Labour levies and the cost of constructing capitals and temple complexes

The depletion of national resources

Constructions of the many palace and grandiose temples such as Todaiji temple in Nara exhausted the state treasury. Emperor Shomu is depicted (by later chronicles) of having depleted the country’s reserves of bronze and precious metals through his massive undertaking of the casting of the bronze Daibutsu Buddha. 

Rebellions added to man-made woes, and natural disasters periodically hit Nara society hard. There were terrible recurring epidemics, particularly the smallpox outbreak of the mid-730’s, and droughts and storms. Life was hard for both aristocrats and commoners. With the hectic capital relocations, aristocrats were overworked with heavy administrative burdens and management difficulties.

Contact with the continent probably brought the pathogens to Japan, that must have disseminated quickly on the highway system that had been developed for traveling envoys, monks, soldiers, couriers, conveyors of tribute, and labourers spurred the spread of communicable diseases.

Overworked, undernourished and weakened with the hard life that the common people were already leading, many probably fell like flies when an epidemic struck. In any event, the producer segment of society is thought to have decimated in the 8th century epidemics — by some estimates, the loss of human life may have amounted to 25% of the population or more. Population losses were worst in the Kinai Basin where population was most concentrated and urban.  Some of the Manyoshu poems contain soulful laments of common people about the hardships of the day.

The projects of constant relocations to new capital cities, and the many construction projects brought great burdens for aristocrats and commoners. But commoners were subject to more onerous taxes, labour levies and produce and service duties. Workers had to be conscripted using corvee or hired labour. Apart from the state-sponsored projects, aristocrats also mobilized their own crews or hijacked imperial labourers for their own projects to build mansions, household temples and shrines at the new capital site. Labourers suffered from overwork and malnutrition…many fled their duties.

Zoyo: Labour levies

Adult males farmers had to supply labour of various types. They could be conscripted to work on local construction projects for a maximum period of 60 days. But Nara records indicate that they were often forced to work on private projects by provincial officials as well. In 757, the labour levy was reduced to thirty days per year.  Or adult males could also be conscripted for military or police duty. Each household had to provide one soldier (heishi) for every four (later changed to one in three) of its males of age. But draft duty created hardship for the household because each soldier had to provide his own food and weapons. An early 9th century order from the Council of State lamented that “a household is doomed if one of its men is drafted.” The third kind of service expected was palace guard duty which call a person away for duty for up to a year. The Nihon shoki records another lament “I went to the capital as a guard in the prime of life but returned home with white hair.” Men were sent from distant points of eastern Japan to defend the borders of northern Kyushu. Their households were particularly miserable for tour duty lasted three years.

Cho and yo produce taxes

Labourers who worked on projects at the capital such as daily work in government offices for three years could be exempted from most taxes and assessments. However, labour for the construction projects at the Heijo, Shigaraki and Kuni capitals and at various temples and shrines was mainly supplied by hired labour (koeki) where men were compensated with money and food.

Major features of the Nara system were the produce (cho) taxes and produce  taxes paid in lieu of labour levies (yo) that were collected from adult males.  These were mainly textiles usually silk and hemp cloth, but dyes, lacquer, paper and salt were also included. Farmers who lived around the capital city were not required to pay either of those produce taxes in full but instead, they had to work as hired workers (koeki) for the central government.

Interests and loans

An important source of revenue for the state government came from the interest paid on state loans (ko-suiko). Loans of seed rice were made in the winter or spring and were repaid at harvest time with an interest charge of 50 percent. Loans of rice or other consumer products were also made by private individuals too (shi-suiko) but at rates of 100 per cent, local government loans were preferred and they were often canceled when the borrower died. In 795, the rate of interest for ko-suiko was reduced to 30 percent. To increase state revenue, however, a larger problem had to be solved – the need to increase productivity and to raise rice yields and amount of land under cultivation.

The great land grab and the complications of land reallocation laws

When Empress Genmei relocated from Fujiwara-kyo to the new capital in Heijyo-kyo in Nara, the government had to evict villagers from their fields in order to make way for the new capital’s construction projects. Diverse materials had to be transported from elsewhere. A large industry was carried on with craftsmen, artisans and carpenters producing roof tile, quarrying and sculpting foundation stones, sawing and chiseling wood for the buildings to be erected. To pay for all the work done, Empress Genmei pushed the collection of tributes and began minting coins forcing workers and aristocrats to accept them as payment for goods and services.

The great land grab and intensive use of farmed fields, according to scholars, had resulted in the “ecological overload” of the soil and land’s resources. For building Genmei’s new palace and temple complexes, the crews felled timbers from Omi and Iga provinces. This suggests that large quality timbers could no longer be obtained from the overlogged environs of the Nara basin. Aristocrats were disassembling their old buildings and reused the materials for their new residences. Heijyo-kyo’s building projects were completed amidst protests and discontent.

The reduction of forests may have reduced the area’s annual rainfall; the conversion of forested hillsides into fields exposed topsoil, caused water to flow more quickly to the sea, creating water runoff and erosion problems that led to alternating flood and drought cycles.  Drought was reported for the years 693, 715 and 723 when many must have suffered from hunger and famine. 

Farmable and tillable arable land and quality woodland had become scarce as well. Rice yields were down, there were poor crops reported nearly every year of the Nihon shoki’s records. The allocations of landholdings for new temples and bureaucratic offices and palaces during the Nara period of construction activity had also created shortages of land for rice cultivation.

The shortage of rice land prompted the passing of a new law in 723 that stated that some newly developed land could be privately possessed by the developer and passed on to his descendants for three generations. There was a condition however that if an irrigation system already existed the land could only be held for as long as the developer of the land was alive. It is thought that the new land rulings were not very effective and very few new fields seemed to have been cultivated as a result of the new provision.

Twenty years later, another ruling allowed private individuals to hold the rice field land in perpetuity (“perpetuity” means for life” or “for an indefinitely long time”) as recognized by the state. Until this law was passed, the only person who had ever held land in perpetuity was Fuiwara no Kamatari, founder of the Fujiwara clan. But now, it was possible for aristocrats to own land privately and to pass it on to their descendants (and thus greatly improve their economic security). A later change in 743, restricted the amount of land according to one’s rank: land to be held by persons without rank amounted to only ten cho land while persons of the first rank could develop 500 cho.

At this point however, the new land provisions created difficulties for the ritsuryo system. With the increase in lands released for cultivation and development, with the great land grab, it became difficult to sort out which lands were state owned and which were privately held. While sorting out all the questions of who owned what land, the new allotments by the state were also delayed until the year 800. In fact, between 800 and 883 only three allocations of land were recorded for the Kinai area and between 800 and the beginning of the 10th century, not more than 5 or 6 were made in areas outside the Kinai.

Nevertheless even with all the new problems, after the passing of the 743 law, large amounts of new rice land emerged.

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