print | close

Land, the Family and Political Power

Wet Rice Agriculture

Japan's topography has played an important role in shaping Japan's traditional culture and early history. Japan's temperate climate, abundant rainfall, and rich alluvial plains near present day Tokyo, Nagoya, and Osaka favored the development of a traditional agrarian economy. Sometime during its pre-history, probably during the Yayoi period (300 B.C.E.-300 C.E.), Japan imported from China the technique of wet rice agriculture common to much of Asia.

To cultivate rice by this method, rice seeds are sown in small seedbeds. The seedlings are then transplanted one by one to a prepared paddy field. While the plants are maturing, they must be kept irrigated, but the fields are drained as the rice ripens. The rice is then harvested and threshed. Wet rice agriculture requires plenty of rain, but also strong warm sun. It requires relatively flat, fertile land, an abundant and dependable supply of water for irrigation, and a reliable labor force. Japanese culture even today reflects values and institutions that evolved from Japan's early agricultural organization.

The Traditional Extended Family

Wet rice agriculture was particularly well suited to Japan because it does not require a lot of land. Good rice land is scarce in Japan, and it is separated by mountains and streams. The typical Japanese farm, even today, is less than an acre in size. There have been periods in Japanese history when a relatively few people held great rice producing estates, but these estates were made up of many tiny fields scattered over a wide area, each farmed by one family. Wet rice agriculture does require a great deal of cheap labor. Wet rice agriculture is a labor intensive type of agriculture. In traditional Japan, labor was provided by an extended family. Each peasant family was basically self-sufficient, working together to cultivate its own tiny field. When a son married, he and his family continued to live with the extended family, farming the same land. Japan's traditional social hierarchy developed to maintain order within the extended family. Each family member had a clearly defined status. At the top was the head of the household, usually the father. The family head had absolute authority over the family. He owned the family's property and water rights. He was also responsible for the welfare of the entire family and for the safety of its property. A better way to describe the Japanese family head is to say that he was the agent for the family. His name was entered in the village register, he represented his family in the village council, he paid the family's taxes. He was the only family member who had a legal identity.

Land as the Basis of Political Power

Until the twentieth century, Japan's true rulers were men who controlled land ownership: the court nobles during the first thousand years of Japanese history, the samurai and the shogun during the second. Often these men did not own the land themselves, but they held rights to a share of the rice crop. Even in the early twentieth century, wealthy landlords controlled much of Japan's productive land. The Americans who occupied Japan after World War II carried out a land reform program partly because they believed that concentrated control of land rights had helped prevent Japan from developing a democracy.

Because mountains and streams divide Japan's farm land into small, isolated areas, it proved difficult to unify Japan politically. For most of its history, Japan has bean divided into many autonomous domains, each governed by a regional strong-man. No one of these local rulers was able to claim national leadership until 1600, and not until the end of the nineteenth century did Japan have a central government strong enough to assert control over all of Japan. On the other hand, local government has played an important role in Japanese history. The rural village was the only political organization that the farming family needed. The village council protected each family's water rights, collected taxes, and maintained order within the village. If necessary, the village headman negotiated with regional government officials on behalf of the entire village. Consequently, the rural community was able to retain a considerable degree of independence, even when Japan was ruled by feudal lords.

Discussion Questions

1) What is the staple food crop of Japan? Briefly describe how it is cultivated.

2) What was the role of the father in the traditional peasant family?

3) How has Japan's mountainous topography affected the relationship between local and centralized political control?

Contemporary Japan: A Teaching Workbook | Columbia University, East Asian Curriculum Project
Asia for Educators |

print | close