Episode 53 – Dr. Maren Ehlers (North Carolina-Charlotte)

Originally published on August 21, 2018

[This transcript has been edited for clarity.]

Tristan Grunow: This is the Meiji at 150 Podcast. I’m Tristan Grunow. Today, I’m talking with Dr. Maren Ehlers, Associate Professor in the Department of History at the University of North Carolina – Charlotte. Dr. Ehlers is the author of Give and Take: Poverty and the Status Order in Early Modern Japan, published by Harvard University Asia Center in 2018. Dr. Ehlers, thank you for talking with me today.

Maren Ehlers: Thanks for having me on.

TG: You just published this book – in fact just in April of 2018 – Give and Take: Poverty and the Status Order in Early Modern Japan. And in the book, you zoom in on these relations between marginal peoples in this peripheral domain of Ōno, which is in central Japan. Can you start by telling us why you choose Ōno for your study, and a bit about what we learn about the people in that domain?

ME: Sure. When I started to get interested in poverty and the organization of poor relief in Tokugawa Japan, I realized that I would need to examine a variety of social groups: poor townspeople and poor villagers, obviously outcastes, samurai. These social groups are often studied separately from each other and especially the outcastes, but poor relief forces us to look at the relationships between them. Poor relief is really about the sharing of resources between and within different groups in society, and I thought it would make sense to study that in a coherent social setting and in conversation with the recent scholarship on the structure of Tokugawa society, which was also emphasizing these local case studies.

And at the time when I was looking for a case, I was a visiting doctoral student at Fukui University simply because my German university had a relationship with them, and my supervisor there recommended the records of Ōno domain. A large number of town elders’ journals had survived from the castle town of that domain, and they were all from the second half of the Tokugawa period. And the town elders were interesting. They were in an interesting position because they were involved with the entire town population in one way or another, and as I started to look into these journals, I was immediately struck by the number of entries that were dealing with hinin, and I translate them as “beggar bosses.” And the hinin were a social group I wanted to look into in more depth anyway because they were deeply involved with the management and relief of beggars.

These were outcastes, but I was hoping to look at them in their various relationships to the rest of society, and I also needed the journals as a bit of a broader perspective to find out more about the domain society in general. And one thing that surprised me, for example, was to learn that there were other local groups than just the hinin that had the right to to collect alms, and those were, for example, blind performers (the zatō male ones and the female goze). And these groups are usually seen as a bit of an odd phenomenon, folklorists are sometimes interested in them, musicologists, but really, social historians… I had not considered them either, but Ōno’s case helped me see the members of these associations as the sons and daughters of local town and village households, and I also began to see begging rights and the formation and the maintaining of groups as a strategy of the poor in Tokugawa society to gain protection and communicate with people of power.

And the more I learned about social relationships in Ōno society, the more I saw that poor relief was embedded in a much larger process of give and take – so to speak, that was going on between self-governing status groups and the authorities, and also between different kinds of groups. So, I guess I mean it’s common knowledge that under the status order, warrior governments recognized occupational groups and their privileges in return for mobilizing them for duties. But in every city, in every domain and so on, these relationships developed in a somewhat different direction, and the result of that was that, for example, the beggar bosses’ position in society could be quite different from place to place. It’s very different, for example, between Edo and Osaka, between Edo and Ōno. So, what got me interested in Ōno wasn’t necessarily that it was unusual in some way or that it was representative of a certain kind of Tokugawa town (which in some way, it is). I was attracted to it simply because it had the sources that allowed me to do that empirical work of examining social groups in context.

TG: Out of curiosity, could you tell us a bit more about Ōno? Where is it, in fact? And how many people are there?

ME: Ōno is located in today’s Fukui Prefecture, and today, there is a modern city called Ōno, which is the former castle town, and the location is a bit removed from the coast. It’s on a high plateau in the area near the foothills of Mount Hakusan, so in the direction of Gifu Prefecture. It’s a pretty mountainous area, not that far away from Kyoto, but within Echizen Province, it was really on the remote side. And there were 30,000 people, roughly, in the whole domain at the time that I’m looking at, and the castle town had about 6,000 people.

