Book Review: Farm and Nation in Modern Japan (1870-1940)

Updated on March 21, 2018

Most people throughout history have been farmers, and it is only recently that in the wealthy developed nations that farmers have become a tiny minority of the population. Even barely a century ago, in 1920 in the US farmers were still 27% of the labor force, and this was in a country which was the wealthiest and most industrialized in the world. In Japan, the proportion was higher, and despite a small reduction but steady decline in the agricultural population until 1945 (after which time it collapsed rapidly), the agricultural population was still a very large proportion of the nation, both proportionally and in absolute figures. They did not live an easy life, and are easy to visualize as being backwards and as passive agents : conversely however, they had important roles to play politically and socially. One of the most vivid examples of this is what is called "Nohonshugi" which literally means "agriculture-as-the-essence-ism, essentially Japanese agrarianism, who sought to preserve and promote agriculture and agricultural values. Both bureaucrats and popular agrarianists were fiercely involved in a debate over the matter as conditions declined in the 1920s onward, as the Japanese countryside was plunged into poor economic straits after previous decades of prosperity and growth. It is into covering this sweep of period between 1870 and 1940, including the general nature of the ideological and thought rends which developed during this period, but also the physical development of agriculture, and above all else three radical agrianist thinkers, Gondo Seikyo, Tahibana Kozaburo, and Kato Kanji, that Farm and Nation in Modern Japan Agrarian Nationalism, 1870-1940, by Thomas R.H. Havens (published 1974) is written.

Japanese rice planting ~1890 : hard and difficult work.
Japanese rice planting ~1890 : hard and difficult work.

This book might divided into two sections : an opening review of the general nature of agrarian thought and policy up to the 1920s, and then a review of individuals and their politics, ideas, impact, and relations. Thus the two are looked at independently.

The first chapter of the book (Agrarian Thought and Japanese Modernization) concerns the subject of the ideology surrounding Japanese agriculture, stemming from the Tokugawa times onwards. This discusses extensively the ideological connection formulated between the Japanese farmers and the soil, and the political movements which were created concerning it. The rise of modern agrarianism is the critical component of it, and it has a host of various figures connected to this which are explored. Chapter 2, "Early Modern Farm Ideology and the Growth of Japanese Agriculture, 1870-1895 is much the same as the previous chapter for government policies, and during the ending years of the Meiji period government policy continued to be based upon the development of agriculture, and the reinforcement of a rural land-owning class, with agrarian thought stressing their benefits in regards to loyalty, ethics, and military concerns, a theme which is continued in Chapter III, Bureaucratic Agrarianism in the 1890s. Nohonshugi thought however, also increasingly turned to favor the idea of small landowners and rural virtue, thus opening a schism between bureaucratic agrarianism and popular agrarianism, despite a generally prosperous environment as explored in Chapter 4, Small Farms and State Policy, which deals with the physical development of Japanese agriculture but Yokoi Tokiyoshi, an agrarian who meshed well with government policies, an example of bureaucratic agrarianism is on display : even his thought however, began to diverge from the state's interest in certain ways. This is expounded on in Chapter 5 ,Popular Agrarianism in the Early Twentieth Century, which discusses the contrary popular movements, stressing policies which would help small producers and end the support for landlords, and ones which ran counter to Meiji's liberalizing and capitalist policies. For example, Arishima Takeo wrote shortly before his death in 1923 that "..at any rate I think it essential that private ownership disappear." He would go on to give his land away to his tenants and commit suicide. Utopians joined them, trying to create ideal rural communities. These agricultural politics had been relatively tame, and anti-revolutionary as a whole, with an alliance with bureaucrats which was just beginning to sunder. It was following the end of the Great War and the following decades that this began to U change, as explored in Chapter 6 "Farm Thought and State Policy, 1918-1937", which examines the response to the economically punishing conditions of 1920s agricultural Japan, mired in a rural depression, and the responses undertaken by the state - limited, and generally without much effect until the war began in 1937. It also examined the political views of Japanese agrarians, who included both new radicals and the old conservative wings.

