominant. The combination of a large daimyo trade in rice, daimyo need for funds, and their ever more straitened fiscal circumstances determined the pattern. In the early decades of the century in distant Kyushu there had even been

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