HOME ≫ Interview with Visiting Faculty- 15


Professor Yuzuru Kumon from IAST (Institute for Advanced Study in Toulouse), France, (at the time of the interview) stayed at the Institute of Economic Research as a specially appointed associate professor at CEI for three months from June to August 2022. Dr. Kumon is an economic historian specializing in the comparative economic history of economic inequality. We interviewed him about how he came to research Japan's early modern period, having spent his childhood in the UK, and how he acquired academic skills as he received higher education in Japan and the US.

 Raised in England

Q: At what age did you move to the UK?

I went to the UK when I was three years old. I completed all my compulsory education in England.

Q: I am surprised you have maintained such a high standard of Japanese language skills.

All my schoolings were at local schools, and I learnt Japanese at a Japanese supplementary school on Saturdays. I spoke Japanese with my parents, but as I got older, my Japanese became far from age-appropriate and then I stopped speaking much Japanese even with my parents. It wasn't until I entered university in Japan that my Japanese improved.

Q: Why did you choose to go to university in Japan after receiving most of your education in the UK?

I didn't intentionally choose to go to university in Japan. I actually wanted to study mathematics at Oxford University, but I failed, and then my triplet brother wanted to go to a Japanese university, so I decided to follow his lead and go to a Japanese university myself. If my brother hadn't suggested it, I would have gone to university in the UK.

Q: Triplets! That's amazing. Weren't you the centre of attention in the UK?

Well, yes. But we weren't identical, so...

Q: If you don't mind me asking, did your father come to the UK as a university researcher or as a corporate expatriate?

He was an expatriate in a Japanese company. My mother was a full-time housewife. At first, it was supposed to be for a few years, but somehow, he ended up being an expatriate for 15 years. It wasn't a particularly good time to return home, but my parents decided to leave at short notice when we triplets decided to return to Japan for further education. In the end, only my sister remained alone in the UK.

Q: It must have been difficult for all three of you to be at school in Japan for the first time.

It was hard. I was able to manage to listen and write in Japanese, but speaking was difficult. I was rather good at reading, as I read Japanese novels and other books voluntarily in the UK. But I was not good at the technical terms used at university. Even in mathematics, I had to relearn the technical terms in Japanese.

 A Road to becoming an Economic Historian

Q: When did you decide to become a researcher? What made you decide to go into economics, and who were your influences?

I decided to become a researcher when I was in my third or fourth year at Keio University. At Keio, English classes were compulsory, and those with English language skills could take classes in any subject they wanted as long as they were conducted in English. There, I studied the history of developing countries with a history professor, who suggested I become a researcher. I had never thought about that career path before, so I felt like I was given a gentle push. At first, I wanted to go into history, but it was difficult to switch from the economics department to the history department, and that's when I realised that there was a field called economic history. I thought this would allow me to fulfil my interest in history while making use of my expertise as an economics major.

Q: So, it wasn't an economics class that triggered your interest, but a history class in English within the economics department. Which country's history was it?

The professor was an expert on ancient Rome, but he told me that I didn't have to limit myself to this and encouraged me to learn about the developing countries I was interested in. In time, I became fascinated with the theme of analysing history.

Q: When you say developing countries, do you mean Asian countries?

No, Tanzania and Colombia. My history professor also had the opinion that it is better to look at a wide range of countries from a broad perspective, and not just one country. Because of his influence, I still do research comparing not only Japan but also Japan and the rest of the world.

Q: You liked history.

Yes, I liked history. In high school history, I got the best grades in the school! But my parents told me that there was no point in going into History, so I considered a career in mathematics, which I was also good at.

Q: You were talented in many different fields, excelling in English, of course, but also in history, mathematics and literature!


I think I had a good balance. But there were areas I was not good at. I was not good at languages. For instance, I learned French, German, and other languages at school, but I don't remember them at all.

Q: But after receiving your Ph.D. at the University of California, Davis, you spent time in various countries, including at Bocconi University in Italy and, until June this year, at the IAST in France. From September, you will be moving to a research institute in Norway. What is your current language proficiency?