TG: And so, quite a populous area then, and certainly, one that would be affected severely when these big famines occurred. And one of the topics that you talk about a lot in Give and Take is poverty and charity in the wake of the Tenmei Famine in particular. So, can you describe how the Tenmei is impacting the people who live in Ōno?

ME: Why I focus on the Tenmei Famine was that the journal entries on the famine helped me explore how different forms of poor relief and charity worked together, and it was also useful for me to reconstruct the shape of castle town society by looking at the ways in which different people participated in the relief efforts. And a famine as big as the Tenmei Famine affected pretty much everyone, and it does highlight the mutual obligations between people and the conflicts (the potential lines of conflicts). I look particularly at the year 1873-74, for which there are the most sources, and it’s also the first and the worst year of the famine in Ōno, but it did actually continue until 1787. There were three really bad years, and the first signs that a crisis was approaching I saw in the fall of 1783 when farmers in the villages and also in the town asked for extensions of their tax payment deadlines.

They complained about a bad harvest, there had been rainy weather in the summer, and there were, in fact, farmers in the town itself. Quite a few townspeople in Ōno were doing agriculture, and they were directly affected by the bad harvest, but the scarcity of grain rippled through the domain economy, and so the chō reacted to the high grain price by submitting a joint petition to the domain because they wanted to get the sake brewers to reduce their brewing output. They wanted more grain available for consumption, and what they also petitioned for was a ban on grain exports, and that was something that they usually did in Ōno town when the rice price climbed up because the price of rice often rose more slowly in Ōno than in other nearby areas, especially in the mountains, where they were not cultivating a lot of rice. And merchants tried to exploit that difference by exporting rice, and the domain granted these petitions. It seems to me that in 1783, there would most likely have been an uprising if the domain had not done that, if it had ignored the petitions because there was already quite a bit of unrest and grumbling among the townspeople at that point.

So, what we don’t see in the Tenmei Famine in Ōno is a big uprising like we see in Edo, for example, or in many other parts of Japan in those years. That was something that the domain was able to avert, and then one of the most striking signs of famine was really the presence of beggars. First of all, just the sheer number of them in the town. The domain government was setting up rice gruel kitchens for beggars every winter, and normally, the number of people who lined up there on the distribution days was maybe 100. And during the Tenmei Famine, it fluctuated, but it was usually between 300 and 1400 people, and the people who lined up there…I don’t assume they were people who begged regularly. There were certainly such people as well, but most of them were probably temporary beggars, townspeople and villagers who probably swallowed their pride a little bit to get in line for the beggar kitchens.

And then, the most dramatic part were probably the records on the deaths of beggars on the streets during the famine. Those are some pretty heartbreaking stories of people, especially from mountain villagers, who had come to the town for survival, and I’ve seen – for 1784 alone – there were 30 beggar deaths recorded, and I don’t know about the townspeople. I don’t have any data, but there was an epidemic that broke out in the early summer when the poorer townspeople were already weak from starvation, and that must have taken quite a toll.

TG: You mentioned these petitions that are being sent to the domainal government, and the domainal government is responding and setting up rice kitchens, and things like this. I’m curious if there’s things going on at what we might call the “private level.” I know in places like Edo, there was the Machikaisho that was kind of a private organization managed by commoners to help other commoners. Do we see something similar happening in Ōno or is it mainly the domainal administrators and domainal officials who are doing the charity relief?

ME: I’m not sure I would describe the Machikaisho as a private organization. Those were certainly commoners who were running that, but it rested on the chō, and it also rested on an organization of wealthy townspeople in Edo, the kanjōshogoyōtashi, and those were associations with public standing. And in Ōno as well as in Edo and I guess all over Tokugawa Japan, the default assumption among samurai officials was that the residents of villages and block associations should help each other when there was any need, and that aid from the lord could only be invoked in extraordinary circumstances. Now of course, there is a lot of leeway in deciding what constitutes as extraordinary circumstances, and in Ōno domain, the officials did recognize eventually that the Tenmei Famine was an extraordinary event, but it took them awhile for that awareness to sink in, and they were also dragging their feet because the domain budget was in very bad shape at that time.

