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Mabiki: Infanticide and Population Growth in Eastern Japan, 1660-1950

Fabian Drixler
Copyright Date: 2013
Edition: 1
Pages: 388
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    This book tells the story of a society reversing deeply held worldviews and revolutionizing its demography. In parts of eighteenth-century Japan, couples raised only two or three children. As villages shrank and domain headcounts dwindled, posters of child-murdering she-devils began to appear, and governments offered to pay their subjects to have more children. In these pages, the long conflict over the meaning of infanticide comes to life once again. Those who killed babies saw themselves as responsible parents to their chosen children. Those who opposed infanticide redrew the boundaries of humanity so as to encompass newborn infants and exclude those who would not raise them. In Eastern Japan, the focus of this book, population growth resumed in the nineteenth century. According to its village registers, more and more parents reared all their children. Others persisted in the old ways, leaving traces of hundreds of thousands of infanticides in the statistics of the modern Japanese state. Nonetheless, by 1925, total fertility rates approached six children per women in the very lands where raising four had once been considered profligate. This reverse fertility transition suggests that the demographic history of the world is more interesting than paradigms of unidirectional change would have us believe, and that the future of fertility and population growth may yet hold many surprises.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-95361-1
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-ix)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. x-xii)
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
    (pp. xvii-xvii)
  6. MAPS
    (pp. xviii-xx)
  7. 1 Introduction: Contested Worldviews and a Demographic Revolution
    (pp. 1-22)

    Deep in the mountains of Gunma, a chapel stands amid cedars and forest flowers. Under its eaves, a wooden tablet has slowly surrendered its paint to two hundred years of wind and rain. Yet when the light falls from the right angle, the eroded image still calls out its warning to travelers: It is early spring. The branches of a plum tree are still bare. In an open pavilion, a woman has just given birth. Next to her, a midwife kneels—and strangles the newborn. While the infant soul soars toward a bodhisattva, floating above on curled clouds, the midwife...


    • 2 Three Cultures of Family Planning
      (pp. 25-46)

      Sometime in the early eighteenth century, a merchant named Shinbei traveled toward the great shrine of Itsukushima near Hiroshima. One evening as he was settling down at an inn, another guest suddenly rushed out. Puzzled, Shinbei turned to a pilgrim at his side. Could it be that there were robbers among the travelers? “In the lodging that we share, an odious thing has happened,” the man explained. “The rest of us are also thinking about moving out. Apparently, there is someone from Tosa among the pilgrims. We always hear that when people in Tosa do not want to raise a...

    • 3 Humans, Animals, and Newborn Children
      (pp. 47-60)

      When Arai Nobuaki, a childrearing commissioner in Sendai domain, toured the villages of his quadrant to lecture against infanticide, he was intrigued to find the countryside dotted with stelae dedicated to silkworms.¹ In response to his inquiry, the locals explained that “when you boil silkworms to [harvest their] thread, you kill a living being.” Arai was moved to write a poem:

      mushi dani mo People who have

      tomurau nori no memorial services

      aru mono ni even for bugs,

      akago wo gaisu know ye the retribution

      mukui shire kashi for killing a newborn child!

      After his tour, Arai compiled his arguments...

    • 4 Infanticide and Immortality: The Logic of the Stem Household
      (pp. 61-68)

      In the years around 1680, a population explosion caused consternation in many parts of Japan.¹ Some governments encouraged emigration to rid their lands of unwanted mouths, and others closed their borders to laborers from elsewhere.² Throughout the archipelago, village assemblies and rulers issued laws restricting marriages and partible inheritance. One of these laws was the 1677 decree of Sendai domain that we have encountered in the previous chapter. “As we observe from the recent population registration,” it explained, “the number of people is increasing greatly, and we estimate that within ten or fifteen years, there will be grain shortages. If...

    • 5 The Material and Moral Economy of Infanticide
      (pp. 69-90)

      In the last two chapters, we have seen why the barriers to infanticide were relatively low and how killing newborns could be justified as benefiting the household’s dead, living, and future members. The latter argument rested in part on the logic of the stem family, but was also rooted in a particular view of the costs and benefits of childrearing. This chapter examines four material contexts for infanticide: poverty; the opportunity cost of diverting the mother’s work from production to reproduction; the limited value of children as producers; and the expense of raising a child properly in a world of...

    • 6 The Logic of Infant Selection
      (pp. 91-108)

      A woman who followed Eastern Japan’s fertility norm and raised only three children would still, on average, give birth about six times.¹ As couples faced the decision of which newborns to keep and which to discard, they could draw on an elaborate system of evaluating the promise of each child. The needs of the household played an important role, but so did a cosmology that understood time as patterned with peril and promise. Parents tried to balance the genders of their children but also paid close attention to whether the sex of a birth matched their predictions and whether a...

    • 7 The Ghosts of Missing Children: Four Approaches to Estimating the Rate of Infanticide
      (pp. 109-126)

      The preceding chapters have explored the understandings of human life, family responsibility, and time that permitted, motivated, and patterned infanticide. This short chapter attempts to quantify its frequency through four different approaches. The first of these consults the reports of contemporary observers who stated clearly what proportions of infants were killed at birth. The other three derive estimates from the demographic record. One trace of missing children to be found there is the sex ratio pattern of surviving brothers and sisters. Since infanticide in Japan was not strictly sex selective, sex ratios only yield only a minimum estimate. To approximate...


