Understanding what were behind the historical demographic changes

Demography, as the name suggests, looks at demographic changes in terms of birth, death, migration, marriage and other factors. Since we, population researchers, deal with numbers, people tend to think that we are only interested in increases and decreases.

However, the increase or decrease in number is a reflection of various factors and underlying structures. A close look at them often reveals the lifestyle of individuals and the culture and social structure of the community.

The population pyramid, a diagram showing a population by gender and age, must be familiar to many of you. A population pyramid can show a trace of major historical events, such as wars and disasters.

Apart from those major incidents, a unique dent is found in the Japanese population pyramid in the number of people born in 1966. This is because 1966 was a year of Hinoe Uma, the year of the Fire Horse in the ancient sexagenary cycle. There is a popular belief that women born in the year of Hinoe Uma become so strong that their husbands die early. That year many people stayed away from having babies.

Thus, the population reflects our behaviors and social phenomena. Put differently, our everyday behaviors affect the population, births and deaths.

The total fertility rate (TFR) in the year of Hinoe Uma (1966) was 1.58. In 1990, however, the TFR went down to even below the 1966 level, which was merely an exceptional one-time drop affected by a popular belief. It was called the “1.57 Shock.” This has prompted the government to regard the declining birth rate as an urgent issue.

But it was not in 1990 that the birth rate started to decline in Japan. It was already in the late 1970s that Japan’s TFR began to fall intermittently below the replacement fertility (the level of birth rate needed to keep the child generation population as large as that of their parents).

Even though Japan saw its birth rate starting to decline in the late 1970s, the high birth rates of previous years and the improved mortality rates allowed the country to enjoy a period of so-called “demographic dividend,” supported by a share of working-age population greater than that of the dependent children and the elderly. The economy thrived, helped by the demographic dividend.

However, today’s Japanese society has entered into an era of population decline. As during the period of demographic dividend, but working in the opposite direction, the low birth rates of the previous years are sure to prevent the population from rising again, even if the TFR were to jump abruptly to 2.5 in 2021.

In this way, population can be a restraining factor on the society we live in. The accumulation of our past behaviors and activities is a demographic condition that will affect our present and future society.

Some may perceive population science as dry and tasteless, dealing only with numbers. However, we never forget the fact that people’s lives and histories lie behind those numbers.

I became aware of this after I started specializing in historical demography. Historical demography looks at the records of births and deaths of a local community and hence often sheds light on the history of ordinary people who would never appear in history textbooks.

Marriages and children as seen from Shumon aratame-cho (religious sect registry)

My specialization today is on the population of the Tokugawa Period. An important historical document I rely on is the Shumon aratame-cho (religious sect registry) for the residents of the present-day Nomo-machi, Nagasaki City, Nagasaki Prefecture. 

The Tokugawa shogunate outlawed Christianity. Every village was required to prove that its residents were not Christians, by, for example, enforcing the so-called fumi-e test (stepping on a picture of Jesus or Mary) and keeping the records in a registry.

The registry shows the name of the household’s head and the family. To witness their non-association with Christianity, the seal of a local family Buddhist temple is affixed. Shumon aratame-cho is a village residents registry which was kept to document their non-association with Christianity and their respective affiliations to local Buddhist sects.

The registry contains not only the dates of birth and death of the family head and members but also their marriages and other major life events. Accordingly, it enables us to understand the population and the path of life of the people in the village.

For example, the average age of first marriage in Nomo Village was found to have been around 30 for men and around 25 for women. This is not so different from today when people are said to marry late. You may have the perception that the people of Tokugawa Period got married at a young age. Indeed, there are records showing that in some parts of the Tohoku Region, women got married in their early teens.

However, we should not overlook the fact that society at that time was neither homogeneous nor uniform; it was diverse, just like the society in which we live has multiple value systems and behavioral norms.

The Nomo Village registry also shows cases of women with no record of marriage having given birth to a number of children. Overall, about 90% of the new-born babies in the registry had the names of both parents recorded; the remaining 10% had the name of only the mother or father.

In modern Japan, the percentage of children born out of wedlock is about 2%, and it is often claimed that the low rate of children born out of wedlock is a part of Japanese moral heritage. However, history tells us it has not been a tradition at all.

As far as we can tell from the Shumon aratame-cho, the children born out of wedlock showed similar mortality to that of legitimate children and had records of marriage. It seems fair to believe that they were treated as members of the village community.

A community in which death is a daily affair

Shumon aratame-cho also enables us to get a glimpse of the lives of people for whom death was an everyday affair. 

According to the Shumon aratame-cho of Nomo Village, as many as 15 men died on the same day of the same year. Presumably, they were killed in a shipwreck while fishing, because “drowned” was the cause of death recorded in the registry.

The victims were of different families. Hardly any family lost multiple members (father-son, brothers) at once. The people there had the wisdom of minimizing the risk of damage from such a fishing accident.

There are also records of a brother of a deceased household head marrying the widow. It must have been the way to continue the family line. The registry shows that marriage practices that anthropologists refer to as levirate (widow marrying a brother of the late husband) and sororate (widower marrying a sister of the late wife) were not uncommon in Japan during the Tokugawa Period.

There were a few cholera outbreaks during the Tokugawa Period. They are reflected in the increased number of deaths and higher mortality rate at the time.

A study for Amakusa, Kumamoto Prefecture found that while one village lost more than half of its population to the epidemic, another village not far from it suffered hardly any loss in population.

Putting other historical sources together, we found that the village that escaped a significant population decrease lost no time in isolating the patients into mountain huts far away from the village.

Now we are confronted with COVID-19. Looking back at history, we see cholera outbreaks and the influenza epidemic of the Taisho Period having left tremendous impacts on the population and the number of deaths.

However, a more detailed observation reveals that different villages responded differently to the epidemic and sustained different degrees of damage. We can also find that some people in the same village survived it while others succumbed.

It is important to analyze demographic changes en masse. The academic field of historical demography does include studies on demographic changes over the long term or even over the entire history of humankind.

Meanwhile, we can say that micro-analysis of small cohorts puts into stark relief the differences in the impacts of a disaster or pandemic on the people and the manner in which they reacted to it. Human history can in this way be recaptured in a more stereological sense. … lest we forget the fact that these people did live their lives and carry on the torch to the future.

I somehow had a feeling that the people I find in historical documents sensed death much closer to them than we do to ourselves today. However, we are now aware that death lurks in our daily lives, though in varying degrees. It may be that, as novelist Yoshikichi Furui wrote, “Terror is the true phase and peace is but a temporary phenomenon. Nothing changes at all.”

* The information contained herein is current as of August 2020.
* The contents of articles on Meiji.net are based on the personal ideas and opinions of the author and do not indicate the official opinion of Meiji University.
* I work to achieve SDGs related to the educational and research themes that I am currently engaged in.

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