Lamp Oil and the Transformation of Rural Society in Nineteenth-Century Japan

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During the Edo period, oil was a vital source of lamp fuel. Rapeseed and cottonseed were the main raw materials used to produce oil. Both were important commodities, the production and sale of which supported the reproduction of peasant households. Accordingly, oil was a vital everyday commodity, supporting the lives of many early modern Japanese. What happened, then, when oil production and distribution began to penetrate rural Japan? How did the industry's expansion into Japan's hinterlands affect the social structure of rural communities? The theme of oil production and distribution was examined in the 1960s and 1970s. In much of that research, however, scholars characterized the relationships among the various sectors of the oil production and trade exclusively in terms of conflict or struggle. As such, in my research on Izumi, a center of oil production just south of Osaka, I have worked to shed light on those aspects of the production processes and lived experiences. Specifically, I focus on Kadobayashi Sagohē(門林佐五平), a family of oil producers. The family maintains a rich archive of early modern documents(門林啓三氏所蔵文書). In this paper, working with these materials, I will discuss the small local merchants; the physical laborers; and, crucially, the supporting network of village and interfamilial bonds in which the house was embedded. This approach also engages with the Japanese historiography in a broader sense. Yamaguchi Keiji argued that the growth of an increasingly fluid, commodity-centered economy during the early nineteenth century ate away at the status system, and prepared a "new foundation" in Japanese society that proved sturdy, yet receptive in the face of the intensifying waves of globalizing capitalism. However, Yamaguchi did not advance this argument. This paper provides a detailed picture of the everyday granularity of early modern social structures in which fine but spreading cracks appeared, whose collective inertia ultimately charted the course of historical change towards a new and vastly different world.


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