Japanese Village Life

Japanese Village Life

Weaving Silk

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Japanese Village Life

In 1750, Japan had only 3% of the world's total population. However, they had 8% of the world's urban population. At this time about 27 million Japanese peasants lived in rural villages and 3 million lived in cities. Amazingly, three of the world's five largest cities were in Japan. However, the average Japanese peasant lived in a small rural village of about 400 people. There were 63,000 rural villages in Japan at this time and each was comprised of approximately 100 small families.

There were three types of villages: agricultural, mountain, and fishing. Each agricultural village family was assigned a small piece of ground to farm that was called a “cho.” The villages that were on prime level land raised rice. Villages that grew crops on less desirable steep terraced fields grew grapes, sesame, cotton, tea, flax, vegetables, soybeans, and an assortment of grains. Families were required to pay the government a tax of one koku of rice each year. One koku was equal to the amount of rice that a person would eat in one year, which was 330 pounds. No matter what they raised or produced the families were required to pay the annual rice tax. During the Tokugawa period the peasants were almost taxed into starvation.

Villages were designed to use as little of the farmland as possible, and everyone lived in small shanties clumped together. Water dominated the villages lifestyle because rice is grown in water. Most of the villages were controlled by a council of elders. Almost every task was done collectively including the repairing and dredging of irrigation canals, planting and harvesting, irrigating, hunting, fishing, firewood gathering, grain processing, and foraging in the forests for wild edible berries and plants. When someone needed a house, the entire community participated in its construction. The entire community would also turn out if the house was in need of repairs. Women had traditional tasks. They cooked, raised children, and made textiles out of cotton, silk, and linen. They also worked in the fields in the jobs that required bending and stooping. The men did the jobs that required heavy lifting and hauling.

Most disputes were settled internally, and punishment was handed out communally. However, if the peasants had an uprising, and you were a member of the village and did not participate, you would have been socially ostracized by the village. Restitution was required for property crimes, and banishment was the most severe punishment that an individual could receive. It was severe because once you were thrown out of a village you had nowhere to go. Japanese villages collected a special tax for their shrines, temples, community roads and bridges. Villagers were also required to maintain a fund so that visiting Chinese officials could be entertained upon arrival. Expenses were closely monitored.

Gradually, over centuries, the peasants' quality of life improved because of better irrigation methods, new cash crops, improved fertilizer, better tools, and advanced hybrid rice seeds. Generation after generation of peasants were born, lived, and died within the confines of their village and its surrounding fields. The only chance a villager had to break out of their cycle of poverty was to acquire more land. Sometimes villagers lost their land if they did not pay their taxes or if there was a crop failure. Families that lost their land in ancient Japan usually died out from lack of opportunity.