My German and French have become okay in the basic part, but I tried to learn Italian during this Covid period, and it ended up halfway through. English is spoken all over the campus, so in a way, there is no incentive to learn a new language...

Q: You mentioned that you read a lot of Japanese books in the UK. What kind of books did you read?

I read novels by Haruki Murakami. I read a lot of such books during the breaks at the supplementary school. History-related books I read were mostly in English and about areas outside Japan. I didn't read any Japanese historical fiction because the history textbook at the Japanese supplementary school was very boring. (Laughs)

Q: That was unexpected. I thought that you had read a lot of Japanese history-related books since you are currently researching Japan's early modern period. What made you want to do research related to Japan in particular? Was it because you can speak Japanese?

It wasn't an inspiration, but the first reason may be simply because I am good at Japanese. I was in Japan during my master's course at the University of Tokyo, and the resource I could easily access were local documents, so that's how I decided to focus my research on Japan. Local primary resources were easy to access and easy to understand linguistically. As I found out later, research cannot progress without archival materials, but the number of countries where such materials are available is surprisingly limited. So, in the end, I can say that I am glad I chose Japan as my subject.

Working with old Japanese documents

Q: I read an interview[1] that was published in Keizai Seminar when you received the Alexander Gerschenkron Prize from the American Economic History Association, and I understand that you use the Shumon-ninbetsu Aratame-chou (village-level population registers during the Tokugawa period) in your research. Is Japan particularly well documented when it comes to researching Japanese economic history? Is there anything particular, such as good preservation or meticulous records?

In Japan, the archives are quite well preserved. What is interesting about Japan is that since the Tokugawa period, Japan has been a country with a relatively high literacy rate. As such, even peasants left their documents in Japan. In other countries, farmers rarely left written documents behind, so I think that is quite a unique aspect of Japanese historical documents.

Q: Could you tell us what kind of people recorded documents abroad?

I am not very familiar with archival sources in other countries, but in the studies of inequality, most records were collected by the state. So mostly state-based data.

Q: You mean that in other countries, records were made by civil servants, whereas in Japan, due to its high literacy rate, records made by the general public were left.  How is it possible for such records to have been kept properly?

Japan did not have a system whereby lords dispatched officials from the centre to collect documents. Instead, in Japan village officials prepared documents and sent them to local lords, so that copies of the submitted documents were kept in village warehouses and this is how the documents remained. These documents are now stored in archives in various towns in Japan. Of course, a large part of them has already been lost.

Q: I am impressed that you, who grew up in the UK, were able to decipher such documents. From our point of view, we don't know where to start even, just by looking at old documents written with a brush.

It was hard work, but I acquired the skill when I thought I needed it. When I was doing my master's degree at the University of Tokyo, we had a class on reading ancient Japanese documents, but I couldn't learn the skill at that time. But when I found the need to read them seriously, I acquired the skill within a month or two.

Q: That's amazing! Those calligraphy writings may be skillfully written but to me, they sometimes look like a crawling mark of a snake...

Of course, I cannot read the whole writing perfectly. But even if I can't read it perfectly, I still can read more than 50-60% of it, then I can understand most of the content. I can use them as data because I can decipher the necessary numerical values and other information I need.

Q: When did you find the need to read old materials?

When I was a Ph.D. student at UC Davis, I was initially researching the Meiji, Taisho, and Showa periods, but my supervisor told me that the Tokugawa period was more interesting and that I should extend what I was doing now to the Tokugawa period and take a long-term view. At first, I thought there was no way I could do such a thing as I couldn't even read ancient documents, but then I found out that, surprisingly, I could make something of it if I tried.

Q: Your supervisor was not Japanese, was he? Could he read the documents?

No, he could not read them at all. He gave me that advice, so I went to Japan by myself to look for materials. I think I was able to overcome these difficulties without taking them as a burden because I had always liked history. During this stay at the IER, I also visited the archives many times, but it hasn't been a hardship at all, but a joy.

