Chapter One: History and Geography

Grass-roots industry in the town of Sakaki: an alternative perspective of the Japanese post-war "miracle"

Copyright (C) 1992, 1997 by Christopher Romig Keener

Sakaki is a town of 17,000 residents in a mountainous region 200 kilometers (about 120 miles) northwest of Tokyo. The natural geographical features of Sakaki and the region of which it is a part have played a substantial role in the development of local culture and industry. Since the earliest modern settlements over a thousand years ago, the rugged terrain has limited the agricultural development of much of the area. The inability of areas like Sakaki to produce rice, a central staple crop through Japanese history, has provided a deep incentive for the development of other forms of subsistence. The legacy of geographical factors in combination with historical circumstances has led to Sakaki's contemporary industriousness.

Geographical setting

Nagano Prefecture

Sakaki is located in Nagano Prefecture,[1] one of most mountainous areas in Japan. The Japan Alps range cuts through the middle of the main Honshu island of Japan resulting in considerable volcanic activity and some of the highest peaks throughout the islands. Mount Fuji, the 3,776 meter volcanic mountain southwest of Tokyo in Shizuoka Prefecture is the highest peak at the southern edge of the chain; Nagano contains 15 mountain peaks over 3,000 meters which constitute the northern end of the Japan Alps.

Map 1. The location of Nagano Prefecture. The inset in the top left shows the location of Nagano in perspective of the Asian continent and the chain of islands constituting Japan. The larger blowup shows the center of Honshu, the main Japanese island and Nagano's proximity to the metropoli of Tokyo and Osaka. The major mountain chains in the prefecture are indicated by the inverted v's; major rivers are also drawn.1. The location of Nagano Prefecture.

The prefecture is host to many popular recreational attractions. Due to the high level of volcanic activity in the area, Nagano has the second highest number of hot springs resorts of any prefecture. There are 150 hot spring resorts in the prefecture providing an attraction for urban dwellers to come soak away their aches and pains. The high altitudes also provide a relief in temperatures during the summer attested by the existence of several summer resort communities. Many urbanites have small second homes in these areas to which they escape during the summer. The popularity of skiing is perhaps eclipsing that of hot springs for younger generations and there are already a great number of skiing areas in the prefecture. The prefecture is also an attraction for serious mountain climbers. The northern Alps provide some of the most beautiful and difficult courses in Japan.

If Nagano's terrain has endowed it with valuable recreational assets in the present day, it has also deeply impacted its role and development throughout Japanese history. Over its early history, dating back over a thousand years, it was a strategic area in terms of controlling access between other areas. Shinshu was never been able to develop "culture"[2] to the level of refinement of the larger plains, Kyoto, Edo (modern-day Tokyo), or Kanazawa (on the Japan seaside). While Nagano is the fourth largest prefecture (of 46), it is only sixteenth in terms of population and the gross prefectural product is comparable in rank.

One of the most significant factors affecting Nagano's relative poverty is the poor suitability of most of its terrain to rice agriculture. Paddy-based rice agriculture is favored in areas with large amounts of water and wide flat areas. It is no surprise therefore that "culture" has flourished in those areas which controlled the largest plains with adequate watershed. Nagano is not without extensive plains like those containing the cities of Nagano (the prefectural capital), Matsumoto (the second largest city), and Saku (at the eastern edge closest to Tokyo). Despite these and several smaller plains, most of the region is highly mountainous and unsuitable for rice-based agriculture. In flat areas that are possible to cultivate, lack of water is sometimes an additional problem. The mountains of the region are so steep that rain water is shed quickly, resulting in an unreliable water supply that is subject to considerable seasonal fluctuation. Since paddies must be flooded for almost the entire period of cultivation, rice agriculture is further stymied. It is no surprise that the majority of the prefectural population has concentrated in the larger plains where agriculture was possible and along the major rivers which became the routes of travel between larger cities and ultimately the cultural centers of Edo, Nagoya and Kanazawa.

Nagano is known by an older name, Shinshu, which dates back to the feudal era when Japan was divided among the holdings of powerful local rulers.[3] Shinshu is sometimes called the education prefecture.[4] Even before I set foot in the prefecture, I was told stories about the intelligence of its people. It is said that the harsh mountain life led to a greater emphasis on study as a means of improving one's condition. In more lucrative agricultural areas, rural populations were kept busy year round in the various aspects of farming, but farming was a meager existence in many areas of Shinshu. Winter conditions, particularly in the northern extreme of the prefecture, provided a natural setting for farmers to abandon physical activity and exercise their minds. People from Shinshu are said to be more independent and to possess a sort of keen sense of entrepreneurial savvy. The town of Sakaki has become one symbol of that mountain ingenuity because of the preponderance of small, independent enterprises which have been started by local residents.

