What was the feeding capacity of land in Feudal Japan?
July 12, 2012 12:47 PM   Subscribe

I'm reading The Story of Civilization and I came across a quote that doesn't quite parse.

Here's the excerpt from the full text:

The great bulk of the population (which numbered in Yoshimune's
days some thirty millions), was composed of peasant proprietors, intensive-
ly cultivating that one-eighth of Japan's mountainous soil which lends it-
self to tillage, f In the Nara period the state nationalized the land, and
rented it to the peasant for six years or, at most, till death; but the govern-
ment discovered that men did not care to improve or properly care for
land that might in a short time be assigned to others; and the experiment
ended in a restoration of private ownership, with state provision of funds
in the spring to finance the planting and reaping of the crops. 33 Despite
this aid, the life of the peasant was not one of degenerative ease. His farm
was a tiny tract, for even in feudal days one square mile had to support
two thousand men
. 34 He had to contribute annually to the state thirty
days of forced labor, during which death by a spear-thrust might be the
penalty of a moment's idleness.

To me, this reads as if one square mile could potentially be responsible for providing food for 2,000 people. This seems a rather unreasonable figure to me, but I don't have a great deal of knowledge on the subject so I'm without capacity to refute or support the claim. Can it be so? Would farming in feudal Japan have been capable of feeding at this density?
posted by Algebra to Science & Nature (10 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Just a few days ago, I was reading a piece by Jared Diamond about the origins of the Japanese people, which are quite controversial, and not all that well studied frankly, because the Japanese don't really want to know the answer. (Short version, sorry Japanese, you pretty much share the same genetic heritage as the Koreans.)

But one thing I noted with interest is that the archaeological evidence for the timing of adoption of agriculture and pottery and settled communities don't seem to line up the way they do elsewhere. Apparently, more or less by winning the geographic lottery, Japan's farmland, fisheries, etc. were capable of supporting truly staggering numbers of people. Enough so that, and this is perhaps unique in human history, the Japanese actually settled down in fixed communities, developed pottery, etc. while still maintaining a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, and only came up with agriculture later. These are typically advances that only happen after cultures settle down and take up farming. But Japan was apparently so fertile that hunter-gatherers didn't need to migrate to less exploited territory every so often, but could actually stay in one place and successfully hunt and gather pretty much indefinitely. Add farming to that, and the potential carrying capacity of the land would have been quite impressive indeed.

So I don't know the specifics of that number, but it does seem that Japan is an outlier in terms of how many people could be supported on a square mile of land.
posted by Naberius at 1:00 PM on July 12, 2012

So, I've heard it said often that it takes an acre to feed a person. So that's 640 people per square mile. I assume this is a modern number taking into account modern diet and technology. Maybe if the diet was pretty light and/or the land was quite fertile, it could be stretched to three times that?
posted by Garm at 1:05 PM on July 12, 2012

Great question about which I know nothing. But this book, p.1104 says rice provides about 7 million calories per acre. At 640 acres per square mile, that would provide about 6,000 calories per person per day. (7,000,000*640/365/2,000). Was rice farming back then as much as a 30 percent as productive as today? I have no idea, but it's not completely implausible.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 1:06 PM on July 12, 2012

There are 640 acres in a square mile. So that would be a little over 3 people per acre. There are some good discussions on the web about how much land is needed to sustain people - it seems to me like the more farmed-meat-intensive a diet is, the more land that is necessary.
posted by muddgirl at 1:07 PM on July 12, 2012

Dammit, I was just doing the math that Mr.Know-it-some did, only he beat me to it. His answer is the same as mine -- yes, this is completely plausible, just on the caloric basis, and it leaves plenty left over for sales to generate income to supplement the rice by sources of protein, such as fish and low-maintenance animals like pigs and chickens.

Not the greatest way to live. One bad rainy season will kill everyone in your family. But it's possible.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 1:14 PM on July 12, 2012

Previously. One of the cites there says 0.07 hectacres per person, which works out to about 3700 people per square mile.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 1:35 PM on July 12, 2012

This is probably a typo, but it could be a complicated one involving possibly involving metric–English conversion, a missing word, and subsequent grammatical, but not factual, correction by the book's editors. What does footnote 34 point to? That would be the only way to check this.

All I'm getting here is that a remarkably small area of land could support a remarkably large number of people, probably not actually one square mile. Two thousand men is probably intended, but it's not clear if this means "adult males" or "people". Finding the original source could also clarify this.
posted by nangar at 1:48 PM on July 12, 2012

Best answer: The endnote leads to this page of Murdoch's History of Japan. He's saying that with Japan's 14,000 to 15,000 square miles of cultivable land, and population of 30 million, each square mile had to support up to 2,000 people.
posted by gubo at 2:54 PM on July 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

Just wanted to chime in and say that this is a wonderful series of books, astoundingly well-written, and shamefully fallen off the country's radar. I wish you many many many hours of enjoyment with it.
posted by bluejayway at 3:51 PM on July 12, 2012

Best answer: The concept of koku should help you out:

The koku was originally defined as a quantity of rice, historically defined as enough rice to feed one person for one year (one masu is enough rice to feed a person for one day). A koku of rice weighs about 150 kilograms (23.6 stone or 330 pounds).

The Japanese didn't really calculate the worth of a piece of land by territory alone, but rather the productive capacity of the domain as a whole. Some domains were more productive than others, depending on the climate and the terrain, and presumably the sophistication of infrastructure such as waterworks, which would have differed from domain to domain.

For example, domains in the far northeast have a shorter growing season than domains further south. Even today, it's possible to get two rice crops out in a single season in the area around Nagoya. Travel a hundred kilometers north to the Japan Sea, and there is only one crop.
posted by KokuRyu at 2:10 PM on July 13, 2012

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