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Japanese cotton picking peasants (Source: Flickr/ Okinawa Soba (Rob))

The Sins of the Fathers: Tales of Japanese Inhumanity

The samurai [6, p. 322] on the ¥10,000 bill—Fukuzawa Yukichi (1834-1901) [6, p. 15]—ran into a peasant shortly after the Meiji Restoration (1868 [6, p. 11]) [6, p.15]: Seeing him, the peasant immediately jumped off his horse. Fukuzawa insisted that nowadays anyone can keep on riding horses no matter who they ran into, that’s the law. The peasant bowed as if in great fear and apologized profusely, but was unable to mount his horse in front of a samurai [6, p. 15].

Japanese cotton picking peasants (Source: Flickr/ Okinawa Soba (Rob))

“If you don’t, I’ll beat you. [6, p. 15]”

For the 268 years of the Tokugawa period (1600-1868) [6, p. 3] the Japanese peasants—who made up 80 percent of the population [6, p. 6] [8, p. 113] [12, p. 62]—their sole purpose for existence was to work the land for the samurai. Historian Mikiso Hane observed: “… 6 percent of the population [8, p. 112] expropriates 50 percent of the land’s bounty, and leaves over 80 percent of the population to subsist on what remains… [6, p. 8]”

A Bakufu official in the 18th century: “Sesame seeds and peasants are very much alike, the more you squeeze them, the more you can extract from them. [6, p. 8]”

The Meiji Restoration made life worse—instead of rice the peasants now paid their land tax in money—making them vulnerable to rice’s changing price. They bore the brunt of Japan’s modernization: by 1892, 85.6 percent of government revenue was their tax. Many fell deeper and deeper into debt. Many lost their land [6, p. 17] [12, pp. 82-3].

“Hard labor without chains—to which one remained bound by necessity and from which only death could bring release.” [9, p. 14]

Theirs was a tortured existence of tyranny; poverty; disease; malnourishment; parasites; famines [12, pp. 62-3] [6, pp. 3, 34-6, 40-1, 44-8] [13, p. 358] [14, p. 11, 102-3, 133, 162] [15, pp. 13-4]. Close to half a million peasants died of starvation in the Tokugawa era during extreme famines. Some more died in severe famines [6, p. 7] [8, pp. 118-9]. In the modernized Meiji era (1868-1912) [11, p. xxxvi] of 1884-1885, the entire nation was gripped by severe famines. Poet Kitamura Toukoku (1868-1894) lamented that all the government did was say “… work harder…” Peasants lost their lands, swarmed the cities to beg and steal. Suicide rates skyrocketed. There might have been infanticide. Daughters were sent to cotton and silk factories, or sold to brothels in Japan and overseas [6, p. 27].

In the northern prefectures, famines were “… almost a commonplace occurrence.” They barely survive in normal years, and so are hit especially hard in bad times [6, p. 114] [14, p. 253] [10, p. 46]; from the Tokugawa era [6, p. 7] where bodies of those who starved to death blocked roads for miles along the Tsugaru Peninsula [6, pp. 7-8], to the Meiji era, to the Taishou era (1912-1926) [11, p. xxxvii], to even the early Shouwa era (1926-1989) [11, p. xxxvii] [6, p. 114]. During the famine of 1934, 70-80 percent of Aomori prefecture were living like animals. A village in Iwate prefecture had 50 percent infant mortality rate while half the population of 900,000 was on the brink of starvation. The region saw 4,521 girls sold to brothels, 2,196 to geisha houses, and 17,260 signed contracts for factories and mills [6, pp. 114-5]. A suicide note said “When I am reborn I will not come back as a farmer [6, p. 116]”.  

Of life as a prostitute, in the 1920s a woman wrote in a magazine: “My companions are writhing in the ugly sewer of life all over Japan… How do you think the brothel owner treats us? They are bloodsuckers who… drive many of us to death.” Another wrote in her diary: “I kept telling myself, ‘I must kill myself, I must kill myself,’ and wrote endless numbers of suicide notes. But I decided against suicide for it would do me no good… The only reality would be the heartbreak of my mother and younger sister [6, pp. 215-7]”.

 Of overseas brothels, it is estimated that in 1910 there were 22,000 so-called karayuki-san Japanese prostitutes abroad. Hane noted grimly: “The life story of practically every one of the karayuki is an unmitigated horror story [6, pp. 219-20].”

A representative sample of Japanese textile factory girls recalled: “I don’t know how many times I thought I would rather jump into Lake Suwa and drown [12, p. 82].”

I have only scratched the surface [6] [7].

I hear "itadakimasu" I see the starving peasants.

I hear "moushiwakegozaimasen" I see the peasant cowering in front of the samurai.

I hear "shouganai" I see a starving family selling their daughter to a brothel.