The town of Sakaki

Sakaki itself lies in a tight valley surrounding the Chikuma river (literally "the river of a thousand bends") as it meanders northwest toward the Japan Sea. Most of the land in the valley is too highly sloped and too unreliably supplied with water to grow rice. Rainfall is quite low; in fact it is apparently comparable to areas in Hokkaido the northern-most large island of Japan.[5] The flat areas along the river banks were not cultivatable until the shifting banks of the river were tamed by the construction of a system of dikes in the early part of this century. The majority of the area of the town is uninhabited forest, but the elevation of Sakaki's mountains (the highest of which is only 1,300 meters) is not great enough to attract urbanites seeking recreation. Low precipitation has precluded other forms of recreational and resort development. Sakaki winters are relatively mild with little snow fall. There are no hot spring outlets within the town limits, though some of the surrounding towns have become popular hot spring resorts. Due to its geographical and climatic conditions, Sakaki is as poorly suited to recreational usage as it has been to rice agriculture.

Map 2. Sakaki, basic geographical features. The river flows northward toward the Japan sea side. Mountains on the east and west sides enclose the valley along the river. 2. Sakaki, basic geographical features.

The initial settlement in the town seems to have been strategic. The valley was so narrow at points within the town that from a well-chosen lookout post one could watch the coming and going of any party. The legacy of its early history remains in many place names. One area in the southern end of the town which is particularly narrow is called nezumi, which means "to watch without sleeping."[6] The peak of a mountain in the Northern end called katsurajo is said to have had a very significant lookout post on it. The Chinese characters used to write the name Sakaki mean "mountain castle."[7]

Sakaki's geographical condition and its relationship to history from pre-feudal eras

As a narrow valley in a strategic mountain pass, Sakaki's history was shaped unusually from the times of Japan's pre-feudal periods. Chief among the factors which determines the difference between Sakaki and other rural sites is the centrality of rice-based agriculture to rural culture. Sakaki, precluded from paddy agriculture by geographical condition, developed a very different history from the beginning.

The origin of the importance of rice in pre-feudal Japan

To understand why rice occupies such a symbolic importance in contemporary Japan, one must trace back before the origin of Japanese feudalism. Much of the Japanese islands were initially inhabited over 2,000 years ago by peoples who did not cultivate rice at all.[8] There is still considerable debate about the date and circumstances by which rice agriculture was introduced on the Japanese islands. Archaeological evidence suggests that some of the earliest inhabitants of Japan were hunters and gathers whose subsistence pattern was quite different from that of the contemporary culture based around cultivated agriculture (see Akazawa and Aikens (ed) 1986; Befu 1971; Kitagawa 1987: chapter 1; Miller 1986). There is evidence that Sakaki was inhabited thousands of years ago by prehistoric hunters and gatherers, but there is little evidence of continuity with the present-day residents who were perhaps the settlers of frontier outposts nearly a thousand years ago when they first started moving into the area, a pattern of settlement similar to that of North America during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Contemporary culture traces itself directly through an unbroken line of emperors back at least two thousand years. The earliest identified center of the Japanese state was in Yamato, present-day Nara (in southwest Kansai; Osaka and Kyoto are also in Kansai). The cultural form represented in the imperial family, differentiated from what preceded it primarily by rice agriculture, began to spread through the islands from the southwest around the third and fourth centuries. Despite the ideology of a single unbroken imperial family, much of the history of Japan up until the formation of the feudal Tokugawa order in the early seventeenth century is a story of the struggle between powerful clans. At many periods through pre-feudal history, short-lived alliances and power structures governing the country were established- for example the Nara (eighth century), Heian (ninth and tenth centuries), and Kamakura (thirteenth century) periods- each of these ultimately ended in considerable bloodshed as other groups saw their opportunity to seize power from the ruling clans (see Sansom 1958).

The power of a clan was measured in the size and quality of its army. Central to having a good army was being able to feed them, thus the amount of arable land that a clan controlled was of utmost importance, not only in feeding its army but in feeding the entire network of artisans and others who equipped and supported the army. Rice was not only a key consumable foodstuff, but was the foremost form of currency up until the late nineteenth century.[9]

The areas most suited to rice agriculture are vast, flat plains with relatively good watershed. It is no surprise that the largest such plains like those of Kansai (present day Osaka and Kyoto) and Kanto (present-day Tokyo) have become the centers of government and culture. Throughout the Japanese islands clans based themselves in the center of vast agricultural areas so that they could best administer and protect their most valuable assets.

