This paper uses a new dataset of Japanese village censuses, 1637-1872, to measure inequality in landownership. Surprisingly, lands were relatively equally distributed, and most peasants were de-facto landowners. Further, there was no trend in wealth inequality. This contrasts with Western Europe where wealth inequality was high and increasing. To explain this, I use a linked multi-generational dataset of village censuses to study land transmissions. I ﬁnd that Japanese households diﬀered from Europeans due to widespread adoption of male heirs when reproduction failed. As non-marginal landowners almost always had an heir, lands were kept in the family. In contrast, elite English male lines failed 25% of the time leading to a highly unequal redistribution of their lands via will or marriage of heiresses. Finally, the institutional diﬀerences in adoption had roots in church policy in the 4th century and this may partially explain why Western Europe was more unequal by 1800.
IAST working paper, n. 21-125, November 2021