Japan's Medieval Population: Famine, Fertility, and Warfare in a Transformative Age
384pp. May 2006
Japan's Medieval Population: Famine, Fertility, and Warfare in a Transformative Age
Author: Farris, William Wayne;
A Choice Outstanding Academic Book

This volume charts a course through never-before-surveyed historical territory: Japan’s medieval population, a topic so challenging that neither Japanese nor foreign scholars have investigated it in a comprehensive way. And yet, demography is an invaluable approach to the past because it provides a way—often the only way—to study the mass of people who did not belong to the political or religious elite. By synthesizing a vast cache of primary and secondary sources, William Wayne Farris constructs an important analysis of Japan’s population from 1150 to 1600 and considers social and economic developments that were life and death issues for ordinary Japanese. Impressive in his grasp of detail and the scope of his inquiry, Farris makes the argument that, although this age initially witnessed the continuation of a centuries-old demographic stasis, a far-reaching transformation began around 1280 and eventually gained momentum until it swept through the Japanese archipelago. Between 1280 and 1600, Japan’s population approximately trebled, growing from 6 million to 17 million. Crucial to the demographic breakthrough was the resolution of two central problems facing both the rulers and the ruled. The first was how to supply a burgeoning population with sufficient food; the second, how to keep the peace.

Japan’s Medieval Population will be required reading for specialists in pre-modern Japanese history, who will appreciate it not only for its thought-provoking arguments, but also for its methodology and use of sources.

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"A greatly welcomed ‘must-read’ for all of us. . . . Farris’ bold and innovative approach has transformed historical records into provocative and stimulating ideas and challenged the field of premodern Japanese history." —Harvard Journal of Asian Studies (winter 2008)

"In Japan’s Medieval Population, Farris, true to form, asks questions that are relevant and essential for a broader understanding of Japanese society but also extremely challenging to answer. . . . There can be little doubt that [this] study fills an important void in English-language scholarship on pre-Tokugawa Japan. . . . Farris deserves accolades for taking on what is possibly the most challenging task for historians: asking the broader synthesizing questions for which the sources do not provide any readily available answers." —Journal of Japanese Studies (34:2, 2008)

"Impressive and convincing. . . . An interesting, carefully argued account, one that will certainly stimulate further debate." —International Journal of Asian Studies (4:2, 2007)

"Farris is the author of at least two other major studies of medieval Japan, so it is no surprise to encounter here a magisterial work. In its historiography, it is sophisticated and completely bilingual, with especially impressive command over medieval Japanese manuscript texts. It is grounded in a vast search of the available data, well informed about parallel fields and studies, including Western demography, and it covers a very wide range of subjects. . . . But what makes this a fascinating book is the author’s style. He writes in crystal-clear prose and lays out his logic in thorough detail so the reader can follow his argument through every step. . . . At first glance, the topic might seem obscure or arcane, but this appealing book is so inherently interesting as to draw in any sincere reader, who will enjoy and learn from a master detective as he pries important insights and patterns from the past. . . . Highly recommended." —Choice 44:4 (2006)

"Wayne Farris provides a challenging, well argued, and impressively documented study of what he calls a ‘medieval Japanese meta-morphosis,’ the key element of which was population growth. He contends that, while Japan’s medieval age may have been marked by warfare, famine, and disease, it was, overall, a period of great social and economic growth and transformation. His book is a thoughtful examination of the variables that may have affected and derived from the increase in population. This is a major contribution to Japanese historical studies, not just medieval Japanese studies." —Martin Collcutt, Princeton University

Author: Farris, William Wayne;
William Wayne Farris is Sen Soshitsu XV Chair in Traditional Japanese Culture and History in the Department of History, University of Hawai‘i.
Read the introduction (PDF).


1. New Problems, Same Result: Mortality in Early Medieval Japan, 1150–1280

2. Change within Basic Continuity: Agriculture, Labor, Commerce, and Family Life, 1150–1280

3. The Dawn of a New Era: Lowered Mortality and the "Muromachi Optimum," 1280–1450

4. The Best of Times: Agriculture, Commerce, and Fertility, 1280–1450

5. Return of the Demons of Yore: Mortality during the Warring States and Uni¤cation Eras, 1450–1600

6. The Brighter Side of Life: Agriculture, Commerce, and Family Life, 1450–1600



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Works Cited