Life in Sakaki during pre-feudal history

What powerful clans did reside in the mountain region today called Nagano based themselves in the larger plains. Being tucked so closely between two ranges of mountains, Sakaki was always a point in between. The Chikuma river provided a natural channel through the mountains, so Sakaki was located along an important transportation link for many centuries. In its early history, Sakaki was probably an outpost along a critically strategic road. One can imagine a complex network of lookout posts by which travel along the banks of the river toward the Nagano plain to the north and Ueda to the east was controlled. Earliest settlement of its contemporary residents dates back to the seventh century, the founding date of one of the major local shrines.

Legend has it that Sakaki was not without its share of excitement between warring clans. Japan's pre-feudal history was peppered with short periods of relative peace during which some order of alliance was brought about, interspersed with longer periods of war and shifting allegiances and power ambitions. The Sengoku era (around the sixteenth century) was one of these periods of intense conflict and strife. The head of the clan which possessed much of what is today northeastern Nagano was a man named Murakami Yoshikio. His holdings included the plain of Nagano to the northwest of Sakaki, Ueda immediately to the southeast, and Saku, further south and east. Takeda Shingen (1534-1582) was the leader of a clan in the area of present-day Yamanashi prefecture to the south of Nagano. Desirous of the holdings of his northern neighbor, Takeda first defeated Murakami at Saku and then systematically won a serious of battles chasing Murakami northwest toward the present-day city of Nagano bringing him through Sakaki. Legend has it that Murakami fled from his vanquisher through the town and implored locals to transport him across the Chikuma river to escape Takeda's forces not far behind.

The origins of local social organization

While Sakaki was not a prolific rice-producing area, the town already had a sizable population by the end of the pre-feudal era in the end of the sixteenth century. Early settlements in the town consisted of separate hamlets built part way up the hillside to avoid seasonal flooding of the river and located around what sources of water existed emanating from the mountains. But lack of water and suitable land limited agriculture to subsistence levels rather than production of large amounts of rice collected by the clans that oversaw the area.

The remains of the family system established during this period continue to inform the social organization of the town to this day. The dozoku pattern of family organization was probably prevalent in Sakaki from its earliest settlements. The dominant feature of this system of social organization is a hierarchical relationship between families. The main family is called the honke (or stem family) and the sub-families are called bunke (or branch families). Title to the honke is determined by a system of primogeniture. Younger male siblings are normally given title to bunke and expected to farm portions of the honke's land holdings while some times given small parcels of their own land see Beardsley, Hall and Ward 1969: 269-272). The dozoku pattern is dominant in areas of northeastern Japan, the frontier areas during the early expansion of contemporary Japanese culture from the south and Kansai areas north and east.[10]

Through centuries of practicing this form of social organization a complex multi-tiered hierarchy of family has abounded. Assignments of honke and bunke become relative terms to a particular family. For example the family with which I lived most of my time in Sakaki was honke to a number of families residing immediately around their house. The proximity of the central house with its many outbuildings for storing crops, common-use tools and animals with branch family houses surrounding them is not an uncommon pattern in Sakaki or other towns where the dozoku system exists. In many cases, the central house itself broke off from another house further up in the hills several generations back, so in terms of the central house in this configuration, it is a bunke to the honke up the hill. Networks like these have persisted throughout the town and are quite in evidence still today.

The most startling and immediately apparent effect of this system is the preponderance of several surnames: these include Kasuga ("spring day"), Miyazawa ("shrine valley"), Nakajima ("inner island"), Takeuchi ("amongst bamboo"), and Yanagisawa ("willow hollow"). The majority of the town's population is comprised of perhaps only ten surnames. Furthermore, the networks of relationships are so complicated that just because two individuals share the same surname, that does not imply any direct, traceable relationship between them and their families.

Sakaki during Japan's feudal history

From the era of warring clans (during which Takeda overtook Murakami) emerged one of Japan's longest periods of sustained nationwide order. The Tokugawa shogunate established a strict feudal order to control the entire country for a period of over 250 years. The Edo period, as it is also called because the capital was removed from Kyoto to Edo, lasted from the 1600s to the mid 1800s. The formation of such a lasting and unifying order required strict centralized control of outlying regions. Edicts of the Tokugawa shogunate which were designed to maintain the country-wide order had deep effects on the culture and life of small towns like Sakaki, and these are still in evidence to this day.

Strict central control and its effects on Sakaki

The Tokugawa shogunate was mindful of the failures of past attempts to bring lasting order to the entire country and went about implementing a comprehensive plan to mitigate possible regional resistance to centralization. In order to avoid the powerful influence of Buddhist temples and other factions in the Kyoto and Kansai areas which had been the seat of government almost uninterrupted for a thousand years, they removed the government to Edo, or present-day Tokyo. They also reassigned the holdings of outlying daimyo (feudal lords) in order to break up conflicting alliances and to spread out members of the Tokugawa family and inner circle of allies in areas where their rule might be contested.