For what the ancients called "the sins of the fathers" we today call "intergenerational trauma. [16, p. 1101] [17, p. 745]"

For what the ancients called "sin" we today call "epigenetics. [18]"

History matters because it's not about the past, it's about us.


  1.  Bartlett, John. 1968 (1855). Familiar Quotations: A Collection of Passages, Phrases and Proverbs Traced to Their Sources in Ancient and Modern Literature. Fourteenth Edition Revised and Enlarged. Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Company. <>.
  2. Calder, William M., III. n.d. “MORGAN, Morris Hicky.” Database of Classical Scholars, Rutgers, School of Arts and Sciences. Accessed February 8, 2021.
  3. ESC and Henry. 2003. “The Sins of the Fathers - Phrase Meaning and Origin.” The Phrase Finder. August 24, 2003.
  4. Milton, Michael A. 2020. “What Are ‘Sins of the Father’? Understanding Generational Consequences.” Crosswalk.Com. February 13, 2020.
  5. Odell, Margaret. 2011. “Commentary on Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32.” Working Preacher from Luther Seminary. September 25, 2011.
  6. Hane, Mikiso. 2016. Peasants, Rebels, Women, and Outcastes: The Underside of Modern Japan. Updated 2nd ed. Asian Voices: An Asia/Pacific/Perspectives Series. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
  7. Shimonaka, Kunihiko, ed. 1972. Nihon Zankoku Monogatari (Tales of Japanese Inhumanity). 5 vols. Tokyo: Heibonsha.
  8. Deal, William E. 2006. “Society and Economy.” In Handbook to Life in Medieval and Early Modern Japan, 107–30. New York, NY: FACTS ON FILE INC.
  9. Weber, Eugen. 1976. Peasants into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France, 1870–1914. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
  10. Partner, Simon. 2004. Toshie: A Story of Village Life in Twentieth-Century Japan. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  11. Saaler, Sven, and Christopher W. A. Szpilman, eds. 2017. “Chronology.” In Routledge Handbook of Modern Japanese History, xxxvi–xxxix. Routledge Handbooks. London: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.
  12. Huffman, James L. 2010. Japan in World History. The New Oxford World History. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  13. Deal, William E. 2006. “Everyday Life.” In Handbook to Life in Medieval and Early Modern Japan, 340–60. New York, NY: FACTS ON FILE INC.
  14. Nishida, Yoshiaki and Waswo, Ann. 2003. Farmers and Village Life in Japan. Abingdon, Oxon: Taylor and Francis, Taylor & Francis Group.
  15. Lone, Stewart. 2010. Provincial Life and the Military in Imperial Japan: The Phantom Samurai. Vol. 58. Routledge Studies in the Modern History of Asia. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.
  16. Isobel, S, Goodyear, M, Furness, T, Foster, K. Preventing intergenerational trauma transmission: A critical interpretive synthesis. J Clin Nurs. 2019; 28: 1100– 1113. https://doi-/10.1111/jocn.14735
  17. Sangalang, C.C., Vang, C. Intergenerational Trauma in Refugee Families: A Systematic Review. J Immigrant Minority Health 19, 745–754 (2017). https://doi-/10.1007/s10903-016-0499-7
  18. Curry, Andrew. 2019. “A Painful Legacy: Parents’ Emotional Trauma May Change Their Children’s Biology. Studies in Mice Show How.” Science | AAAS, July 18, 2019. doi:10.1126/science.aay7690.

 The Sins of the Fathers: “ The gods Visit the sins of the fathers upon the children.” —Phrixus, frag. 970, Euripides [1, p. 86] (485-406 B.C.) [1, p. 83], translated by Morris Hickey Morgan [1, p. 86] (1859-1910) [2]; see also: Exodus 20:5— “For I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me.” [1, p. 9]; “For the sins of your fathers you, though guiltless, must suffer.”—Horace [1, p. 86] (65-8 B.C.) [1, p. 120], Odes III, 6: I [1, p. 86]; “The sins of the fathers are to be laid upon the children.” —Shakespeare [1, p.86] (1564-1616) [1, p. 214], Merchant of Venice, III, v, I [1, p. 86]. See [3] [4] [5] for a list of where in the Bible this phrase came from and basic (albeit opinionated) knowledge of this concept.  

Nihon Zankoku Monogatari [日本残酷物語] (Tales of Japanese Inhumanity): This is the title of the 5-volume work in Japanese history [7] that formed the backbone for historian Mikiso Hane’s Peasants, Rebels, Women, and Outcastes: The Underside of Modern Japan [6]—cited at least a few times in every chapter [6, pp. 321-42] except the epilogue and the new chapter added in the second edition (Women Rebels) [6, pp. 341-2].   

“Hard labor without chains—to which one remained bound by necessity and from which only death could bring release.” : Simon Partner described most peasants in Japan in 1925 as such [10, p. xi] by quoting Eugen’ description of 1914 French peasants [10, p. 171].

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