Louis G. Perez. 2002. Daily Life in Early Modern Japan.
Louis G. Perez's Daily Life in Early Modern Japan is the twenty-first volume in the Greenwood Press "Daily Life through History" Series. The book consists of 23 chapters focusing primarily on eighteenth century Japan, but provides the reader with a brief history including the establishment of the Tokugawa bakufu. A fun and interesting book to read, this work is a welcome addition to those teaching Japanese history, or those who are simply fond of Japanese studies, or those who would like a glimpse of commoners' lives during the eighteenth century. Taking the history-from-below approach, Perez has skillfully synthesized English-language sources and produced a book that will benefit many. Enhanced by illustrations, the volume covers a wide range of material, including topics that are expected in books of this nature such as family, women, amusements, economy, and sex. The reader, however, will find that Perez's discussion is much more comprehensive as he includes chapters on time, food, clothing, and nightsoil. This book is packed with information, including analysis and comparisons with other parts of world. Furthermore, Perez uses Japanese terminology throughout the book, but offers English translations which make this book accessible to a wider audience. Should the reader need a quick reference, the glossary is excellent. For a non Japan specialist or a novice in Japanese studies, this book may be a slow but worthwhile read.
Perez states that there are two primary purposes in his work. The first goal is "to examine the neglected 'everyday Japan' of its common people," and the second goal is "to capture Japan in its most natural and normal state--that is to say, to study Japan before it became 'modern,' or, more properly, 'Western'" (p. xi). He elaborates upon the first purpose by pointing out that he is concerned with the lives of non elites. Attempting to describe their lifestyle, Perez gives "voice to the common man and woman in eighteenth-century Japan" (p. xi). In this respect, Perez is putting his scholarship in the framework of viewing history from below, and moves away from the traditional approach of viewing history from above, which means examining the accomplishment of "great people," usually men.
Perez's second purpose of identifying the distinctiveness of Japan is surely to provoke discussion among Japanologists. Indeed, the concepts of "modernization" and "Westernization" have long been argued in Japanese studies. In his approach to the second purpose, Perez raises the question: "when, then, was Japan most 'Japanese'?" (p. xi). He finds that "the best way to see Japan at the height of its uniqueness is to examine the eighteenth century" (p.xii). This view may, again, generate some discussion, but Perez is addressing an important issue; to examine Japan for its own sake. Perez, here, removes himself from a trend found in Western historiography, which is to examine non-Western history as the opposite of Western history. Thus, Perez contributes to countering preconceived notions and stereotypical images of Japan.
The two themes (purposes) are carried throughout the book and any chapter can be cited for examples, but I have selected Chapter 15: "Nightsoil." Information on nightsoil is difficult to find. Perez's approach to this topic is to place nightsoil in a framework of the society as a whole and not merely related to agriculture. He points out that nightsoil was important as fertilizer, but it was also a valued commodity that was traded. As urbanization increased, urban excreta became an issue, which was resolved by hiring mostly peasants for removal. Perez shows that this trade benefited the peasants as they secured a constant supply of fertilizer and from the urban perspective this trade contributed greatly to the hygiene of the cities. As European and other cities in the world used rivers and canals as their sewer systems and, in some cases, "routinely flung the contents of slop jars out into the street" (p. 220), Japanese cities were clean, with unpolluted sources of water. As a result, typhoid and cholera were unknown until the European arrival in the nineteenth century, and other epidemics were "rarer and much less catastrophic than in London, Paris, or other European cities" (p. 220).
Such interesting information and analysis are found throughout the book, and this book is an intelligent contribution toward a comprehensive history of Japan.
Department of History, University of Michigan-Flint, 322 David M. French Hall
2186, Flint, Michigan 48502, USA.
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|Publication:||Journal of Asian and African Studies|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2004|
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