My research focuses primarily on the long run economic development of Japan, using a quantitative and comparative approach.
Despite its sophistication, Early Modern Japan, 1600-1868 had among the lowest real wage levels ever recorded, 40% of those in pre-industrial England. This paper shows that this puzzle can be partly resolved if we take into account the greater equality of land-holdings in pre-industrial Japan than in Europe. In England by 1700, 70% of the rural population were landless but in Japan only 13%. Paradoxically, as I show theoretically, in the Malthusian demographic regime of the pre-industrial world greater equality should generate lower living standards. I show empirically that landless families in Japan were unable to reproduce demographically. Had most households been landless, as in Europe, the population would have been unsustainable without higher wages. If, as many historians believe, high wages and living standards in western Europe explain the onset of the Industrial Revolution, then Japan’s failure to industrialize could have been shaped by its unusual pre-industrial equality.
The timing of the divergence between East Asia and Northwest Europe remains controversial. This stems from many potential errors in past wage measures. I overcome these issues for Japan by using wages of rural servants, the most common form of labor, for whom wages can be well measured. Using a new dataset of 1,661 servant wage contracts, I estimate an annual wage series for unskilled male and female laborers from 1600-1863. Wages fluctuated and were negative correlated with population growth and are consistent with a Malthusian interpretation. Throughout such fluctuations, Japanese male laborers consistently received less than half the wage of their English counterparts. Accounting for differences in female wages or other incomes do not explain the gap. This places Japan among the poorest societies ever observed. I also show past studies based on day wages are reliable and this together implies the divergence of Japan from England by 1380.
The equality of East Asian societies relative to Western Europe has been well documented in the late 19th century. This paper shows that such regional patterns may extend back over 1000 years by comparing rural wealth inequality in Japan and China to Western Europe. I first present new evidence of wealth inequality from early modern Japan, 1650-1870, using a new dataset of household landholdings across 591 villages. Two facts emerge: First, Japan was highly equal relative to Western Europe, with Gini coefficients averaging 0.5 compared to 0.7-0.9 in contemporary Western Europe. Second, Japanese equality was stable compared to Western Europe where inequality trended upwards. Further, I show evidence that ancient China and Japan adopted an equal field system which kept society equal compared to medieval Europe which was already unequal circa 1300. This regional pattern of inequality had deep roots and persisted until the industrial revolution.
Pre-industrial Japan, 1650-1870, had a landholding peasantry unlike contemporary Western Europe dominated by landless laborers. This paper shows the vastly different outcomes partly stemmed from the practice of adoption in Japan which guaranteed heirship and reduced demographic risk. I use uniquely detailed data on household landholding in 38 villages linked across generations to examine how landholdings and inequality was transmitted across generations. I find that poor households went extinct at rates of 20%, reducing inequality. The rich households did not go extinct due to the existence of adoption in absence of an heir. Combined with a regression towards the mean and partible inheritance, large landholdings were gradually broken up across generations. In contrast, the rich in England went extinct at rates of 20% and wealth was amalgamated by close relatives leading to greater inequality. A simulation shows differences in demographic institutions resulted in a 0.2 reduction in Gini coefficients.
The Benefit of Shocks? Risk and Living Standards in Early Modern Japan, 1600-1868