    • 8 Infanticide and Extinction
      (pp. 129-137)

      In the 1820s, the villagers of Aoki in Hitachi’s Makabe district chiseled the names of extinct households onto a large rock. In this village of 39 remaining households, their number came to 59.¹ For more than a century, the logic of Funerary Buddhism and the stem family had held out the promise of achieving immortality with a little help from infanticide (see Chapter 4). The extinction of so many family lines all over Eastern Japan now challenged that logic.

      Eastern Japan’s population reached its high-water mark around 1700. By the early 1780s, most domains and provinces of Eastern Japan had...

    • 9 “Inferior Even to Animals”: Moral Suasion and the Boundaries of Humanity
      (pp. 138-157)

      In the early winter of 1857, a group of fourteen men celebrated the completion of a hundred-temple circuit by dedicating a votive tablet. Fashioned from six wooden boards, thisemashows a young woman clad in layered robes of red and green. Still wearing the sweatband typical of women giving birth, she smothers a child on a reed mat. Diagonally above, she and the dying child appear once again. Her skin, white and smooth in the first scene, has turned the same shade of green as her outer clothes, and buckles with knots and tensed muscles. From a mountainous bluish...

    • 10 Subsidies and Surveillance
      (pp. 158-182)

      For all the passion their creators poured into them, pamphlets and paintings were relatively cheap. The perceived urgency of fighting infanticide is more impressively evinced by the prodigious resources that governments and individuals poured into far costlier countermeasures. If moral suasion redrew the boundaries of humanity and argued that infanticide was not compatible with a pleasant afterlife, childrearing subsidies and pregnancy surveillance focused on the material conditions that their designers saw as motivating and permitting infanticide: poverty and impunity. Such policies reached into remote villages, consumed great quantities of paper, and tied up considerable administrative and financial resources. Depending on...

    • 11 Even a Strong Castle Cannot Be Defended without Soldiers: Infanticide and National Security
      (pp. 183-193)

      In the culture of infanticide, reproductive restraint was a mark of responsibility toward others. As we have seen, it was considered the prudent alternative to “afflicting six children with hunger and cold” or to “selling them in the spring of their sixth or seventh year.”¹ Thinning out children was an act of filial piety for those who “struggled to nourish their parents.”² Even where a fourth or fifth child would not empty the rice bowls of its aging grandparents, it imperiled their afterlife by threatening to disperse the patrimony of the household on whose vigor the ancestors depended for their...

    • 12 Infanticide and the Geography of Civilization
      (pp. 194-207)

      In 1794, Hara Nan’yō, personal physician to the lord of Mito, sent his newest book manuscript to Fujita Yūkoku. Fujita was young enough to be Hara’s child, but his actual parentage was far less illustrious. The second son of a used-clothes seller in Mito’s castletown, he had shown such prodigious promise as a scholar that at the age of eighteen he was raised to the rank of a warrior and made an editor on Mito’s Dai-Nipponshi historiographical project. Hara hoped that Fujita would write a foreword to hisBokuyokuhen,a learned treatise on infanticide. Fujita obliged him, but in a...

    • 13 Epilogue: Infanticide in the Shadows of the Modern State
      (pp. 208-231)

      The final chapter of habitual infanticide in Japan makes for a story full of surprises and contradictions. After the Meiji Restoration of 1868, infanticide briefly stood at the center of attention but then largely dropped from view. Abortion was designated a crime, but annual convictions remained in the hundreds at a time when late-term abortions and infanticides alone numbered in the tens of thousands. Imperial Japan had a rapidly growing population and an increasingly modern state apparatus, but contrary to its reputation, before the 1930s the modern state was less pronatalist than many domains of the Tokugawa system. Although it...

    • 14 Conclusion
      (pp. 232-244)

      Eastern Japan’s culture of infanticide lasted longer than the modern reproductive system of reliable contraceptives and safe abortions has so far endured in any part of the world. In some areas, it spanned more than two centuries, assuming its distinctive characteristics in the late seventeenth century and persisting into the age of cinema and motorcars. Infanticide was rooted in the most fundamental worldviews of those who employed it to plan their families. Springing from particular understandings of humanity, death, and immortality, it expressed ideals of responsible parenthood and obligations to elders, of how families should seek economic security and the...

  10. APPENDIX ONE The Own-Children Method and Its Mortality Assumptions
    (pp. 245-252)
  11. APPENDIX TWO Sampling Biases, Sources of Error, and the Characteristics of the Ten Provinces Dataset
    (pp. 253-260)
  12. APPENDIX THREE The Villages in the Ten Provinces Dataset
    (pp. 261-275)
  13. APPENDIX FOUR Total Fertility Rates in the Districts of the Ten Provinces
    (pp. 276-280)
  14. APPENDIX FIVE Regional Infanticide Reputations, According to Contemporary Statements
    (pp. 281-284)
  15. APPENDIX SIX Scrolls and Votive Tablets with Infanticide Scenes
    (pp. 285-286)
  16. APPENDIX SEVEN Childrearing Subsides and Pregnancy Surveillance by Domain
    (pp. 287-288)
  17. NOTES
    (pp. 289-352)
    (pp. 353-396)
  19. INDEX
    (pp. 397-417)