Initially, whenever a lot of relief petitions from certain kinds of chō, from certain chō, they told them that they should organize a collection just among residents. They felt that they probably had not maxed out their resources, that they could probably still share more if they only pushed them a little bit more. And that kind of redistribution within a chō, of course, can only be effective if you have a relatively balanced population, if there are petitioners, but there are also richer residents that can help them. It turned out that in many chō in Ōno at the time, this was simply not the case. There were some chō where there were only rich merchants and no petitioners at all, and then there were others where the bulk of the population was in need of help, so the domain government eventually ordered the townspeople to hold a town-wide collection. What that meant was that donations would be pooled, and they would be re-distributed to all the town poor, and I don’t consider that a private effort either because again, the groups that are mobilized to contribute to that have public standing.

There’s, first, the chō, the block associations, which are all asked to collect within the chō, and then submit. And then, there are the town officials, and then there is a body that I translated as the “purveyor guild,” and the purveyor guild was, really, like a guild of the rich. It wasn’t like they had any shared trade. They were simply all among the wealthiest townspeople. There were about 25 of them, and this guild was frequently mobilized by the lord for duties, and the most important one was probably organizing loans for the lord. But they also did a couple of other things, and the domain then mobilized them for starvation relief as well. I mean, the Tenmei Famine was not the first time they did it. It was the second time, but this was a new development, and these wealthy townspeople also did engage in a lot of private charity, so that does certainly occur. They give voluntary donations as well outside of this framework, and we see that in many Japanese towns in the 18th century: the attempt to build some kind of framework or precedent to make the charity of wealthy townspeople more organized, and to make sure that the aid gets spread around to all the town poor and not just to the neighbours or the tenants, people who happen to have a connection to a wealthy merchant.

And about the domain government ( about the role of the domain government), I said that they did eventually realize they had to do something, and that was after the town-wide collection event. They had to basically make a bargain with the purveyor merchants that they would let the purveyor merchants do their thing first, and then they would step in, and that wasn’t terribly generous what the domain government did there. They provided loans, interest-free, but still loans. They needed to be repaid for the purchase of millet, and it was quite difficult for some of the townspeople to pay this back later, and also, the loans only went to a certain point. The domain terminated them when the snow melted because officials assumed that poor people could go and dig up roots and beg for alms or they could look for employment. In a normal year, that might have worked, but not in this one.

The famine was really far from over at this point, so I really can’t say that the government was doing enough, but still, during the famine, officials still maintained how extraordinary it was, that the lord had even granted these meager loans, and they pointed out how these loans were normally reserved only for villagers. And it does seem that there’s quite a gap between the aid that the government was willing to give to townspeople as opposed to villagers. This seems to be a pretty common phenomenon, and I think it has to do with the fact that villagers were important as taxpayers, and certainly, urban unrest could be a severe threat to the government as well, but in villages, there was also less concentration of wealth than in the town. So, I think there was a reasonable expectation that the townspeople should be able to help each other.

TG: So, is it that the domainal lords are concerned about the riots, and this is why they need to provide the charity? Or is it out of some kind of notion that they’re supposed to be the benevolent lord? And of course, there’s this whole narrative of the Tokugawa society as being this benevolent lord and honourable peasant society, where if the peasants are honourable (paying their taxes), the lords will be benevolent. Is that what’s happening here? Or is it just that, you know, they realize that the villagers are the ones who give them the money, and so, we need to keep the villagers happy and make sure they don’t rebel?

