Berry M.E. (2008) Market revolution in 17th-century Japan

Mary Elizabeth Berry (2008) “Is Consumption Virtuous? The Market Revolution and the Motives for Work in 17th-Century Japan”, conference given at UCLA.

The conference was introduced by prof. Sanjay Subrahmanyam in front of a very receptive audience in the great campus that is UCLA. These are my notes, the construction and the mistakes are mine. The drawing above have been ignominously stolen from the Gütenberg project’s Tales from Old Japan.


Prof. Berry started by reminding the “Tokugawa litany” to the audience: the 17th century was a time of tremendous change in the Japanese economic history; perhaps even more so than the Meiji period.

The population doubled, reaching 30 million. The proportion of urban population went from 3 to 12%. These figure are particularly impressive when one compares Japan to, say, France, which is 3 times larger and almost entirely arable (unlike Japan where at the time only 12% of the landmass could be cultivated), had only 19 million inhabitants.

Over the 17th century, the areas put into cultivation doubled and so did productivity. A long series of improvements took place in areas such as transportation, long distance trade, the commercialisation of the economy, etc.

At the root of this revolutionary change was political fiat (the forced migration of the samurais to the castle-towns). The fact that the Tokugawa tried to act upon the economy is not surprising, what is surprising is the fact that they succeeded.

So how did it work? Firstly, the shogunate was as big a state as any other in the pre-modern period. The government invested a lot in urban centres and more specifically in the bettering of Edo.

But private investment was even more important. It took the form of the shift to commercial crops by farmers or the set up of small transport firms. Thousands of skilled and specialised workers moved and thrived in cities and primarily in Edo.


Why did households work so hard and took so many risks?

Pull factors: bettering of transportation, reliability of measurements, weak fiscal structures in towns, good contract enforcement for land and labour.

Push factors: considering the huge risks for the losers – the so-called floating people – and the number of bankruptcies something had to be a strong incentive for people to work so much and take so many risks. But what?

To that prof. Berry answers: danger. Countless perils (natural and human) forced people to work smartly and hard and to be frugal so as to save up, as hoarding was pretty much the only form of warranty one could count on. Popular literature invitd people to seize any opportunity as well as saving 25% of their income. Despite the risks and perils there was no such thing as fatalism.

Needs and luxuries

So what one should have done with his savings?

Transmitting wealth to the next generation was an obligation due to the lineage, both ascendants and descendants. Besides, a part of the whole, one benefited from the good functioning of the world and one had a moral imperative to have an orderly behaviour.

Wealth was seen as necessary so as not to lose face and preserve one’s modesty. But was there room for leisurely consumption is such an universe?

Consumption ought to have been present in Tokugawa Japan as it is essential for any non-autarkic society. Indeed, producers who move toward specialisation must at the same time become specialised consumers.

According to Jan De Vries’ concept of Industrious Revolution, early modern labourers increased their amount of work so as to be able to consume more. Was it also the case in Japan?

Such behaviour may have been triggered by a legitimising rationale casting a positive light on such a morally charged subject as consumption. Was there a Japanese counterpart to Bernard Mandeville’s Fable of Bees?

It seems not. Literature (backed in that by sumptuary laws) opposed the expression of “the selfish self”. But as consumption was necessary, permission must have come somehow from somewhere…

Rules of consumption

The rules of consumption differ through time, space and between groups, they dictate what type of product is deemed acceptable and what is not. Prof. Berry observed at least three important ones in Japan:

  1. “What is useful is useful: get it” whatever is necessary for the household’s productivity is acceptable. Gradually non-conspicuous consumption goods are introduced in this category (lamps, chop sticks, books, coal).
  2. “Civility requires exchange, which requires gift-exchange”. The Japanese was (and still is) culture very keen on giving at any sort of formal occasion (birthday, anniversary, etc.). Tea, tobacco, gears, floors, letters were offered following a detailed etiquette.
  3. “Things that matter come from someone and from somewhere”. Numerous guides were listing the best products of various regions, teaching the reader what and when to buy the right thing. Thousands of these list were discriminating the best sake, the best tuna, the best prostitute, etc. Sumptuary laws banned the untimely purchase of certain seasonal goods. Hence having the first legal product available became appreciated as such. Gradually, information became more precise, such quality or such product was not associated to the producing region anymore but to the individual craftsman or farmer. Even such petty things as needles and grilled fish were listed, discussed and the best producers were recognized.

Gift-giving created a quality-taking demand (by opposing to the West that is price taking) as things given (a huge proportion of things bought) had to be as good as the giver could.



  • Did the peace brought by the Tokugawa dynasty increased the gentry’s sophistication and politeness the way it in during the 18th century in England and continental Europe?
  • Yes
  • Was this type of consumption a Edo thing or was it wide spread? What about the chronology?
  • Artisans in the daimyos’ castle-towns did bring these patterns over the 250 provinces. But unlike what has often been said, the so-called 16th century free cities had nothing to do in term of size and sophistication with the three “monsters” of the Tokugawa period (Osaka, Kyoto and Edo). Further back in time, it is unlikely that medieval growth was nearly significant enough to be the origin of the Tokugawa’s consumer revolution.
  • What about the pleasure quarters?
  • Even tough prostitution was a very significant industry, the famous and sophisticated pleasure quarters located in the majors towns providing the services of famous geishas and concubines were a small minority. The biggest engine of consumption over the 17th century was tea; the industry over the art it had become was huge including retailers, training and literature). Before the 1600s there was not much in terms of widely available books. But after the 1640s, printing allowed the development of popular books, by the late 17th century, the prescriptive literature (guides and lists) had become pervasive.


  • Was there an issue with counterfeit artifacts?
  • There was almost no need for labels and branding. The quality of the stuff was immediately visible and one wouldn’t and couldn’t buy and use products that did not fit with one’s social and economic condition.


  1. This exploration of the origins of Japanese consumption patterns was fascinating, unfortunately some questions remain pending
  2. Why did this gift-giving culture appeared in Japan and nowhere else? And why under the Tokugawa?
  3. More importantly even, however significant, the gift-giving circuit ought to have represented only a fraction of the country commercial exchanges, what proportion exactly?
  4. How did the quality bias in the gift-giving circuit spilled over and influenced the daily life?
  5. To what extend the Japanese producers’ settlement for quality instead of quantity – as opposed to, say, England – was dictated by a lack of resources?
  6. What were the effects on innovation of such a choice?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: