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Defining and Dividing Property Rights in the Commons: Today's Lessons from the Japanese Past

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Type: Conference Paper
Author: McKean, Margaret A.
Conference: Common Property Conference, the Second Biennial Conference of the International Association for the Study of Common Property
Location: Winnipeg, Manitoba
Conf. Date: October 17, 1991
Date: 1991
URI: https://hdl.handle.net/10535/2041
Sector: Theory
Region: East Asia
Subject(s): IASC
common pool resources
property rights--history
land tenure and use
legal systems
Abstract: "This paper examines the process by which commons became common property, the nature of the 'property' in common property, and the patterns of ownership of that property in Japan since the emergence of commons. It looks at community rules to see how users themselves defined property rights and at legal decisions to see how much protection and recognition the larger society gave to these definitions, from the evolution of property rights in the commons during the the medieval period (1185-1600), through the ownership and use patterns that prevailed during the Tokugawa period (1600-1867) when the commons came under pressure because of their importance, and on to the changes that resulted after assault on the commons during the Meiji period (1867-1912). The Japanese developed the notion of dividing and segmenting different rights to property early in the evolution of property rights, and by about 1600 considered most upland forest and meadow to be the shared private property (e.g., common property) of villages as corporate groups. The legal protection afforded the commons helped the system of common property as an arrangement for managing resources to weather the assaults from Meiji-period modernizers who wanted to nationalize forests and eliminate common access use rights from that land. The survival of the Japanese commons demonstrates that common property is not fundamentally defective or inconsistent with modern institutions, as long as it has the same benefits of legal protection that are given to individually-owned private property in capitalist societies. Indeed, the Japanese experience offers useful lessons in the workability of segmented rights each owned by the most appropriate or concerned community of user beneficiaries, with income flows from resources owned by individual appropriators while a community of individuals continues to own the resource base that generates both those income flows and community-wide environmental services. Finally, the Japanese case illustrates how devolution of property rights to the local level turns potential resource saboteurs into resource owner-protectors, an issue of world-wide concern today."

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