Three of the central policies of the Edo government had not only far-reaching effect on the entire country, but on Sakaki itself. The first was the establishment of a hostage system whereby daimyo were obliged to spend half the year in Edo and during their return to their native provinces of rule they were required to leave behind their family members in Edo as hostages. This necessitated daimyo to make at least one annual trip to and from their provinces to Edo. For reasons of custom and security, the daimyo were accompanied by large numbers of retainers. To facilitate these travelers, a network of well-worn roads to and from Tokyo was established and inn towns grew up along the way to lodge and service these large traveling parties. Sakaki was transformed from a strategic outpost, a buffer against intruders, into a stop along the road to Edo daimyo residing further toward the north and west.

A thriving mercantile and artisan economy was developed to serve travelers along the road. Not only was the road lined with inns, each serving a different level of clientele (from the inns that served the daimyo, to those that served the lowest status among their retinue), but other service establishments also abounded, including a brothel in the central commercial district until the 1920s. (One local barber traces the opening of his shop to these early days.) The contours of the road to Edo are very much in evidence to this day lined with great old wooden structures that once served as inns and shops for the travelers and now serve as homes, unused tumble-down outbuildings and new shops geared toward local clientele.

Two other related edicts helped to mold the shape of town life in Sakaki. The first was the formalization of a ranked system of four classes: military bureaucrats (samurai), farmers, merchants, and artisans. Below these were the outcastes (called eta or burakumin). The second related edict required all the samurai to reside only in the castle towns of their daimyo. This edict was issued in order to sever the possible alliance and conspiracy of samurai with lower-status groups. Outlying hamlets like Sakaki might have been the home to several families with combined military and agricultural backgrounds, but the Tokugawa edict forced such families to adopt one status only. Any such families being conferred status as samurai would have been required to relocate to a nearby castle town. The result was that the highest status individuals and families left in places like Sakaki were farmers. Merchants and artisans serving the travelers on the road to Edo were accorded lower status.[11]

The growth of sericulture

Even though Sakaki was poorly suited to rice agriculture, its farmers were accorded class status comparable to those on the great plains who were so highly esteemed because they provided the currency by which the entire bureaucratic class above them existed. Unable to grow vast amounts of rice, Sakaki farmers were encouraged by necessity to develop other cash crops, such as mulberry (for sericulture), cotton, and wheat. Such crops, while ostensibly ignored by the Tokugawa shogunate, began to provide increasingly important supplemental income even to communities which were largely rice-growing areas (see Dore 1978). In towns like Sakaki, these crops quickly eclipsed the importance of rice altogether. It was sericulture that became the main crop and semi-industrial activity of farming families in Sakaki during the feudal era.

Whereas Sakaki lacked the large flat expanses of Japan's greater plains as well as a reliable watershed by which to keep large tracts of rice paddies irrigated, sericulture depended on a very different crop, that of mulberry bushes. These bushes are incredibly hardy, require little water, and can be grown on steep inclines. Sakaki farmers thus cultivated fields of mulberry far up the mountainsides of the town. The most prolific areas for mulberry were the southern facing slopes along the northern perimeter of the town; this meant that sericulture favored the hamlets to the north of the river.

Sakaki residents like to say that it was the influence of being on the road to Edo with early access to news of the city and the resultant opportunities to take advantage in trade that at least partially explain the early and dominant adoption of sericulture and predilection to industry generated by this early form of agri-industry.[12] A small number of families became rich despite meager land holdings by becoming the breeders and suppliers of silk larvae. Well-to-do farming families with large land holdings bought larvae from such families and bred adult larvae into cocoons, spun the cocoons into thread and wove silk fabric.

Economies like those of Sakaki which grew up in the unregulated cracks and crevices of a highly structured Tokugawa economy and society were at least partly responsible for bring an end to the feudal order in the mid-nineteenth century. Farmers had made great strides in increasing output, double cropping,[13] and had begun to focus on high-return agri-industry like sericulture. Merchants had grown rich bankrolling such agri-industries and serving as the retailers and brokers of the resulting finished products to the military bureaucratic elite in the major cities. As corruption and break down of the overall system progressed, daimyo rice coffers (used to pay the stipends of their samurai retainers) became lower and lower resulting in reductions in stipends and a growing mismatch of wealth and status. Samurai might well have had higher status than farmers and merchants, but they were being outpaced in wealth compared to their lower status counterparts.

