Peasant Life During the Meiji Thesis

Excerpt from Thesis :

..Of course, her earnings were also meager, but it was better than relying on farming alone" (Nagatsuka, 1). Oshina, the wives' character in the novel, could be the impersonation of any hardworking farmer's wife during the Meiji Restoration in Japan. The hardship of the life in a village struggling to adjust to the wave of modernity swiping the country, but still very deeply rooted in the previous period was plausible in the case of those who did not own much land or the means to improve their living standards from other not farm-related activities. "At all hours of the day, as long as there was light, Oshina kept busy at one task or another; soaking straw from rope making, sweeping up leaves, her hands were never idle" (Nagatsuka, 1). The lives of the farmers like those described by Nagatsuka were subject to rapid change since the early stages of the Meiji Restoration, despite their initial set back. The example for the next generation of female workers in the factories of the modern Japan was set by women like Oshina. "Leke their mothers and grandmothers before them in pre-Meiji times, they have routinely seen female as well as male offspring of peasant families "going out to work" (dekasegi) in a place beyond commuting to the home village (Tsurumi, 10).

The description of a common farmer's wife in ethnographic studies about peasant life pre and immediately post Meiji restoration fits the mother character in the Soil. Patricia Tsurumi's research work, gathered under the title: Factory Girls, sheds some light on the lives of the common peasant women that will populate most of the factories where there knowledge to weave, spin cotton or reel silk was put to good use. The peasant family depended heavily on all the family members, male or female. The gender differences in the peasant life of the Meiji era continues to be manifested in the amount paid for the same kind of labor in many activities and in the places they plaid in the family and in society, but the women were nevertheless respected and praised for their role in the family and thus, when it came to the family life, they were able to take part in the decision making up to a certain level. This position extended to the village life as well (idem, 16). Interestingly enough, when thinking of the same period in Europe, the marriages among the peasants were usually left at the partners' will and the husband and wife were often even having sexual relations before the actual marriage took place. Unlike the samurai during the Tokugawa period and more recently, the landlords and the rich merchants, the peasants could not only choose whomever they wanted as their spouse, they could also divorce him or her if the situation asked for such a measure and remarry someone else (Nagatsuka, Waswo,; Tsurumi).

Another important source of information about the peasantry life in Japan during the Meiji restoration is provided by Anne Walthall's book: The Weak Body of a Useless Woman.

The book tells the story of Matsuo Taseko, a Japanese peasant who overcame her condition by becoming involved in the events that led to the Meiji restoration and those after that and she also became a poet. Matsuo Taseko was no ordinary woman, but her life is presented in the circumstances of extraordinary events made happen by ordinary people. The introduction to this book reveals the description of a typical peasant woman, born during the Tokugawa period: "Matsuo Taseko was born a peasant in the mountains of central Japan in 1811. She married at the age of eighteen, gave birth to ten children of whom seven survived to adulthood, raised silkworms, and helped her husband mange his family's affairs" (Walthall, 1). Being born into a richer peasant family, Matsuo Taseko had a marriage that was most likely arranged. The wealthier peasants used to tie knots with others that were having about the same economic situation by means of marriage. This was the way the Takemura and Matsuo families made an alliance. Like Nagatsuka Takashi, Walthall is also mentioning the habit of adopting sons-in-law in the case of families that were having only daughters, since the family affairs were usually to be overtaken from the head of the house upon his retirement or death, by a man. The Takemura, the family Taseko came from is described in the book as a family that had to use this custom for several generations since they had only daughters for some time. Another way of adopting a son into a family, beside the habit of adapting a son-in-law who overtook the family name along with the family responsibilities, there was also the possibility of adopting a son from a relative, like in the case of Taseko's brother who adopted one of her sons. The men who were marrying and adopted into another family were just as exposed to the difficulties of adapting to a completely new life as the women were. The difficulties of those men who came into a strange household of their wife's family, adopted as son-in-law, are described by Nagatsuka Takashi, in the Soil. Kanji married into Oshina's family and was adopted to overtake the family duties from his father-in-law: Uhei, who also came into the family as an adopted son. "Having entered the family by means of marriage, neither Uhei nor Kanji has the full authority of an inheriting son. Thus Uhei defers to Oshina's other relatives when her elopement with Kanji is discussed and although there were additional reasons for it Kanji defers to Oshina throughout their life together" (Takashi, Waswo, xiii). Ann Waswo is further pointing out the introduction to the book she translated that the marriages between peasants that were not wealthy, like Oshina and Kanji were free of arrangements between families. "In other respects, however, the situation of both men is fairly typical for the time and place. They had both married women of their own choosing, with whom they had premarital sexual relations and for whom they had a strong attachment" (idem, xiii).

A custom that came from the samurai and was already adopted into the commoners' families living in the country was that of a child's debt to his parents. Children were bound to obey, respect and support their parents in their old age in exchange for having been given life and nurtured. (idem, xiii).

The differences between the lives of a wealthy peasant family and those who were struggling to make just enough to survive are evident in the description of the wedding ceremonials in the Soil compared to those described in the Weak Body of a Useless Woman. When Taseko married into the Matsuo family, her first ride to her new home, her husband's family home, was in a palanquin. Not only were they superior to other peasants because of their wealth, but they were also having some warrior ancestors that gave them some privileges. Beside the offerings for the Gods at the wedding ceremony and the gifts for the family members, the brides coming from such families were given a dowry that was impressive and belonging to them only. The fathers of the brides received important amounts of money form the groom's family. The total costs of such a marriage, that was in fact an alliance were astronomical compared to what the majority of the peasants could earn in their whole lives (Walthall, 64).

During the Meiji period, there were also changes made in the Civil Code that were regarding the habit of keeping a wife's family name. The common peasants already adopted the new system of her adopting her husbands' family name. It became official one the Civil Code was adopted, by the end of the nineteenth century.

The sentimental values of family life were felt in both cases of those who had arranged marriages, like Matsuo Taseko or in the case of Oshina and Kanji from the Soil who chose each other as a spouse. In the case of the latter, beside their strict and absolute contribution to the family earnings, the relationship between husband and wife brought compassion and warmth into the family. In the case of the former, there is evidence presented in the book the Weak Body of a Useless Woman testifying the deep feelings a daughter used to have for her family, even after she move into her husband's and the author points out that this was a common thing among the Japanese families (idem, 65).

The usual peasant family size was relatively small by the time the Meiji Restoration took place. The economic development that came along with the industrial economy gave the opportunities for commoners as well as for all those depending on the farming to have larger families. Their children were not bound to the same way of living as their ancestors, since they were offered the new opportunity to go work in a factory.

Another important source of information regarding everyday…

Sources Used in Document:

Works Cited

1. Bernier, Bernard. "The Japanese Peasantry and Economic Growth Since the Land Reform of 1946-47." Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars 12.1 (1980)

2. Birrell, Robert. "Obstacles to Development in Peasant Societies: An Analysis of India, England, & Japan." Peasants in the Modern World. Ed. Philip K. Bock. 1st ed. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1969.

3. Eisenstadt, Shmuel Noah. Japanese Civilization: A Comparative View. University of Chicago Press, 1996

4. Gordon, Andrew. A Modern History of Japan: From Tokugawa Times to the Present. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003

Cite This Thesis:

"Peasant Life During The Meiji" (2008, November 04) Retrieved January 18, 2019, from

"Peasant Life During The Meiji" 04 November 2008. Web.18 January. 2019. <>

"Peasant Life During The Meiji", 04 November 2008, Accessed.18 January. 2019,