I've read in the book "A modern history of Japan" by Andrew Gordon and other articles, that most of the Japanese townspeople were farmers(about 80% I suppose) during the Edo period. But according to the Wikipedia article Agriculture, forestry, and fishing in Japan and some satellite maps, only about one-fifth of Japan's land is suitable for cultivation.

I'm a bit confused, how is this possible? 80% of townspeople worked on only 20% of the whole land?

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    Welcome to HistorySE, P.Alipoor! It looks as if you'd assume for 80% of farmers to work on 80% of the whole available landmass? When the first farmers appeared in Japan, 100% of people worked on 0.00001% of the land? Is this a simple misunderstanding and less a history problem but math, geography and logic? As farmers aren't evenly distributed across the land anywhere, why should they in Edo Japan? May 14, 2019 at 17:28
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    Japanese farmers produced ... rice on terraced fields, among other crops. May 14, 2019 at 17:32
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    First, explain why townspeople were farmers.
    – jamesqf
    May 14, 2019 at 17:48
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    You have misquoted Gordon. He actually says: "Roughly 80 percent of the population was farmers. The remainder were townspeople of various sorts" (p16 of the paperback edition) May 14, 2019 at 21:17
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    Japan may look tiny on a world map, but it's actually as big as Germany by area.
    – RedSonja
    May 15, 2019 at 6:49

1 Answer 1


The total land area of Japan is around 146,000 square miles. 20% of that works out around 29,000 square miles or 18.6 million acres.

The population of Tokugawa japan was around 30 million people. 80% of that is 24 million people. This gives each farmer roughly 3/4s of an acre.

The basic unit of land in Japan was the cho, which was roughly 2.5 acres. This produced roughly 10 koku. A "koku" was the amount of rice needed to feed one person for one year. Simple math gives 4 koku an acre, and therefore 3 koku for 3/4s of an acre. In other words, in theory at least, each person has enough land to grow rice for three.

Thus, if 80% of the population is working 20% of the land in Tokugawa Japan, then they are easily growing enough to feed themselves plus the remaining 20% who are not farmers.

Now of course that's the ideal case, and bad weather, war and other mishaps are going to negatively affect that to the point where in actual fact there were periods of starvation and food related unrest. But it means that "80% of townspeople worked on only 20% of the whole land" is perfectly believable.

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    Just to add to this otherwise great answer, for those who never had the curiosity to research what an acre is and why it is what it is, an acre roughly corresponds to what a peasant was able to plow in a day. May 14, 2019 at 18:38
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    Don't forget that people are grouped into families. 24 million people was probably something like 4-5 million families, running a farm together.
    – Barmar
    May 14, 2019 at 19:23
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    Right, people weren't working individual plots, but families were working in common. Presumably the "cho" indicated a common basic farm unit. May 14, 2019 at 19:29
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    @DenisdeBernardy: ...which is typical for many imperial measurements: Sounds intuitive, but is terribly imprecise. Plow with what? A horse, or an oxen? By hand? If the ground is difficult to plow, does an acre become smaller? (OK, I will relent, it's what could be plowed by one ox, but you get my drift.) As for the not-so-imperially-inclined, the information that an acre is roughly 0.4 hectare, 40 are, or 4000 square meters is probably more relatable. Or "about the size of a football field"? ;-)
    – DevSolar
    May 15, 2019 at 6:34
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    @KevinVanDyck: Yes.
    – DevSolar
    May 15, 2019 at 10:29

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