Sakaki in the modern state

The dismantling of the Tokugawa shogunate and the formation of the modern Meiji state in the 1860s caused one immediate effect on the town of Sakaki, that was the end of the prolific inn trade. Not that travel was altogether curtailed along the road to Tokyo,[14] since the new government maintained the capitol there, but obligatory travel by daimyo ended and travel on the road took on a less pretentious, if not perhaps more prolific tenor.

Map 3. Sakaki in early twentieth century. Evidence of the local feudal economy is still prominent. The clumping of different hamlets is evident. The old road to Edo is still the principle thoroughfare. A majority of the land is planted with fields (presumably mulberry; denoted by the symbol " "). Land has also been reclaimed along the river for use as rice paddies (denoted by the symbol " ").3. Sakaki in early twentieth century.

By the 1890s the railroad to Tokyo was completed. Sakaki had its own station, the trip by steam locomotive to Tokyo taking almost a full day. Changes in the type and mode of travel deeply affected Sakaki's merchant class. With the necessity for inns and service facilities along the road largely diminished by the railroad, this trade shifted to one of serving the recreational needs of urbanites. But Sakaki was unable to compete with other nearby towns to meet this new tourist trade. The local centers of tourism and recreation became nearby towns which had hot spring outlets. Many local merchants relocated to the neighboring town of Kamiyamada to take part in the new tourist trade. Even the brothel eventually relocated to Kamiyamada and entertainment industry largely ceased to exist in the town.

If the travel trade was much altered by the end of feudalism, the silk trade was only enhanced by it. Throughout the feudal era, the end market for silk was clothing for elite populations in large cities, but with the end of the feudal era came an end to many of the restrictions that had hampered expansion of the market. Merchant and other lower status populations had been forbidden to wear silk by the Tokugawa shogunate even though many of them could well afford it by the end of the era. Foreign markets, closed by a shogunate policy of sakoku or "closed country" were suddenly opened to trade; raw and processed silk was one of the first major commodities of export. This served to expand the agri-industry of sericulture and perhaps even to force areas that were already dominantly focused on sericulture to become more competitive with other areas causing increased tension and conflict between high-status stem families and marginal farming and other groups. The 1870s saw large uprisings against the agricultural elite of the town and region.

The effect of the world depression

The effects of the end of feudalism had been felt deeply in Sakaki, as the merchant economy along the road to Edo dried up. Sericulture was fortunate to survive the transition because of access opened to lucrative foreign markets. But reliance on a single form of income from abroad proved to be precarious. When the world market tumbled in the depression of the late 1920s, Sakaki was severely affected. Crop prices plummeted, local banks failed, and the entire economy was reduced.

Sericulture continued to be practiced, but with much lower rewards. Many farming families began to replace their fields of mulberry with apples, introduced during the 1930s from the United States. As urban markets had become more affluent so had their tastes, but apples were not able to bring the money of silk.

The end of the feudal era had brought relief to marginal and lower status groups because restrictions on travel by lower-status classes were abandoned. In other areas this opened the way for second and third sons of poorer farming families to relocate to the cities, there becoming workers in new industries springing up in urban areas. There may have been less pressure for outward migration in areas like Sakaki which continued to support themselves on sericulture much like during the feudal era, but the disruption of sericulture income caused greater pressure for outward migration from Sakaki. Many offspring of Sakaki farming families emigrated to the cities of Tokyo, Nagoya, and Osaka for work in the factories that were springing up to satisfy an oversees market for cheap mass-production goods and to supply industrial products for Japan's armies as they began to engage in more military activities in Asia during the pre-war period.

War years: the first seeds of industry

The poverty of its agriculture in the 1930s not only exacerbated a trend of outward migration, but made Sakaki an area ripe for the influx of incoming industry. Urban industries suffered from acute labor shortages, despite extensive migration from rural areas. Furthermore, labor was mobilizing itself by unionizing and salaries were increasing. During this period life-time employment systems were established to encourage firm loyalty, but also resulting in further increases in the cost of doing business in the cities.

The first man to realize the industrial potential of Sakaki was a man named Miyano an industrialist who had started a company manufacturing iron files in Tokyo in 1929. Miyano had been drawn to Nagano like many urbanites on vacation to the nearby hot spring resort in Kamiyamada. It is said that through conversations with locals he met on the train and during his visits, Miyano began to consider the favorableness of the area to his enterprise. The climate is said to have been a factor in his selection: low levels of precipitation meant that metal would be less prone to rust. The access to Tokyo via direct train to Ueno provided adequate access to urban markets. The economic plight of the area, combined with past experience with the cottage sericulture industry, meant the availability of cheap, semiskilled labor. Whatever the weighting of these factors and others, Miyano decided to relocate his factory to Sakaki in 1941 right before the outbreak of war with the United States. The war brought other relocations, made more pressing by the danger of firebombing in the major cities. Osaki Manufacturing (a plastics manufacturer today called Nagano Osaki Manufacturing) set up in Sakaki in 1943; Tsuzuki Manufacturing (specializing in cast metal parts) moved from Tokyo in 1944.

