Japan History Lecture Series – Benevolence, Charity, and Duty: Famine Relief and Local Society in Early Modern Japan

Japan History Lecture Series -- Benevolence, Charity, and Duty: Famine Relief and Local Society in Early Modern Japan

Maren Ehlers - Assistant Professor of History, University of North Carolina, Charlotte

Friday, March 23, 2012 - 4:00pm to 5:30pm
Room 202, Henry R. Luce Hall See map
34 Hillhouse Avenue
New Haven, CT 6511

During the Tenmei Famine (1783-1788), the lord of Ōno, a small territory in central Japan, provided rice gruel and relief loans to his starving subjects, and well-to-do townspeople donated grain to hundreds of hungry people in the castle town. These handouts appear like spontaneous acts of charity in the face of an unforeseen disaster. But they were shaped by long-standing precedents regarding the respective roles of lord and subjects in poor relief and in local government more generally.

This talk draws on the journals of town officials to discuss the complex interactions between the domain government and the town elite of Ōno that led to the provision of famine relief in the 1780s. It shows that townspeople charity was often a collective effort mediated by various guilds within town society, and also closely coordinated with the relief measures of the government. The domain and the town elite collaborated with each other to improve the organization of aid and prevent popular unrest, but they never completely merged their efforts as each side looked for opportunities to communicate its benevolence to the poor. By mobilizing groups such as the town merchants, the domain government was able to get involved in famine relief without contributing much of its own funds, a fact that had wider implications for the evolution of poor relief in the late Tokugawa period.

Maren Ehlers is an assistant professor in the History Department at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. She received her PhD from the Department of East Asian Studies at Princeton University in 2011. After completing an MA in Japanese Language and Culture in 2003 at the University of Hamburg, Germany, she spent two years doing graduate work in Japan at Osaka City University and the University of Fukui. Her dissertation is entitled “Poor Relief and the Negotiation of Local Order in Early Modern Japan.” Focusing on the case of Ōno domain in Echizen province, it explores the various ways in which poor relief in the Tokugawa period was shaped by the relationships between local status groups, including marginal groups such as professional beggars and the guilds of the blind that enjoyed official begging rights.