Talking Shit with my Students

Apologies for not posting anything for the past couple of months. Along with dissertation writing, I have had trouble managing my teaching load. I have a new class in modern Japanese history and am reworking an older class on the history of Edo-Tokyo.

For the “History of Tokyo” class, I have been — with varying degrees of success — trying to bring in more environmental history into the lectures. I failed in illustrating how changes in land taxes changed land use in prefectures like Kanagawa and Saitama. I thought that it was fascinating. My students weren’t that impressed. On the other hand, I succeeded in talking shit with my students. My students seem to love talking shit with me.

In a lecture on construction of road and water systems in the Tokugawa period (1603-1867), I talked with my students about use and market values of human excreta. The use value of human waste, particularly faeces, was as a source of nitrogen for farming. Getting access to green fertilizers (plants) in the early seventeenth century was difficult, as the forests were often off-limits to farmers. (See Conrad Totman’s Green Archipelago for this.) Night soil (human excreta) was less regulated and much more available to farmers, particularly for those who lived near large urban centres like Osaka.

The practice of using night soil (human excreta) for fertilizer was big business in Osaka. There farmers had dependency on urban centres for the supply of human excreta for the fertilizing of fields in villages surrounding Osaka and Kyoto. Nitrogen rich fecal matter was much easier to obtain, as long as you had the rights to collect it. As fertilizers rose in value, so did the value of night soil. The value of certain types of excreta was so high that the rights of collection areas were assigned and regulated by local governments. Susan Hanley wrote in her article on preindustrial sanitation in Japan that competition for rights to collect night soil was so intense that there were turf wars (riots) over the rights to scoop from certain neighbourhoods in 1724. The reason was that 10 households of night soil could bring in ½ ryô of gold per year. (1 ryô of gold could buy a family a year’s supply of grain.)

One of the reasons for the increase in demand for night soil in Osaka, especially fecal matter, was because of the growth of the city of Edo and its dearth of night soil. In the city’s first century of growth, farmers had a need of Osaka’s supply of night soil to fertilize their crops. The night soil, which was mostly faeces because it was easier to transport than urine, was brought from Osaka to Edo by water.

As the population grew, market places and farmers on the edge of the city became increasingly dependent on Edo for night soil. Agreements of exchange between daimyo (domainal lords) manors — which were often the size of small towns — and villages outside of the city assured farmers that they would have a steady supply of nitrogen for their crops. For daimyo, the agreements brought in money to help fund their biannual stays in the city of Edo.

Works Cited:

Hanley, Susan. “Urban Sanitation in Preindustrial Japan.” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 18, no. 1 (1987): 1-26.

Totman, Conrad D. The Green Archipelago: Forestry in Preindustrial Japan. Berkeley: University of California, 1989.

About Colin

Ph.D candidate in modern Japanese history at University of California, Santa Cruz
This entry was posted in environmental history, Japan, Japanese history and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Talking Shit with my Students

  1. Great post, Colin. Poo is interesting isn’t it! (I have to concur with your students on that one ;-)) Yet again, with poos and wees, the Japanese demonstrate how resourceful they were in using and valuing “resources” with very little wastage (historically, that is – sadly, the same cannot be said today). I cannot help contrasting it with the situation that many fledgling towns found themselves in the early years of European settlement in New Zealand. In many towns, “night soil” became a real problem, as it was not used, but buried, turning towns into stinky cesspits – especially in the summer. Here is a story about one such town, the town I come from in fact!

  2. Noriko says:

    Edo and Paris I think has some stuff on nightsoil, and there’s an article on Heian and anthropology of feces and parasites that is pretty interesting. But I hear you about the taxes, I came to find it really compelling as a teacher, to my great surprise.

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