ME: I think this concept of a moral economy, this idea of benevolent government is very, very powerful in Tokugawa Japan in the 18th century. And I think one cannot really separate that from the fear of riots because subjects rioted at a certain point when their expectations weren’t met, and the idea of benevolent government had a lot to do with defining those expectations. I mean, in the case of peasants, they were certainly able to use this logic that they were agricultural producers, that they were necessary to the regime to appeal to the government, and the government recognized this both as a moral responsibility and a matter of self-preservation. But when we look at the townspeople, I think their expectations are a little bit different. Their petitions don’t emphasize their role as producers and taxpayers, but they are trying to get the domain government to protect them from what they perceive as greedy, profit-hungry merchants. Their petitions really emphasize that, and they call them out – sometimes individually – for not looking out for the community and not following the rules. And they are going against people, especially, who ship rice out of the town to take advantage of higher prices elsewhere, or they’re calling out sake brewers. So, I think for poorer townspeople, the covenant at this time means that the lord should keep the town elite in check and go against this selfish profit-making, and especially keep the rice price down.

And certainly, there was the expectation that the lord himself should also provide something if the crisis was severe, but the pressure they wanted to be put on the wealthy merchants was probably more important. In terms of the ideology of benevolent rule, I’ve looked into this quite a bit in my last chapter, also. The domain government very much cared about its benevolent reputation. There was a chronicle written about 20 years after the famine, in which a vassal looked back to the reign of Lord Toshisada who was lord at the time of the Tenmei Famine, and described him as a benevolent ruler because he had been such a great promoter of relief measures for the poor, and definitely, focusing more at the time after the Tenmei Famine, when the domain actually did create some more officials and mechanisms to prepare for food crisis.

The chronicle is glossing over the contributions of the townspeople, and it’s also underplaying the influence of the shogunate, which actually put a lot of pressure on domains after the Tenmei Famine to prepare better for food crisis. And in the last chapter, I noticed there is a big change occurring in the way in which the domain deploys this ideology. I noticed from the beginning when I first skimmed through the journals that there must be something going on in the 1850s and 1860s because there is a lot more rhetoric about benevolent government suddenly in the sources. There’s way more than I’ve seen in the decades before, and I was trying to figure out why that was, and I found that the Bakumatsu era was a time when the domain was trying to turn its economy around by raising productivity and experimenting with Dutch medicine. And the lord started to see poor relief – including medical welfare like smallpox vaccinations – as a way to strengthen the bodies of subjects, but also to influence their minds.

So, the idea was that subjects who experienced benevolence in [the] form of vaccinations and other things would be grateful for that, and that they would then follow the lord’s lead and collaborate with his reforms. So, for the domain at this point, it becomes not just a way to pacify their subjects and deter them from uprisings, and maybe look good in the eyes of other lords and elites, but it’s also about disciplining the people and turning them into diligent workers, mak[ing] them obey the government’s direction in the reforms. And in practice, that turned out to be difficult because this was Bakumatsu, this was the 1860s, and the grain price was very unstable at the time. And the domain government couldn’t really do very much about that, so they constantly had to ward off the threat of unrest. But it does show that the government was trying to combine this old moral economy with some very modern ideas about welfare and public health, and also profit-making.

TG: And so, when talking about the 1860s and all of these things about internal troubles of peasants who are unsatisfied with what they see as avaricious officials, certainly, the increase in benevolent government and ideas that the government should be benevolent, are we cascading towards the Meiji Restoration in the 1850s and ‘60s? Is that what you’re seeing in Ōno domain?

ME: I mean, I think this is a very difficult question to answer because there are so many different factors to disentangle. I mean, Ōno domain is not a big actor in the Meiji Restoration itself. They are supporting the shogunate until a very late point, and they do not really participate. But when we look at local society itself, whether there were any signs of an impending big political transformation, I would say yes.

First of all, there were, of course, these reforms that I mentioned where Ōno’s lord was trying to introduce Western medicine, where he was trying to turn the domain economy around. That in itself is not so unusual. This is something that… if we subtract the Western medicine part, these mercantilist reforms [are] something that a lot of domains do earlier than Ōno. And in Ōno domain… because it coincides with the Bakumatsu crisis and the impact of the unequal treaties at a time when the economy is already in turmoil, I think it causes a lot of discontent in the domain population. The domain government is going way ahead of where the domain population wants to follow, and that doesn’t cause the Meiji Restoration in any way, but it is something that creates a sense of upheaval, really, in the population, and that explodes in the early years of Meiji. There’s a major popular uprising that has turned against the Meiji government. The population is fed up with Westernization, and they think back to the measures that the domain lord has been implementing since the 1850s. And something else that is probably pretty widespread across the country at the time is this sense of disorder, a sense that crime is not under control, that there is a lot of vagrancy. And in Ōno, that sense, for the first time, really comes to the surface in the Tenpō Famine.

