Japan ideas of welfare were based on an ideology of benevolent rule where the ruler helped to mitigate the suffering of his people through timely help.
To demonstrate his compassion and re-assert his moral authority the ruler would provide relief.
Relief usually followed bad harvests and often vast sums were used to purchase rice that was distributed to the people.
By the early nineteenth century such aid was supplemented by construction projects that provided works.
The nature of this relief was grounded in a hierarchical relationship between the lord and his people but this was also reinforced by the demands of political stability. Peasants hit by famine posed a threat to social and political stability so benevolence became a vital political instrument.
The rulers saw the political necessity of ameliorating the effect of disaster but their benevolence was not unlimited. The people who could be helped were limited to those who had no one to turn to such as orphans and the destitute. It was not meant for the able-bodied for whom moral exhortations to be diligent and thrifty were the favored panacea.
Relief measures were carried out mostly through the family and the community. Since taxes were paid collectively the richer families were motivated to help the weaker and poorer.
However, the authorities, domain or central actively encouraged and helped to set up institutions to provide help in calamitous times. In some domains granaries were set up in villages to provide rice during emergencies and charity was encouraged by official commendation.
The various steps are taken by Japan.
Taking care of the urban poor: wealthy merchants and charity
Pre-modern Japan had a high proportion of its population living in urban centers. The capital Edo (now called Tokyo) had over a million people at its height and Kyoto and Osaka a population of approximately half a million each and there were over dozen large castle towns.
These urban centers attracted people from the countryside and inevitably a class of vagabonds and those with no fixed work grew. The cities mostly administered directly by the Shogunate set up relief shelters in the mid-seventeenth century.
These provided temporary help after which the people were sent back to their villages. In the late eighteenth century a type of workhouse was started in Edo where the aim was to help those without a criminal background to learn new skills and become gainfully employed. This was in pa^t a reaction to famine as well as urban riots. The inmates were also given a course of practical ethics to ensure that they were provided the appropriate moral basis to develop their lives.
The scale of the help provided can be gauged from the fact that in 1805 about 4 out of 1,000 townspeople in Edo received help. This relief system was sustained by a special tax and managed by wealthy merchants. This was then compared to Shogunal benevolence a more public and sustained relief system than the measures practiced in the villages that tended to deal with specific emergencies.
The development of such institutions was accompanied by ideas about how to tackle poverty and provide aid to the downtrodden, poor and destitute.
Ninomiya Sontoku (1787-1856) was the most famous of the philosophers coming out of a prosperous farming family who advocated self-help. He and other reformers like him preached Confucian ideas of filial piety and diligence but they did not see the social orders as static.
They argued that even poor peasants by working hard, being thrifty and improving productivity by using new agricultural methods could improve their lot and become wealthy.
However, it must be noted that while promoting self-help they did not see the self as the individual but rather as the community. This led them to be critical of charity as counterproductive and they placed their emphasis on mutual assistance as well as interest free loans.
So in 1830 Ninomiya Sontoku wrote, “Grants in money, or release from taxes, will in no way help them in their distress. Indeed, one secret of their salvation lies in withdrawing all monetary help from them. Such help only induced avarice and indolence, and is a fruitful source of dissension among the people.
Meiji welfare policies: saving the samurai or charity begins at home
The creation of the modern state in Japan began after the restoration of 1868 when the Tokugawa Shogunate was overthrown and the Meiji Government established. The Meiji government instituted a series of measures to set up the institutional structure of a modern state system grounded in the belief that it was the responsibility of the state to create a strong and prosperous country.
As in many other areas the idea of welfare was heavily influenced by the earlier notions 0f giving relief to the needy thus the government responded to disasters and helped those without support. The biggest beneficiaries of state aid by the new Meiji government were the samurai, the erstwhile ruling group that as a class had seen its incomes decline. The government alive to the potential of political disruption instituted a scheme to commute their land rents into government bonds that would enable them to make the transition.
The Meiji government’s centralisation policies found in civic institutions alternative centers of power that needed to be curtailed. Thus the fund managed by the wealthy merchants of Edo was abolished in 1872 despite the massive relief work it had done during the turmoil of the Meiji restoration. The basic law that looked after the welfare of the poor was the Relief Regulations of 1874.
This law aimed to provide small assistance to the poor but because conditions for giving relief were so stringent that actually very few received it. In 1876 only 2,521 received it and by 1892 it had gone up to only 18,545 and this despite years of recession and distress.
The idea that state welfare could debilitate the recipient remained very strong. Thus the Home Ministry wrote that ‘if the elderly sick, poor and decrepit grow accustomed to relief, in the end, will not good people lapse into idleness and lose their spirit of independence and, in particular, become reliant on the government.”
Influence of western ideas on Japan
Ideas about poverty began to be influenced by western writings where the influence of John Malthus Essay on Population gave rise to a vast literature against public assistance programmers. In books such as Henry Fawcett’ Pauperism: Its causes and remedies it was argued that poverty was due to individual failing and the answer was in self- improvement rather than government assistance.
Similarly, Fukazawa Yokkaichi, arguably one of the most influential Meiji thinkers, argued for a national relief law, on the basis of England’s New Poor Law of 1834 but only if it served to take people off state assistance. This thinking was reflected, in the reduction of public relief by state bodies.
In 1881 the Tokyo Prefectural assembly stopped funds for free medical treatment and the first popularly elected Imperial Diet of 1890 attacked the government’s poor relief bill. The first attempt to modify the Relief Regulations, along European lines, where central funds would be disbursed through municipalities was defeated.