A man stands next to an oxcart loaded with tawara (俵, straw rice bags). Tawara (also: hyo) were used for holding rice, charcoal or grain.
A rice field of 1,000 square meters (10 ares) would normally yield about seven tawara. Until the Meiji Period (1868-1912), rice was not just food, but also currency. Taxes were paid in bushels of rice and daimyo (feudal lords) were rated by the amount of their annual rice harvest. This was measured in koku, 1 koku being approximately 180 liters. A tawara contained about half a koku.1
Koku was part of a traditional system of weights and measures called shakkanho (尺貫法), from shaku, a unit of length, and kan, a unit of weight.
In this system, volume was measured as follows:
1 shaku (勺) – approx. 18 ml
1 go (合) – approx. 18 cl
1 sho (升) – approx. 1.8 liters
1 to (斗) – approx. 18 liters
1 koku (石) – approx. 180 liters
10 shaku = 1 go.
10 go = 1 sho.
10 sho = 1 to.
10 to = 1 koku.
As Japan, during the Meiji Period, embarked on an ambitious program to acquire industrial technologies from the West, it soon realized that these were all interrelated and in fact constituted an entire system. It was therefore of utmost importance to have a system of weights and measurements that were both universal and applicable to these new technologies.
Japan had originally tried to adapt the Western system of measurements to the Japanese system, but scientists and leaders in government and industry soon realized this didn’t work. The Japanese clock, for example, differed according to season and whether it was light or dark. It was virtually impossible to set regular train and factory schedules with it.
The country therefore adopted a completely new system of measuring everything from time to months to weight. In 1873 (Meiji 6), the new calendar and a standardized 24-hour day were introduced. In 1886 (Meiji 19), Japan joined the metric convention. It became the first Asian country to accept the system nationwide when a law for its use was introduced in 1890 (Meiji 23).
In spite of the introduction of the metric system, the shakkanho never really disappeared and was even modified several times to adjust to modern needs. It would actually take until the middle of the 20th century before these new measures were in widespread use.2
Finally in 1966 (Showa 41), the shakkanho was officially banned for use in certification and contracts. However, the shakkanho managed to survive even this ban and to this very day peacefully coexists with the metric system. Real estate agents for example still use tsubo (3.3 square meters) and jo (equal to the size of a standard rice mat) to measure area.
1 Griffis, William Elliot (1876). The Mikado’s Empire. Harper and Brothers, 610.
2 Morris-Suzuki, Tessa (1994). The Technological Transformation of Japan: From the Seventeenth to the Twenty-First Century. Cambridge University Press, 84. ISBN 0521424925
3 A good language resource for counting and measurements in Japanese is Japanese Numeral Counters.
Reference for Citations
Duits, Kjeld (). 1890s: Oxcart with Rice Bags, OLD PHOTOS of JAPAN. Retrieved on October 4, 2022 (GMT) from https://www.oldphotosjapan.com/photos/292/oxcart-with-rice-bags
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