Why wasn’t there a revolution in Japan like the one in France? The suffering was as great in 18th-century Japan as in the realm of ill-fated King Louis XVI, the government here as callous and incompetent as the government there. How did Japan’s old order — rotting internally, as its collapse under foreign threat in the 1860s proved — escape being overthrown by the starving and enraged masses?

Rage smoldered perpetually and erupted frequently. By one count there were 2,967 peasant ikki (uprisings) during the Tokugawa shogunate (1603-1867); by another, 6,889. It depends on what degree of violence qualifies as an ikki. The worst of them were very violent indeed, so much so that a mere threat was sometimes enough to make a prudent daimyo (feudal lord) back down. He would have in mind, perhaps, the Shimabara peasant revolt in 1638 in Kyushu’s present-day Nagasaki Prefecture — a victory for the shogunal forces that crushed it, though at the cost of 15,000 casualties.

The living conditions in Shimabara were especially harsh. Tax was piled on tax — door tax, shelf tax, hearth tax, cattle tax, birth tax, death tax — all this in addition to the basic tax on produce.

Taxes were paid in rice and other grains, so that payment often meant starvation. Punishment for nonpayment had to be worse in order to be effective. Various lesser tortures culminated in the “mino dance,” mino being the name of the straw raincoat in which offenders were burned alive as an example to others.

Cruelty this grotesque is rare in the annals. Oppression beyond a certain point hinders production. Peasant toil requires a degree of health and strength. If not human sympathy, simple self-interest inclined most daimyo to a measure of lenience. Only a measure, however. The nativist philosopher Motoori Norinaga (1730-1801) expressed the prevailing attitude, warning in 1771, “If the people below do not fear those above, this is the root of disorder.”

Had Motoori and other mainstream Japanese thinkers of the day ever even heard of France? China and India are the only foreign countries they mention. France would have rewarded scrutiny, however. “Disorder” there was acquiring a new meaning, soon to be encapsulated in a new political term: revolution.

It means many things and arouses many emotions, from dread to exultation, but it boils down to this blunt observation by one of its early philosophers, Louis de Saint-Just (1764-94): “The wretched are the power of the Earth.”

The Confucian theory then prevailing in Japan accorded peasants high honor. They ranked second in the class hierarchy, below the samurai but above artisans and merchants. So much for theory. Practice is summed up by two proverbs of the day: “The peasants are a tool for the extraction of rice tax,” and “Peasants are like sesame seeds. The harder you squeeze them the more they give.”

That conveys their wretchedness. What about their power?

They had it and often wielded it, frequently suffering torture and execution, sometimes carrying their point. The earliest ikki date back to the 15th century.

In 1441, Kyoto, the Imperial capital, was besieged by peasants demanding nullification of crushing debt. “Now (the peasants) have blocked the seven gateways into the capital,” a government minister confided to his diary. “There is nothing on sale anymore, and the capital is doomed to starve. An unspeakable state of affairs!”

Unspeakable but irresistible. “This was the first time in the history of Japan,” notes historian Donald Keene (in “Yoshimasa and the Silver Pavilion,” 2003), “that the government had bowed in this manner to demands of the common people.”

The first time; not the last. In December 1707 Mount Fuji erupted, burying nearby villages in 4 meters of volcanic ash. Homes were lost, harvests destroyed, spring planting jeopardized. When officials of the Odawara domain (in present-day Kanagawa Prefecture) were slow to respond to appeals for relief, the desperate farmers hastily organized a march to Edo (present-day Tokyo). Cornered, the daimyo backed down. The last thing he wanted was thousands of his peasants swarming the metropolis and showing the world the breakdown of his local rule.

Famine was the curse of preindustrial Japan, as of preindustrial France. No region in Japan suffered more down the centuries than Tohoku, the northeastern region of Honshu, and no part of Tohoku was harder hit than the Nanbu domain, desperately poor at the best of times, centered on Morioka.

Begrudging nature and corrupt government share the blame. Here in 1853 there occurred one of the greatest peasant revolts in Japanese history. Some 17,000 farmers massed, marched, smashed property of the rich, crossed the border into the rival Sendai domain and submitted a list of grievances to the Sendai daimyo. The shogun in Edo took notice — and the shogunate took action. The Nanbu daimyo was dispossessed. The peasants were victorious.

But not revolutionary. Why not? Where is the line that must be crossed before the aroused fury of the downtrodden masses produces not just destruction, fear and concessions but a true revolution?

The best answer is a philosophical one. A revolution alters our deepest thoughts. It makes former ways of thinking almost unthinkable. In 1789, France’s revolutionary National Assembly produced a Declaration of the Rights of Man which proclaimed, “All men are born free and equal.” That’s France’s revolution in a nutshell.

Nothing comparable came out of Japan’s peasant violence. Japan’s peasants, even the most progressive among them, never dreamed such a thing. All they demanded was relief from starvation. Sometimes they got it. More often they didn’t. Either way, the feudal system that oppressed and exploited them went practically unchallenged, and when it finally crumbled, a mere 14 years after the Nanbu revolt, the fatal blow was struck by foreign interlopers, not Japanese revolutionaries.

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