In the Tenmei Famine, there is not a whole lot of crime, but in the Tenpō Famine, there are a lot of instances of burglaries, there are a lot of unregistered vagrants who commit them, who confess to them. There seems to be a whole criminal underworld on the Ōno plain, and that doesn’t go away after the Tenpō Famine. That’s something that is bothering the people of Ōno until the Meiji Restoration, and I think it really does contribute to this sense that society’s out of order, and I think it matters because it probably did make people more inclined to give up on the shogunate and perhaps imagine the need for a new government.

TG: You were talking earlier about why it’s important to look outside of cities of Edo and Kyoto and Osaka when doing research, and this is why your work on Ōno domain is so important. What about in teaching? I mean, when we teach about the Tokugawa period, what are ways that we can leave the major cities and go into the countryside? And how does our view of early modern Japan change in the classroom when we do so?

ME: I have to confess I actually don’t get to teach Tokugawa history that often. Usually, it’s just a few sessions in the beginning of a course on modern Japan. And as you probably know from your introductory courses, my students have no prior knowledge of early modern Japan, and it’s hard to teach them peripheral perspectives if they don’t even know the big turning points, the big narrative. So, what I’m trying to do in that little time that I have is to challenge some of the most common stereotypes about pre-modern Japan. First, that Japan was a closed country, and second, that it was the age of the samurai – which is debatable, but many students don’t even think about the existence of other social classes.

That’s very important to me that I get them to think, for example, about the rural populations, so I’ve assigned the Sakura Sōgorō story about a peasant martyr in Sakura domain, and that’s been very successful because it got a lot of students, really, to empathize with the villagers and to see that they had their own interests, their own culture, their own narratives, and their own stories.

And with regard to the closed country stereotype, I’ve assigned The Dawn of Western Science in Japan, which is a translation of Rangaku Koto Hajime by Sugita Genpaku, and I would love to treat that in the nuance that it deserves. Usually, what students take away from it is that Japanese scholars did engage with Western science during that period, which I guess, is a start (laughter).

And I mean, none of these subjects really do take us into the provinces, but there is a course where I’m taking students to Japan over spring break, and that is where I’ve recently tried to do that a little bit more. I took them to Tokyo initially in the first two years that I did the trip, and it’s only just a week, so it makes sense to focus just on one city. But this year, I also took them to Aizuwakamatsu, and that was a real eye-opener. First of all, of course, because Aizuwakamatsu represents a different perspective on national history, and I made them read in advance Remembering Aizu by Shiba Gorō.

And the second effect that it had on students was that Aizuwakamatsu represented a different life style and a different regional culture. A lot of students could relate to Aizuwakamatsu a lot better than to Tokyo because they are from Charlotte, and Charlotte isn’t such a crowded city to begin with. So, they found it easier to relate to than Tokyo and definitely, they got a bit of a sense of regional diversity and also, Tokyo’s overwhelming and maybe one can say suffocating presence by visiting both these cities.

TG: The Meiji at 150 Podcast is hosted by Tristan Grunow at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. This podcast would not be possible without the cooperation of the UBC Centre for Japanese Research and the technical assistance of the UBC Faculty of Arts ISIT. Find out more about the Meiji at 150 Project, including the Meiji at 150 Lecture Series, Digital Teaching Resource and Workshop Series by visiting our website: meijiat150.arts.ubc.ca. Thank you for listening.


*Citation for this episode:

Maren Ehlers, interview with Tristan Grunow, The Meiji at 150 Podcast, podcast audio, August 21, 2018. https://meijiat150.podbean.com/e/episode-53-dr-maren-ehlers-north-carolina/.

The Meiji at 150 Podcast is hosted, produced, and edited by Tristan Grunow, with editorial assistance from Joshua Linkous. Transcripts by Kelly Chan.