[1] "Kono-hito wo Tazunete, Vol. 18, Alexander Gershenkron Prize Winner", Keizai Seminar, Vol.712, 2020.

Research into medieval and early modern Japan

Q: Do you like the Tokugawa period?

Not the Tokugawa period in particular, but rather I enjoy looking for the bigger picture over a longer period. I find it interesting to explore what changes and what doesn't change, and what is universal. I find that part interesting, identifying with things that are not just temporary phenomena. Now I'm starting to get interested in the Middle Ages as well. I am beginning to get a desire to look from a longer perspective.

Q: Have you also been watching the current hit, Middle Ages historical TV drama series, 'The Thirteen Lords of Kamakura-dono'?

No, I haven't seen it. (laughs) Is it interesting?

Q: It's very interesting! You should definitely watch it. Could you tell us about your most recent research?


There are two projects that I have started recently. One is, broadly speaking, a study of servants and apprentices. The idea is to extract wages in the Tokugawa period from servants' and apprentices' contracts. First, we looked at the wages of men and then women. During the process of gathering data, we realised that there were prostitutes' contracts mixed in with those of the female servants. So, I decided to research prostitutes as well. I researched the difference in wages between regular servants and prostitutes and found documents showing that prostitutes were sold to brothels from the early age of ten and worked there for 15 to 20 years. I became also interested in how people were sold and bought in the free market before the modern era. The fact that they were earning the same or more than an adult man at the age of about ten to twelve years old shows that income was a big incentive to enter the profession. I think Japan is the only country that has a lot of data on the wages of prostitutes in this way, so it is interesting to be able to quantitatively analyse such a black market.

 The other project is about the study of feudal land ownership. Feudalism is strongly associated with the image that all land is owned by lords, but recent research has revealed that small farmers also owned land, and in fact, some farmers were more successful in collecting land rent from the land. Now, we are trying to document this with data. I think it would be interesting if we could go back to the Middle Ages and show what percentage of the income from the land went to the lords and what percentage belonged to the farmers, over a span of about 1,000 years. Ultimately, I would like to reveal that the image of very powerful lords, instilled in period dramas, is fiction. I believe that this fiction was created partly because it was more advantageous for the farmers to let the lords believe that they had no power.

Q: So, you are trying to provide a new historical perspective. It seems that it will take a long time.

Yes, it will be. I am planning to spend two or three years on the project on the power of feudal lords. I have already collected half of the documents, so I am going to collect the other half and enter the data to proceed with the analysis. It's quite a big research topic, so it will take some time to just collect the data.

Q: Will you have to return to Japan often in the future, then?

Well, I am the type of person who collects too much data, so I have a lot of data at hand that I collected in the past and haven't finished analysing yet. So, I already have quite a lot of materials at hand.

Q: You also mentioned that you make comparisons with other countries. Which are they?

Mostly Europe. Europe is the only place where one can find long-term analyses, so comparisons are limited. Of course, if the historical data is available, I would like to make comparisons with Africa and other countries. I think it would be very interesting if there were data. Africa has a strong image of being a poor region, but before the modern era, it was rather a wealthy region. The reason for this is that the mortality rate from diseases and other causes was so high that the value of human labour was high. This meant that wages were higher because there were fewer workers. In other words, the social situation must have been completely different from today, which is of great interest. In contrast, in Japan, even as far back as the Middle Ages, the value of labour was low because of its large population, and the poverty rate was high.

Q: What about China, for example?

In China, there is a fair amount of archival documents, but not enough for detailed studies. There seems to have been a tradition of everything being burnt down every time there was a  dynastic change. It might be difficult to conduct the same kind of quantitative analysis as in Japan.

Q: In your paper, you wrote "In Japan, the common people had a certain amount of land they could use, so they could manage to survive even with low wages, but in Europe, the common people were forbidden to own land, so they had to have high wages to survive, so wages became higher."[2] What was the level of poverty in the two regions?