Sakaki's industry might never have developed further had it not been for the return of many second sons and sons of poorer farming families who had left for the cities during the pre-war years. Having learned engineering skills in their jobs in Tokyo factories, they only returned to Sakaki because of deteriorating conditions there: the destruction of the factories where they worked due to the extensive fire-bombing raids conducted by allied planes and the lack of work after the war resulting from the end of the industrial imperative of supplying Japan's forces). Some of these individuals returned to work on their family's farms briefly, but then seeing the success of local factories, decided to start their own. Others brought with them companies that they had started in Tokyo during the pre-war period. At least five Sakaki sons who had started companies in the cities moved them back to Sakaki during the three year period between 1944 and 1946. Between 1944 and 1949 another dozen companies were started by local individuals who had returned from the city. By the end of the 40s there were 19 factories located in the town.

Early factories produced anything the entrepreneurs could think up that would sell. Products included primitive electrical components, springs, Bakelite and metal components used as mechanical components and housings for machinery. Production of one product often led to another by some accidental route. For example, Miyano's plant initially produced files by hand, but Miyano himself was constantly inventing machinery to simplify the production process. During a trip to Tokyo immediately after the war, Miyano first saw the small cigarette lighters used by American GI's. In 1946 he began producing the small cylindrical strikers for domestic production of lighters. Volumes were so great and value of single parts so low (compared to the files and machine tools he had turned out before the war) that there was a great urgency for him to find ways to automate the manufacturing process. In 1948 Miyano developed an automatic lathe. The lathe had been developed to simplify his own manufacturing processes, but by the early 1950s he got the idea of selling the lathe itself to factories in the city, many of them busy supplying the Korean war effort. Today Miyano is a world-wide company with over 1,000 employees producing factory machinery for the manufacture of precision metal parts. The tool business, the core of the company during its pre-war years, has been spun off into a separate company of 250 employees which is still located at the original site in Sakaki.

The early industrialists were not immediately accepted in the broader local community. Surely the opportunity for jobs was welcomed especially by lower-status farmers, but many of those still engaged in farming largely ignored the influx of industrial activity in an area around the train station which used to house the inn trade on the road to Edo. The early entrepreneurs were treated very much like the merchants who had preceded them, as a sort of lower class. They socialized amongst themselves, forming a kind of informal group called the koyukai which gathered frequently for a night of drinking and socializing at the neighboring Kamiyamada hot springs.

One of Sakaki's industrialists recalled for me the story of how his father became a member of this industrialists' group. His family owned one of the local bicycle shops in the area around the station where many of the factories set up facilities. The bicycle was the dominant mode of local transportation at that time and the understanding of mechanics provided a common link to the industrialists. Through the social relationship that his family involved with the industrialists, he was chided by them to make use of his technical know-how and start up a factory of his own. Eventually he did so, and today it is a thriving business with over 60 employees.

The second flowering of industry in the 1960s

After an initial surge of industry in the area around the station, only twelve new companies were started in the 1950s. Japan's economy was in shambles and the entrepreneurs who had started in Sakaki had to be jacks of all trades, availing themselves to produce whatever could be sold. It was the Korean war (1950-53) that provided the fuel for an economic recovery, as the American military was buying all manner of industrial goods from Japan to supply the war effort. This provided an opportunity for Sakaki industry to continue to expand. Miyano became quite successful in selling his automatic lathes to factories in the big cities. Other Sakaki companies supplied components to machinery that was sold to the Americans.

If there had been nothing to follow after the end of the Korean war, Sakaki industry might have fallen back yet again, but other factors provided impetus for industrial growth. By the 1960s the major cities were undergoing ambitious public works projects: subways, elevated roadways, the bullet train route between Tokyo and Osaka and other projects contributed to the excitement of a boom era in the cities which was symbolized in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. The Vietnam war no doubt also provided additional industrial demand.

