To some degree, this may be considered a concession to peasants who were largely upset with their station in life as urban areas benefited more significantly from the economic expansion. There is little indication that prosperity was widespread among the peasant classes during the Tokugawa period. Other historical signs point to the real possibility that most farmers suffered during this period.
In fact, much of the economic woes for rural Japan at this time can be traced to developments that were taking place in the cities because of the still feudal organization of Japanese society. The daimyo were lords in the feudal sense; though their holdings varied, agricultural lands -- and taxes on those lands -- formed the basis of their wealth and power. Therefore, when the shogun made it law that each daimyo had to keep up a residence both in their own hometown as well as in Edo, and that the family of the daimyo had to stay in Edo in the absence of the lord, it put these theoretically autonomous daimyo in a difficult position. In addition to their families effectively being held hostage, there was an added economic pressure of having to keep up and maintain two residences with all the pomp and circumstance that these lords were accustomed to (Duiker and Spielvogel 632). Because Tokugawa Japan was still a feudal system, the costs that the lords incurred in this way were passed immediately on to the peasants who farmed their lands in the countryside in the form of higher taxes, up to 50% in some cases (Duiker and Spielvogel 635).
Under such economic conditions, it is not surprising that many popular uprisings occurred Japan's rural areas during this era. Social riots and uprisings were relatively common throughout the period among the peasant classes (Miyazaki 1). In many cases, this should be understood as all but historically inevitable. For peasant farmers facing decreases in rice prices (the staple crop for most farmers) and crippling taxes, social uprising would have seemed all the more appealing. More than that, however, the peasant classes in the country must have been at least obliquely aware of the increased affluence and consumption that was taking place in the cities. They would have heard tales of daimyo who kept two large estates -- never mind that this was required by the shogun. Stories of trade goods, new products for sale, and a merchant class of individuals who were succeeding despite not being a part of the aristocracy would have surely filtered their way into the countryside. Open rioting was really just inevtiable at this point. The reality is that the economic expansion that took place during the Tokugawa period was more beneficial to urbanites that it was to the rural peasant.
Conclusion: Economic Development in an Historical Perspective
Despite disparate effects on urban and rural economies, the Tokugawa was a period of dramatic economic change. From the start of the period and increased contact with Western powers, trade and commerce in Japan began an upswing. Feudal deregulation led to advances in manufacturing productivity as well as demand for consumable products. A merchant and artisan class -- a forerunner of a more established middle class -- began to develop at this point as well. By the end of the Tokugawa period, urban economies were much stronger, varied, and progressive than they had been at the start of the era. Positive changes were slower to occur among the rural peasantry, with increasing economic pressures leading to open riots in many cases. Ultimately, however, the progressive changes that occurred in the cities filtered their way into the countryside, improving productivity, education, and freeing the rural economy from its dependence on feudal lords. Ultimately this has been the lasting effect of the Tokugawa economic expansion: the dismantling of the feudal system that had dominated for centuries and the creation of a Japanese nation-state.
Duiker, William J. And Spielvogel, Jackson J. World History Volume I: To 1800. 2nd ed. London: Wadsworth Publishing Co., 1998.
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