Book Review: William W. Farris, Daily Life and Demographics in Ancient Japan. By Ross Bender.

PMJS Papers

Book Review

Published 28 January 2009

© 2009 Ross Bender

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Daily Life and Demographics in Ancient Japan

By William Wayne Farris

Michigan Monograph Series in Japanese Studies No. 63

144 pp., 2009, 5 illustrations, 10 tables

ISBN 978-1-929280-49-0, cloth, $50.00

ISBN 978-1-929280-50-6, paper, $22.00

Those familiar with William Wayne Farris’ opus Japan’s Medieval Population: Famine, Fertility and Warfare in a Transformative Age (2006) will recognize his thesis in the new primer from Michigan – namely that the population of Japan “essentially remained static between 700 and 1150, with a decrease occurring around 950.” This compact (roughly 100 pages) and exceedingly lucid survey of what is and can be known about the demographics of ancient Japan sets forth the latest Japanese research, provides the authors’ evaluation of the sources for our knowledge, and explains how all of this supports his thesis.

My particular interest is what can be known about the Nara period, and I will leave it to others to discuss Farris’ findings about Heian Japan. The answer unfortunately is “not a whole lot”, and in fact most of what Farris says here about Nara has been adumbrated in his previous work stretching back to Population, Disease and Land in Early Japan (1985) and in his Monumenta Nipponica articles on trade and money (1998) and the Shōsōin documents (2008). Briefly, early 8th-century birth and death rates were high, infant mortality was 50 percent to age five, and life expectancy around twenty-five. Sawada Goichi’s early estimate of 6-7 million for Nara population, which Farris believes to have been meant for Shōmu’s reign, has held up remarkably well; taking into account subsequent research, Farris now posits a figure of 5.8-6.4 million around 730.

Farris’ 1985 hypothesis of an extreme decline in Nara population due to the invasion of the smallpox virus from the peninsula, inspired originally by McNeill’s Plagues and People, is now pretty much accepted as gospel. So much so that in the recent Shin Nihon Koten Bungaku Taikei edition of Shoku Nihongi there is a footnote on the epidemic (Vol. 2: 570-71) citing Farris.

In terms of Shoku Nihongi, I was intrigued by Farris’ use of the index to that work in building his Table 9, “Climatological Trends, 700-1200”, which first appeared in Medieval Japanese Population. He uses citations in Shoku Nihongi concerning rain, cold, heat and dryness to construct “Drought” and “Wet/Cold” indices. Similarly, Table 7, “Famine Records, 670-1100", uses evidence from the court chronicle. It seems to me that these records might also be used more intensively to investigate the court’s prophylactic responses to occasions of sickness, unusual weather, famine, etc. and also its divinatory and proleptical techniques.

Chapter Two, on “Mortality Variables”, discusses some fascinating new archaeological evidence of apotropaic objects and the new Heian onryō rituals. Although the material is almost all of Heian vintage and thus beyond my ken, I will say that Farris should have cited Cappy Hurst’s groundbreaking diagnostic work on “Michinaga’s Maladies” (Monumenta Nipponica, 1979). And while the diagnosis of smallpox in the years 735 onward is well-established, there is more work to be done on historical medical diagnoses. Farris discusses smallpox, measles, and influenza, but there must certainly be other specific maladies which can be analyzed from the available evidence. In this regard, I was interested to find this footnote in J.E.Kidder’s recent opus on Himiko and Yamatai: “The former was a foreigner (kojin), here meaning Persian because measles were called the Persian disease (kobyō) in the Nara period." (p. 148)

While Daily Life and Demographics in Ancient Japan establishes the definitive baseline for further research, Farris emphasizes that sources do exist that can be potentially exploited for investigations of “migration, the labor market, various industries, urbanization, the family and marriage, and the physical well-being of the populace” in this period. Even I, a mathematical illiterate and one not particularly wild about socio-economic history, have stumbled across intriguing evidence concerning the rising incidence of sales of office to provincial magnates while examining the performative loci of the Last Empress’ imperial edicts.

Ross Bender