There is an evident difference between the founders of the earliest companies and those who founded companies during the 60s boom. Many of the latter businesses were founded by local Sakaki sons, many of whom dropped agriculture for industry. Some of these were workers in existing companies who had learned skills on the job and decided to start up their own business. Yet another trend seems to be expressed in the story one industrialist related to me about his start in industry. He was a farmer, the heir to his family land which had substantial apple orchards. For two years in a row in the early 60s the wind and rain of typhoons whipping through in the fall caused all the apples to drop from the trees making the crop an almost total loss. At this time he decided he should look for a more steady livelihood. He decided not to take a job at a local factory, but to "ask for some work" which he could do at home. He was loaned machinery and gradually began to build up a business, eventually abandoning farming altogether and setting up a factory building on the site of his orchards, a company which today employs over 100 employees.

In 1955 the town of Sakaki absorbed the hamlets of Nakanojo and Minamijo to the south of it. The hamlet Murakami, across the river, was absorbed in 1960. The center of activity around the station began to diffuse itself to different areas around the town, further up in the hills on the land of the farmers converted to industrialists, and to the other hamlets where industry found ample space to setup plants.

The 1970s: the oil crisis and painful lessons

By the 1970s Sakaki boasted a huge industrial complex of hundreds of companies. Many of the small family companies had been homespun by engineers who got their starts at other Sakaki factories and decided to go off on their own. Certainly this was encouraged in an environment of such growth because it provided greater output potential and flexibility for the original companies. One of the major industries with which Sakaki companies became involved supplying parts for was the sewing machine industry. Many of the parts for the large name brands, among them Singer and Brother, were manufactured in Sakaki companies. Feeding a huge export-oriented consumer product industry based in the large cities, Sakaki companies could provide the parts at competitive prices due to lower land, labor, and other costs of the countryside. These companies, in turn, were pulling labor in from other prefectures.

The economic boom of the 60s and 70s came crashing down in the oil shocks of the mid-70s. Virtually no Sakaki company was unaffected. Several companies were outright bankrupted: those which relied too heavily on particular industries like the sewing machine industry. But most companies made painful and deep cuts in staff and then diverted their focus to other elements of their business. For many part suppliers this was possible because the know-how they had for making parts for one industry was applicable to other industries.

Nissei Plastics, one of the largest companies in the town today with 860 employees (established in 1947), was particularly hard hit by the oil shocks. Up until the shocks they had a thriving business selling inexpensive plastic retail items, everything from commonplace items like spoons to specialized items like components of machinery and electrical equipment. In the oil shocks they laid off over three-quarters of their workers and jettisoned the core of their business into a separate company which has since relocated to Koshoku, a city northeast of Sakaki on the outskirts of the prefectural seat of the City of Nagano. The Nissei Plastics Company which remains in Sakaki has devoted itself, much in the example of Miyano, to the production of factory machinery which manufactures precision plastic parts.

The 1980s: heyday of industry in face of en-daka

Though admittedly a very difficult and trying period, the economic transformations of the mid-70s could be said to have been quite beneficial to Sakaki industry. One could say that industry was in fact strengthened because much of the weakness and inefficiency had been removed and what remained was indeed a hardy core of businesses.

The 1980s were truly Sakaki's flourishing. Sakaki companies were highly successful in the face of pressures of the valuation of Yen which forced them to display ingenuity in new, lower-cost production techniques. The economic boom in the United States certainly had a direct effect on this environment and Sakaki companies began more actively and directly selling their products abroad. Many companies started producing for the consumer electronics industry. And Sakaki received the attention of Japanese scholars who were impressed with the ingenuity of Sakaki natives. Sakaki for them represented the symbol of Shinshu keenness.

There evolved a sort of tour circuit for the scholars and government officials (of national, prefectural, and local levels) who flocked to discover (or guess at) the seed of success in the town. Sakaki government bureaucrats and industrialists developed a well-polished story to explain their success: a mixture of the fabled Shinshu ingenuity; the inn town's access to information; the lack of rainfall; and finally an inexplicable Sakaki quality.

A company that was at the top of the tour list was one called Soar, which in its heyday in the mid 80s employed over 130 people, many of whom had college diplomas. It was one of the few local companies that could boast of the ability to attract college graduates. But Soar's meteoric rise ultimately proved to be short lived. The company's first generation of electronic test equipment (sold under its own name by its own domestic and international sales network) was highly successful, but the company had trouble developing successive generations of products in order to support the extensive organization it had built up. Soar went bankrupt in the late 1980s; an event that coincided with a dwindling of public attention on the town and increasingly hard times for companies as en-daka ("high yen," the increase of valuation of the Yen from 1985) forced companies to produce the same products at lower prices.

Client companies exporting many of their products overseas were forced to pass on cost-cutting throughout their extensive supplier networks. Sakaki companies were not alone in having to share this burden. However volumes only rose during this same period so parts producers were challenged with producing higher volumes at the lower costs, relying on longer working hours and higher efficiencies of labor to do so. Shortages of available labor have accompanied a requirement to persevere without large additions to one's staff in order to keep operating costs down.

