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Graduate School of Economics and Management
Tohoku University, Assistant Professor

Tingting ZHANG

Choosing Economics as my Field of Specialization to Contribute to my Country’s Development

After learning Japanese for four years at a university in China, my life as a researcher began when I became a graduate student at the Graduate School of Economics and Management of Tohoku University in April 2010. Though my studies in China included a course on the Japanese economy, I entered graduate school with hardly any specialized knowledge in economics. Wanting to learn about Japan during its period of rapid economic growth and development and wanting to contribute to my own country’s development by absorbing all the good Japan has to offer were the driving forces behind my choice of economics as my field of specialization.

In my master’s and doctorate programs, I elucidated the characteristics and historical structures of early modern Japan’s labor market. A book review written by my supervisor, Professor Hiroshi Hasebe (who retired in March 2021), sparked my research into this subject. It was a review of a book entitled “The Practices of Joint Ownership of Land and Earning Elsewhere – A Social History of Village Life in Echigo Kanbara” by Yoshitaka Nakamura. Reading the review, I learned that labor migration had already been practiced in early modern Japan. To this day, the problems which peasants and farmers face such as poor working conditions and disparities in social security and job training opportunities are societal issues in China. As research to link to this issue, I studied what kind of labor migration occurred in early modern Japan, including its scale and characteristics. The first thing I did was to study documents of the Okoshi family in the former Kakuda-hama Village in Nishi-kanbara District, Niigata Prefecture.

Elucidating the Social, Economic, and Historical Characteristics of the Labor Market in Early Modern Japan

The Okoshi family documents included a Japanese religious census register, land deeds, and tax certificates dating from the Horeki period (mid-18th century) to the early Meiji era (1868–1912), as well as village administrative documents related to labor migration. By classifying, organizing, indexing, and photographing these documents, I learned how to inspect and organize primary source materials, and I experienced the fun in conducting research based on primary sources.

After analyzing and examining these documents, it became clear that labor migration during those years was very similar to migration patterns today. Basically, even though they were far away from their village and home, those from the same village maintained their connections while living in another place. It’s true that even though they were away from their hometowns, they supported their homes and villages as needed by utilizing their specialized skills as carpenters and woodcutters. In studies up until then, labor migration in early modern Japan was often discussed from the perspective of leaving the village for good and migrating elsewhere, or reducing the number of second and third sons in the village, but presenting it in a more positive light such as men earning income using their labor skills was a huge gain.

After studying the Okoshi family documents, I investigated the former village of Imai in Kawanakajima, Shinshu. It was then made clear that while this village “supplied” servants for samurai mansions in Edo and for Matsushiro clan households, the village also provided constant demand for lower servants from neighboring villages. At the time, the labor market was multi-faceted and hierarchical, with servants in the upper rung and lower servants in the lower rung – the upper rung of servants supplied labor, while producing demand for lower servants in the lower rung.

The goal of my research is to elucidate the social, economic, and historical characteristics of the labor market and labor migration in early modern Japan. With the labor market as a starting point, my research can be expanded into various areas from industrial structures to village and household structures. To date, my research has focused on labor market analysis, and I have not yet studied industrial structures and beyond. The interesting thing about historical research is being able to get closer to answers in a world with no answers in an endless number of ways. There are many unknown things in early modern era, and this is why I want to dig deeper into it. I want to convey a picture of Japan’s early modern period in a different way from what most people think it is, and how it is deeply connected to modern times.

Actively Taking up the Challenge of Studying Abroad, and Experiencing Global Culture Firsthand

With the results of my research in hand, in 2018, I attended a conference on world economic history in Boston, USA, and a workshop in Heidelberg University, Germany. I was able to attend the workshop with financial support from the International Graduate Program in Japanese Studies (GPJS) of Tohoku University. At the workshop, I made a presentation entitled “The World of Historical Demography, One Case of Domestic Migration in Tokugawa Japan.” After my presentation, many foreign researchers asked questions and participated in the discussion, so I strongly felt there was a lot of interest in research about early modern Japan and in archival research.

At the workshop in Germany, I felt it was unfortunate that including myself, two of the three students sent by GPJS who had the chance to make a presentation were Chinese students. As a foreign student studying in Japan, I also felt a sense of crisis because despite the topic being Japanese studies, there was only one Japanese student among us. I am currently an assistant professor in charge of a pre-seminar for second-year students at the Faculty of Economics. I take every chance I get to talk about the appeal of GPJS, including scholarships, financial and study-abroad support. Using my own experiences as a Chinese student in Japan, I emphasize that I want them to experience global culture firsthand. There are students who say their English is not good so they are not thinking about studying abroad, but I tell them they just need to practice.

A student in my pre-seminar once asked, “What is a Japanese person?” I answered, “To be able to understand what a Japanese person is, I think it’s a good idea for you to leave Japan. If you go overseas and put yourself in a different culture, your understanding of what it means to be a Japanese person will surely deepen. When I was in China, I never considered what it meant to be a Chinese person. But when I came to Japan, for the first time I asked myself, “What is a Chinese person?” In this global age when Japan, China, Europe and the USA are all connected, I want as many students as possible to study abroad, even for a long period of time. GPJS provides a perfect opportunity for that.

At GPJS, English-language classes taught mainly by native speakers are already being provided. Aside from reports and presentations given in English, students of the program are chosen based on presentations they give in English. GPJS will continue to move into further globalization and multilingualization, so I think more foreign teachers will be needed. As one of GPJS’s faculty members, I would like to obtain good research results through exchanges with researchers from other fields and present my findings at GPJS.

New Ideas and Discoveries Emerge from Exchanges with Researchers in Other Fields

My research is still at the stage of analyzing labor migration by village. Basically, I am conducting research from a micro-perspective, so I would like to expand it to a macro-perspective and analyze industrial, village, and household structures. This is where exchanges with specialists and researchers from various fields including historical demography, socioeconomics, and geography prove to be important. For example, a Japanese economic history researcher and a population history researcher will see the same document from an entirely different perspective. New ideas, discoveries, and breakthroughs may emerge from exchanges with researchers from other fields, transcending international, inter-university, inter-departmental, and interdisciplinary confines. For me, GPSJ is precisely the place for this.

One reason why I chose economics as my field of specialization was my interest in the problems that peasants and farmers face in modern China. Having conducted research on labor migration in early modern Japan from the viewpoint of a historian, there is no difference between early modern Japan and modern China regarding people moving elsewhere in search of a better life. People leave their hometowns wanting to be able to support their parents and children back home. They work far away physically, but their minds and hearts are always at their hometowns. While the problems that peasants and farmers face is one of modern China’s issues, it should also be addressed by the humanities and social sciences whose essence is to “wrestle with the issues that modern society faces, and pursue the happiness of the human race.” At the backdrop of the problems peasants and farmers face is the uniquely Chinese family register system (agricultural registration and urban registration). To solve these problems, a wide-ranging humanities and social science approach from the disciplines of economics, history, legal studies, political science, and social studies is needed. I hope that my research will not only help by providing hints to such an approach, but also open a world of possibilities for solving global issues such as immigration.

  • Assistant Professor at the Graduate School of Economics and Management, Tohoku University. PhD in Economics. Received her master’s degree from the Graduate School of Economics and Management, Tohoku University in 2012. Received her doctorate degree from the same school in 2017. Became a postdoctoral fellow at the same school starting 2017. Has held her current position since 2020.
  • Main Fields of Research: Japanese economic history
  • Researcher Information, Tohoku University