If you compare the average household in Japan and Europe, the total income was similar. However, most of the Europeans' income came from wages, whereas the Japanese had both wages (labour income) and land rent income. Thus, although the total income was similar, the economic structure was different. In Japan, wages were low, which was a market signal that gave an incentive to use more human labour in production. Conversely, in countries such as the UK where fewer people were available, mechanisation progressed to replace human labour, leading to a different production system. For example, even during the Tokugawa period, there were not enough labourers right after the Warring States period, so wages were higher and farming was carried out using oxen and horses in Japan. But, as the population recovered and wages became cheaper, the number of oxen and horses decreased. This is a phenomenon that would be unthinkable in the West. However, regardless of these differences in social structure, industrialisation eventually took place in Japan. It is interesting to note that low wages did not hinder industrialisation in Japan. I believe that the puzzle as to why this happened has to be solved.

[2] Working Paper, "How Equality Created Poverty: Japanese Wealth Distribution and Living Standards 1600-1870"

To young researchers...Be a story-teller

Q: In your recent presentation at our Centre for Economic Institutions Seminar[3] , you focused on women.

This is a study on the wage gap between women and men in the Tokugawa period. Even though they perform the same tasks, mostly agricultural work, the wages of Japanese women at that time were about 70% of that of the men. Our study reveals that the reason for this was not gender discrimination, but the difference in productivity between men and women, as agriculture involved a lot of physical work. Moreover, we find that this gender wage gap in Japan was not so different from that in Europe during the same period. However, in terms of the empowerment of women, Japanese women were far behind their European counterparts. In Japan, women's wages were so low that it was almost impossible for them to live on their own, and the social norm was "to marry early and have a family to maintain a certain standard of living." It is important to note that although the extent of the gender wage gap in Japan was almost identical to that in Europe, the actual wage level of Japanese women was very low. I read a story about a woman in the Edo period who, after several broken marriages, decided that she had had enough, and tried to become independent in Edo (present-day Tokyo), but found single life too difficult to manage financially so, eventually returned to married life. In Europe, women could earn enough to live on their own. They were earning twice as much as in Japan. Japan was an all-marrying society, while Europe was not. In Japan, the age of marriage for women was before twenty, while in Europe it was around twenty-five. Our conclusion is that these facts can be explained mostly by differences in wage levels.

Q: This seems to overlap with the recent problem of low wages in Japan compared to that of the rest of the world.

The status of Japanese women is still low by international standards, and culturally there still seems to be a male-dominated mindset in Japan. The situation did not change quickly despite the rapid economic development. Recently, I was surprised to learn that in one survey when asked whether women should give up working and hand over their jobs to men if there are not enough jobs, 30% to 40% of respondents in Japan agreed with the idea. In Europe, I think it would be around 10%.

Q: Do you have a message for young researchers in the same field?

I have been educated in a foreign country for a long time, so I often notice that the way of education differs between Japan and the UK. In Japan, I think the main focus of history classes at school is to memorize what happened. In the UK, we are taught that, based on the premise that something happened, to study history is to discuss many different interpretations of why it happened. Instead of unearthing the facts, we learn how to interpret the facts of what happened. I think such a stance in learning has helped me develop my current research attitude. I also feel that the difference in education impacts research style. Papers by Japanese scholars tend to be detailed and exhaustive, but in oversea papers, there is a strong sense of trying to tell a story, not just historical facts, as a message to readers. I believe I am a story-type person. I understand the importance of identifying detailed facts, but I would like to take a larger perspective. I find it more interesting to work on big themes, and I feel more motivated when I research in that way. So, I hope that young researchers will not stop at just discovering facts, but will connect them to a bigger story.

[3] CEI Working Paper 2022-5, "Women's Wages and Empowerment: Pre-industrial Japan, 1600-1890"


Thank you, Professor Kumon, for taking time out of your busy schedule before leaving Japan. We have come to realise that your research on the early modern period is connected to contemporary issues and we feel very close to your research. We look forward to your continuing research with a great story to tell, as you analyse big questions sharply with global comparative analysis. All the very best for your new position at the NHH Norwegian School of Economics in Norway, starting this September!

Interviewer: Michie Kano and Eriko Yoshida, CEI (recorded 24 August 2022).