Kozaburō Tachibana
Kozaburō Tachibana

With this, the stage is clear to move onto discussing some of these individuals, as Chapter 7, "Gondo Seikyo: The Inconspicuous Life of a Popular Nationalist" attests. This is essentially his biography, followed by elements of his ideology - principally that of self-rule, the idea that integralist-organic communities would be responsible for their own governance - and influence (such as the "discovery" of the manuscript Nan’ensho, actually a forged document although probably not by Gondo himself), based heavily upon the idea of village self-rule as opposed to a centralized state. Continuing in the analysis of Gondo Seikyo is Chapter 8 "Gondo Seikyo and the Depression Crisis", which principally explores his political ideology, what he opposed (capitalism - not on principles per se but rather due to its effects upon Japan - bureaucrats, and above all else the collusion between wealthy capitalism and bureaucracy), and his plan to return to self-rule in Japan, by focusing on the promotion of self-government by farmers. who would take control of responsibilities previously assigned to the central government and exercise it at the village level : this would later spread to the neighborhoods, factories, and even Japanese colonies. Over this, the Emperor would still stand as the center of national focus. "Tachibana Kozaburo's Farm Communalism" Chapter 10, a biography of a much more radical and different man. Tachibana's thought also focused extensively on self-government, but it did not see the same schism between the state and the land as Seikyo did : conversely, he was the one to become involved the May 15th affair which tried to overthrow the Japanese ruling government. Chapter 11, "Tachibana Kozaburo's Patriotic Reform", which expresses Tachibana's disgust with capitalism and the triumph of modernity which was leading to the exploitation of the countryside, in which the ruling class was complicitly treasonous. His solution was to decentralize power and to place human needs first, with a focus upon benevolence instead of on monopoly control and power : the elevation of the people in their organized corporatist communities over the state. Unlike Gondo, he was willing to allow the continued existence of Parliamentariasm, but rejecting the influence of money in it. Chapter 12 then moves onto the third and final principal individual discussed in the book, Kato Kanji, who focused upon overseas colonization as his solution to agricultural problems. A romanticist like the others, he included important Shinto spiritual aspects into his conception of the state and society. His colonialist views however, were what made him distinct, with his encouragement for the colonization of Manchuria which would solve the rural unemployment problem and promote the national power through the establishment of a self-sufficient and purely Japanese farmer-soldier class in the colonized lands.

Most Japanese agrarians were ambivalent about the prospect of empire, and the rice imports it brought which hurt domestic agriculture, but there were exceptions such as Kato Kanji who promoted it for settlement opportunities.
Most Japanese agrarians were ambivalent about the prospect of empire, and the rice imports it brought which hurt domestic agriculture, but there were exceptions such as Kato Kanji who promoted it for settlement opportunities.

A final chapter, Chapter 13, "Agrarianism and Modern Japan", is a brief overview of the effects of agrarian thoughts (particularly in its relationship to the military), a discussion of their roles and general agreements, a comparison with American agrarian populism, and effectively constitutes a summary of what had been discussed in the form of a critical analysis.

This book is an excellent one for a historical examination of the thoughts related to Japanese agrarian movements, the history of agrarian thought in Japan, and its relationship to ultra-nationalist and expansionist ideology suring the Second World War. It provides a caste of individuals which it examines in depth, Gondo Seikyo, Tahibana Kozaburo, and Kato Kanji, and has a rich and varied collection of quotes and other primary recountings which help to make its point and gain a stronger understanding of the thoughts and expression utilized in the period. It is not merely a history of agrarianism, but does a splendid effort to connect it to the events and processes which were shaping society, as well as an attempt to show the ways in which it actually did impact and shape the nation and world around it. Although not really specifically dedicated to the subject, the book is also quite good upon the subject of the policies enacted by the state, and providing a feel for the general nature of Japanese agriculture. For these variety of reasons, it makes an excellent book for students of the history of japan, those interested in the effects of modernity, agrarian thought, and to some extent of the interwar (since many of the thoughts are vital for understanding the development of Japanese nationalism in the period and placing it into a global context.)

There are some things which the book glances over. It is explicitly focused on an analysis of high level thought, in regards to a few individuals and their ideas : there is very little which is actually mentioned in regards to what sort of ideology and opinions, and what the effects were, of the average farmers and their actions. The book opens or near to its opening with mention of rituals performed by the emperor for agriculture : how did rituals and their shared experience evolve and demonstrate the changes for Japanese agriculture? This would have been a fascinating inclusion, and the absence of any sort of lived experience of Japanese farmers and a resultant inclusion of it into the narrative is a missing element which hurts deeply. We see a world of intellectuals, instead of the average farmers who were after all, the main object and the actors of agrarianism. Furthermore, the book could do more to explain about the most important agrarian proposition of all : self-rule in the countryside, listing the general degree of popularity of the idea, if there were any additional effects, and previous precedents. Similarly, discussion of links between the main political parties and the agrarians and elaboration on the political spectrum would have been appreciated. These lacks made the book less illuminating than it could have been.

Despite this, for a subject where there seems to be few other dedicated books, Its strengths are more than sufficient so as to outweigh the bad, and it provides a book which seems both easily comprehensible to non-experts on Japan, while also simultaneously providing plenty of information to educated and scholarly inquest concerning it. Thomas R.H. Havens has done good work with it.

4 stars for Farm and Nation in Modern Japan: Agrarian Nationalism,

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    © 2018 Ryan Thomas

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      • Coffeequeeen profile image

        Louise Powles 

        5 months ago from Norfolk, England

        I'm not sure this is something I would read to be honest, but it sounds like an interesting book for someone interested in this. =)

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