Cultivating Commons: Joint Ownership of Arable Land in Early Modern Japan
318pp. April 2011
Cultivating Commons: Joint Ownership of Arable Land in Early Modern Japan
Author: Brown, Philip C.;
Cultivating Commons challenges the common understanding of Japanese economic and social history by uncovering diverse landholding practices in early modern Japan. In this first extended treatment of multiple systems of farmland ownership, Philip Brown argues that it was joint landownership of arable land, not virtually private landownership, that characterized a few large areas of Japan in the early modern period and even survived in some places down to the late twentieth century. The practice adapted to changing political and economic circumstances and was compatible with increasing farm involvement in the market. Brown shows that land rights were the product of villages and, to some degree, daimyo policies and not the outcome of hegemons’ and shoguns’ cadastral surveys. Joint ownership exhibited none of the “tragedy of the commons” predicted by much social science theory and in fact explicitly structured a number of practices compatible with longer-term investment in and maintenance of arable land.

Exploring early modern society from the ground up, this work provides new perspectives on how villagers organized themselves and their lands, and how their practices were articulated (or were not articulated) to higher layers of administration. It employs an unusually wide array of sources and methodologies: In addition to manuscripts from local archives, it exploits interviews with modern informants who used joint ownership and a combination of modern geographical tools (hazard maps, soil maps, digital elevation models, geographic information systems technologies) to investigate the degree to which the most common form of joint ownership reflected efforts to ameliorate flood and landslide hazard risk as well as microclimate variation. Further it explores the nature of Japanese agricultural practice, its demand on natural resources, and the role of broader environmental factors—all of which infuse the study with new environmental perspectives and approaches.

Cultivating Commons will be welcomed by Japanese historians, those in other regional-national fields, and social scientists concerned with issues of resource management, economic development, and rural society.

21 illus., 12 in color

“Brown has put tremendous effort into uncovering every shred of evidence regarding collective ownership of land from across Japan. It is unlikely that any historian from Japan or outside will ever match this effort, making this the definitive study for decades to come.” —Monumenta Nipponica (67:1, 2012)

“A complex, but enlightening and often engrossing study that revises some basic presumptions about economic and social modernization in Japanese history.” —The Historian (74:3, 2012)

“Property rights can ignite social conflict and trigger economic growth, and they are far more complicated than most social scientists have imagined. In Cultivating Commons, Philip Brown analyzes the joint ownership rights that were created by early modern Japanese villagers and survived well into the modern period. In part, the joint ownership rights reduced the risks posed by flooding, landslides, and other environmental dangers, but that was not their sole purpose, for they also helped preserve equity and coordinate efforts of land reclamation. The book combines careful historical research with imaginative use of geographical data, and it will be essential reading for historians and social scientists who work on Japan, on rural society, on property rights and the environment, and on the political economy of development.” —Philip Hoffman, Rea A. and Lela G. Axline Professor of Business Economics and Professor of History, California Institute of Technology

“Brown upends conventional wisdom about the evolution of different forms of property rights with his path-breaking investigation of the phenomenon of joint ownership of cultivated lands in large areas of Japan, alongside joint ownership of uncultivated lands and highly individualized ownership of house lands and other arable fields. He challenges the prevailing view that sharing resources precedes and evolves into individualized ownership by demonstrating that people create multiple coexisting institutional arrangements to serve different goals simultaneously. Japan’s many warichi systems of rotation could promote equality, social cohesion, dispersion of risk in advance, adjustment to calamity after the fact, a chance at good fortune alongwith the occasional bad outcome from rotation, and even collective bargaining for tenant farmers. This exciting book demonstrates that accumulating a broad view of local diversity is essential to building anaccurate national picture of institutional evolution in Japan or anywhere else. Brown’s pioneering approach can spare us from unwittingly propagating stylized fictional accounts as fact and can thereby help us to reach more valuable cross-national generalizations.”—Margaret McKean, Duke University

Author: Brown, Philip C.;
Philip C. Brown is professor of Japanese history at The Ohio State University.
Read the introduction (PDF).
List of Tables

1. Introduction
2. Origins and Geopolitical Contexts
3. Data and Methodologies
4. Varieties and Extent of Joint Landownership
5. Lay of the Land: Warichi Practice in Iwade Village
6. Warichi and Natural Hazard
7. Luck of the Draw? Outcomes and Disputes
8. Adaptability, Survivability, and Persistent Influences
9. Final Reflections

Appendix A: Sources for Redistribution Interval Data and Coordinate Data, Echigo Villages
Appendix B: Hikikuji Usage, Supplementary Tables