A First Escape from Poverty in Late Medieval Japan: Evidence from Real Wages in Kyoto (1360-1860)

Muromachi Samurai (1538)
Muromachi Samurai (1538)
Muromachi Samurai (1538)

A First Escape from Poverty in Late Medieval Japan: Evidence from Real Wages in Kyoto (1360-1860)

Jean-Pascal Bassinoa, Kyoji Fukaob, and Masanori Takashima

First International Conference: The Globalisation’s origins and the Great Divergence, held in Paris, France in November (2013)


How poor was Japan before the Tokugawa period (1603-1868)? European visitors of the 16th century describe the country as one the poorest in Asia, suggesting that living standards of commoners were lower in Japan than in coastal urban areas of India, Southeast Asia, and China, and implicitly lowest than in Europe. This paper offers a first investigation of long-term trends in Japanese living standards from the mid-14th to the mid-19th century using urban daily wages and price data for a number of basic commodities, allowing a comparison with Europe. Urban rice wages were on a steady upward trend, from a low level, between the mid-15th and the mid-16th century. Our tentative interpretation is that this improvement was mostly driven by a rise in labor productivity in agriculture. A drastic decline in the skill premium, from an extremely high level, is observed between the 16th and the 19th century. The skill diffusion initiated a process of Smithian growth and of contraction of income inequalities that accelerated in second half of the Tokugawa period (Saito 2010). This was associated with a fall in rice wages of skilled workers that was largely offset for by changes in relative prices comparable to what has been observed for Europe by Hoffman et al. (2002). Living standards of wage earners in Kyoto, measured using welfare ratios (Allen 2001), remained in the lower range of European cities for skilled workers and were extremely low for unskilled workers.

Japan is a country made up of various islands and divided into 66 kingdoms… Some parts of the country are well supplied with rice, the staple diet, and some wheat is also grown; other regions are barren and hilly. On the whole, Japan is one of the poorest and most barren countries in all the Orient. Alessandro Valignano, Historia del Principio y Progresso de la Compania de Jesus en las Indias Orientales, 1542-1564.

Click here to read this article given at the First International Conference

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