Sakaki history as an adaptation to geographical circumstances

The history of Sakaki's industrial development is intimately related to its geographical circumstance. Sakaki's history is an interesting story of an area economically marginalized because of poor suitability to rice agriculture. The mountainous setting of the town has precluded large-scale rice agriculture in a country like Japan where rice has had (and continues to hold) key important symbolism and economic value.

This is in turn a fascinating reflection on the true economic importance of rice through historical and modern periods not only in such marginal areas, but in the areas that have traditionally been the largest producers of rice. While Sakaki history is hardly representative of most other sites in Japan, some of the economic and social developments that have occurred in Sakaki suggest a re-analysis of the non-rice based economy of other rural regions.

If there is a notable discrepancy between the symbolic importance accorded by some individuals to rice and its position in the contemporary diet and economy of Japan, this is also evident in the history of an area like Sakaki where rice agriculture was not possible on the scale of other areas. This simple fact has caused a sort of pressure on individuals inhabiting the area to engage in other forms of livelihood, though influenced by an external culture in which rice held a dominant position. During the feudal era, livelihood was derived from both the merchant trade along the road to Edo and the lucrative sericulture agri-industry under which Sakaki farming families flourished. The feudal economy provided the base and expectations of livelihood, so that when both of these forms of income were removed by outside circumstance during the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, Sakaki was ripe for the influx of industry.


[1] A prefecture is a regional government autonomy roughly equivalent to the American "state"; there are 46 prefectures in all. One substantial difference between American states and Japanese prefectures is that the latter are given much less autonomy than their American counterparts.

[2] Here and in other places I use the word culture in quotes to set it aside from the Anthropological use of the term and denote an emic notion of "high culture" being the zenith of art, fashion, and social life.

[3] In its present usage the term connotes a sort of nostalgic image of the area as a quaint, comfortable furosato ("native place"). See Robertson 1991 for a discussion of the meaning of the term in contemporary Japanese culture.

[4] Though today, the Prefecture has slipped to among the last on important indicators of educational performance.

[5] Hokkaido was very late to develop rice agriculture. It is outside of the monsoon area of the Asian region, an area with climatic properties favorable to paddy agriculture which includes high levels of precipitation during the summer months. See Asagiya 1972 and Ginsberg 1958 for a detailed discussion of the climatic factors influencing suitability to this form of agriculture.

[6] It is written in the phonetic and could also be mistaken by another common meaning, "mouse."

[7] An earlier way of writing Sakaki apparently used Chinese characters meaning "mountain trees."

[8] The early history of Japan may not have been very much dissimilar to that of the early history United States, though nearly 2,000 years separates them. Evidence suggests that the ancestors of contemporary Japanese settled first in the area known as Yamato (south of present-day Osaka) and from their gradually pushed their way north and eastward along Honshu very much like the western progression of European settlers in the United States. The first settlements in outlying areas in the mountains like Nagano might have been crude outposts against savage bands living in the mountains.

[9] During the feudal period lasting from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries, the power of a regional lord was directly measured in terms of bushels of rice; the native term was koku (4.96 bushels). Currency also was determined directly by its value in rice; one gold coin (ryo) was approximately equivalent to one koku of rice until the mid 1800s.

[10] Areas to the west of Kansai tend to have a much different organization of family and town social structure.

[11] The town was also host to large burakumin communities which serviced the agricultural and merchant economies of the era. Given the stigmatization of this issue it is difficult to ascertain the exact location of these communities, but there were at one time at least two large concentrations of burakumin, one on either side of the Chikuma river.

[12] By this term I mean semi-industrial farming activity. Sericulture is "agri-industry" because it requires a whole chain of process far more complicated than the relatively straightforward work of planting and harvesting a crop like rice. Some scholars have argued that feudal experiences with such processes formed one foundation for later industrial development (Dore 1978; Smith 1959).

[13] This term refers to the harvest of two separate crops using the same fields. Many small but effective technical innovations like this were made during the Tokugawa era (see Smith 1959:ch 7). Tax systems were based on out-dated records about potential agricultural output which were not regularly adjusted, so there was a clear incentive for farmers to invent schemes even to increase output slightly.

[14] Edo was renamed Tokyo ("eastern capital") in order that it might have an appropriate name so that the emperor could be moved there.

Grass-roots industry in the town of Sakaki: an alternative perspective of the Japanese post-war "miracle"

Copyright (C) 1992, 1997 by Christopher Romig Keener.

         CHAPTER 3
         CHAPTER 4
         CHAPTER 5