Constraining the Samurai: Rebellion and Taxation in Early Modern Japan

Year: 2016 HiCN Working Paper No. 222

War is central to state formation, in part because it precipitates new and higher taxes. But what happens in the absence of war? In this paper, we study Tokugawa Japan (1603-1868), a period of nearly 300 years without foreign or domestic wars. The absence of war allows us to focus on the effects of pressure from below on state growth, and specifically taxation. We investigate if different types of peasant resistance and rebellion systematically affect how much rulers extract in taxes, by exploiting variation across 267 semi-autonomous domains within the Tokugawa shogunate. Given that these domains had widely varying tax rates, we study the extent to which peasant-led rebellions and flight lowered the subsequent tax rate imposed by the rulers. From newly compiled data on different types of peasant-led political mobilization, we find that large-scale rebellions and flight are associated with lower tax rates. We interpret the results as evidence of the underclass’ limited but nevertheless significant influence in constraining the rulers’ imposed tax rate by rebelling or fleeing, while the more complacent fail to win concessions. This suggests that peasant mobilization contributed to restricting the growth of the state.