University of Cambridge > Talks.cam > Quantitative History Seminar > How Equality Created Poverty: Japanese Wealth Distribution and Living Standards 1600-1870

How Equality Created Poverty: Japanese Wealth Distribution and Living Standards 1600-1870

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Despite its sophistication, Early Modern Japan, 1600-1868 had among the lowest real wage levels ever recorded, 40% of those in pre-industrial England. This paper shows that this puzzle can be partly resolved if we take into account the greater equality of land-holdings in pre-industrial Japan than in Europe. In England by 1700, 70% of the rural population were landless but in Japan only 13%. Paradoxically, as I show theoretically, in the Malthusian demographic regime of the pre-industrial world greater equality should generate lower living standards. I show empirically that landless families in Japan were unable to reproduce demographically. Had most households been landless, as in Europe, the population would have been unsustainable without higher wages. If, as many historians believe, high wages and living standards in western Europe explain the onset of the Industrial Revolution, then Japan’s failure to industrialize could have been shaped by its unusual pre-industrial equality.

This talk is part of the Quantitative History Seminar series.

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