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Everyday Things in Premodern Japan The Hidden Legacy of Material Culture

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In the objects of everyday life--the material culture--during the Tokugawa (1600-1868) and Meiji (1868-1912) periods, Susan Hanley finds a compelling explanation for Japan's unique status as the only non-western nation to industrialize before 1900. While most economists have looked at the standard of living and concluded that the Japanese were relatively poor when they began to experience modern economic growth, Hanley shifts her focus to the quality of life in premodern Japan. She introduces a new indicator, "the level of physical well-being," which measures not only the standard of living (a fairly good predictor of physical well being at lower levels), but also the overall healthfulness of everyday life--an important determinant of human productivity. Hanley focuses on the basics of food, clothing, and shelter, along with heat, hygiene, and sanitation. She examines housing and furnishings, the wide variety of foods that were eaten with rice and other staple grains, and the development of urban sanitation and hygiene. She concludes that the diet, housing, and clothing of premodern Japan were not only simpler, less costly, and more resource-efficient than those in Europe, but also equally or more healthful. To document that life in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Japan was at least as healthful as in the United States and Europe, particularly England, Hanley also examines demographic evidence that life expectancies in Japan and Europe were comparable throughout the nineteenth century. She concludes that Japanese enjoyed a much higher standard of living than has been previously understood. In substantiating her argument, Hanley investigates not only the period immediately before industrialization, but also the Tokogawa period, during which the groundwork was laid for the industrialization and modernization in the late nineteenth century after the Meiji Restoration. She traces the steady improvement in the quality of life in Japan that resulted from the diffusion of cotton for clothing and bedding, the addition of flooring, tatami, and closets to houses, and the development of new styles in cuisine, including the growing use of meat. She shows how the levels of income and health rose among commoners during the Tokogawa period. In particular, the disposal of wastes (including garbage and sewage) in cities, the sale of nightsoil as fertilizer (making it an economic good), the cleanliness of the water supply, and widespread practices of frequent bathing and drinking boiled water in the form of tea, made life in cities and towns more healthful than it was in urban Europe. To make the argument more accessible to a wide range of readers and to enable cross-cultural comparisons, the book contains a glossary of technical and culturally specific terms.