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The Lumber Industry in Early Modern Japan Review


While agricultural civilization has defined our economic relations as being based upon what we grow, throughout history humanity has also been tremendously dependent on what it can harvest - and one of the most vital of its harvesting goods is timber. Timber in Japan in the early modern era played an especially vital role, even for the most ubiquitous building material in the world, since Japan simply used so much of it: Japanese cities were built entirely of wood, in a country which was heavily urbanized by pre-modern standards, with constant rebuilding necessary due to fires, rot, and other damages. Plus of course, the other needs of shipbuilding, heating, iron working, and all of the other endeavors. These tremendous demands required a sophisticated and structurally advanced timber industry, which is the subject of The Lumber Industry in Early Modern Japan by Conrad Totman. This excellent scholarly book explores the organization, structure, relationships to the rest of the society, technical aspects, and the sustainability and life of the timber industry. Offering a readable and well written look into the conditions of Japanese timber workers and how it fit into the broader Japanese economy, it is a great work to better understand both timber industries in world context and the Japanese Shogunate period economy and society.

The book opens with a historiographical look at the Shogunate economy, before moving onto its bread and butter - first a description of the harvesting, processing, transport, and labor system and the structures of procurement, be it done directly by the government or entrepreneur activity,, before it then discusses the organizational and conflict of interest groups with the relationship between timbermen, merchants, and townsmen.

Japan’s relative lack of need for ship-building resources, in the context of Japan’s policy of relative national closure, must have had important effects on the state’s relationship to timber supplies, without the need for long-term, high quality, old-growth woods like in Europe. European forest regulations were designed to balance the three competing uses for woods - naval construction, building, and fuel - as well as alternate land use, most importantly the clearing of woods for forest production. Perhaps one reason for the greater success of Japan at achieving a result that elsewhere was extremely hard - that of both national autarky and sufficient timber supply - was driven by only having to balance building and fuel, as well as fuel use, instead of the outsized burden of naval supplies as well?

The more environmental side of the story is somewhat neglected, and could have been improved with maps - as well as a discussion of changing climate. Was there a significant change in Japan’s climate and environmental conditions, which impacted the timber industry, as the Little Ice Age began to end in the recent few centuries and global currents changed and altered?

Geographic elements could have been improved on, concerning the areas covered. It is principally in two regions - Yamaguni near Kyoto, and along the Kiso river near Tokyo, that the book talks about. The rest of Japan could receive more attention, and marginal regions - such as Hokkaido with the Shogunate’s colonization campaign during the 19th century. How did these poorly developed, low population, “frontier” regions compare to the metropole or metropole-adjacent regions studied in the book?

Related to this is the subject of inter-regional traffic, which is somewhat poorly covered in the book. After all, while it is great for local transport, from the mountains to the streams, to the rivers, and then to the cities, it neglects the transport between cities. With out wagons or carts, the highways would have been even more prohibitively expensive than in Europe: Japanese cities meanwhile, lacked an inter-urban network of canals and rivers, forbidden by Japanese geography. What of sea-going transport, like the flutes of Europe, used particularly by the Dutch? Just how limited and expensive was timber transport between cities and thus a “national” timber market?

None of this should detract from the great achievements of the book. It has an excellent description of the timber transport system, with both very good qualitative descriptions of the style and way timber was transported, such as dams and raft assembly processes, and qualitative analysis of the timber movement process, showing how much labor was required for each part of it.

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Fittingly, the book has a great strong suit in how it incorporates the timber industry into the broader Japanese economy - both as representative of structural developments, showing the interest group conflicts between city and countryside producers, wholesalers, consumers, transporters, and peasant and the governmental interests, and its actual utility in regards to the construction of the country’s buildings.

Although there aren't that many illustrations in the book, those which exist are excellent quality. There are some great woodblocks of the Japanese timbermen at work, as well as their transport infrastructure, such as the building of dams or the log chutes down into the rivers.

A crucial element of the book is how the Japanese lumbermen related to the rest of society. They were not isolated figures, but rather they had to deal with a whole range of competing interest groups, both outside of the lumber industry, and within it, as different factions jockeyed for advantage. Lumbermen tried to bypass wholesalers, peasants experienced damages to their irrigation and transport systems by loose logs being floated downstream, the government had to confront the problem of inflation squeezing its own revenue from the timber industry, as well as the donations and support it received from guilds. The collective, federative, structured, organized nature of the Japanese economy under the Bakafu is excellently put into spotlight.

There is also the macro-economic contribution of the timber industry to the economy. As the book points out, despite some of the missing technological features of the industry, such as ta lack of carts, wagons, and saws, the real accomplishments of the Japanese timber industry - that it managed, in a reasonably sustainable way, to produce enough timber to build all of Japan's cities, and constantly repair and rebuild them. This was a truly massive expenditure of timber, for Japanese cities were entirely built of wood, requiring doubtless staggering quantities of material to build and then rebuild after every fire. As the book points out, over 300,000 buildings burned in a single fire in Kyoto!

Certainly a concise book, but one which is well presented, organized, easily understandable, relevant to a broad range of subjects, giving a good look at both the timber industry and the broader Japanese economy: overall a very good volume which is well worth the read for anyone interested in the period and subject.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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