What made this country transform rapidly from a backward agrarian society into a modern industrial power
The Independent | ANDREW M. MWENDA | How did Japan, a poor and economically “backward” country rapidly transform into a modern industry power a few years after its initial contact with the West? I promised to address this question last week. Japan opened up to the outside world in 1868 during what is called the Meiji Restoration. By 1895, i.e. within 25 years, it had become one of the leading global powers alongside Russia, France, UK, Austria, Prussia and USA. In 1905, it crushed the Russian navy in a decisive battle, becoming the first non-European country ever to defeat a major European power.
Japan’s rapid ascent on the ladder of global powers is even the more intriguing because it’s neighbors like China and Korea, upon their initial contact with the West, did not react as quickly and decisively in acquiring Western technology and in rapidly transforming their institutions to cope with this external threat. Instead Japan was later to colonise both. Of course Korea (its southern part) was later to rapidly transform just as China is doing today.
For many analysts, the reasons for Japan’s rapid ascent are located in the culture of its people – their shared norms, values, habits and mentalities. Cultural theorists, therefore, point to the tendency among Japanese to be obedient to authority, loyal to superiors, punctuality, dedication to assigned tasks, and speed of execution of duties etc., factors that ensure high productivity of labour. It is difficult to know what is cause and what is effect: are Japanese developed because they act quickly and efficiently to tasks or do they act quickly and effectively to tasks because they are developed? I will return to this subject later in this article with some evidence.
I suspect that countries develop largely based on their initial factor endowments. For many early economists, these factor endowments meant natural resources. This seems to be the major explanation for the high levels of income attained by countries in the Arabian Gulf such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. However, Japan has little or no natural resources. Its most important asset has been its human capital: the skills (administrative, entrepreneurial, technical and managerial) of its people backed by high levels of institutional capacity, openness to new ideas, trust and solidarity within the community and obedience to superiors.
We should note, however, that by the time of her exposure to the Western world, Japan was a much more sophisticated society compared, for example, to our societies in pre-colonial Africa. Take the example of the most modern of Western social “inventions”, the company. Japan had the idea of a private company 1,300 years ago. The oldest surviving Japanese private company is Kongo Gumi. It was founded in 578 AD (after Christ) or CE (Common Era). It used to do carpentry for the imperial palace, Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples. I visited this company in Tokyo in March and it is still in business to this day.
For centuries there had been business conglomerates in Japan. A 2010 study by Koreans said there are 5,500 companies in the world today, which have been in business for more than 300 years. Of these about 3,000 are found in Japan. Therefore the foundations of capitalism were already in existence in Japan long before it’s opening up to trade with the West. This is an important early endowment Japanese society had long before interaction with the West. Western capitalism brought continuous technical innovation and modern management to Japan. It found a fertile ground because the most important conditions for capitalist development were already in existence.
Take the example of Toshiba, one of the companies I visited while in Japan. It was formed in 1875, exactly seven years after the Meiji Restoration, when the Tokagawa family handed power back to the emperor and Japan opened itself to trade with the West. Toshiba did collaboration work with Thomas Edison in the lighting bulb business, then worked on telegraph machines, washing machines, telephones, refrigerators, televisions, cookers, etc. It is the oldest electronic appliances company in Japan.
At the Toshiba museum, I was shown the first Japanese attempts at a robot more than 200 years ago. It is a teacup-carrying doll. This was later to inform the technology for clocks. The clock at the Toshiba museum was made in 1851. It can work for about one year after they have rewound its springs. Tanaka, one of the founders of what later became Toshiba, used to invent things when he was a kid, like mechanical doors. Japan made her first electric lamp in 1878 by Ichusuke Fujioka. Then in 1884 he visited the USA and met Thomas Edison and learnt how to make modern light bulbs. In 1890 he designed Japan’s first electric elevator.
Upon its opening up, Japan paid western countries for teachers to teach its people western technology. In 1890 the Japanese built their first train by themselves. However most of the parts were imported: the locomotive was from England, the wagons from the USA. But the company that built it was Japanese, the very process Ugandans who despise Kiira car now denounce and despise. It seems, therefore, that there was diffusion of technology in Japanese society; its interaction with the West only sharpened it.
However, all these developments took place within a specific political context. Before the Meiji Restoration in 1868, Japan had had nearly 300 years of peace and stability. During this period (1606 to 1868) under the leadership of the Tokagawa family, Japan was integrated into one nation by creating one central authority under the leadership of the Shogun (military ruler). Under this shogunate, the emperor reigned but did not rule; he lived in the imperial capital of Kyoto (east city) while the Tokagawa shifted the administrative capital to Tokyo (west city). I suspect having a unified national culture is an important asset in development.
Then the USA navy under commodore Mathew Perry came to Japan and forced them to open up. There were also the British and the French seeking to enter Japan. Seeing the threat of external invasion and conquest, the Tokagawa family realised they could not handle this foreign intrusion and its possible implications. It, therefore, transferred power back to the royal family. The emperor decided to open Japan to trade with the West. The emperor did not have absolute power but acted as the British monarch and even worked with other samurai families to govern.
The Japan that opened up to the West for trade was not only advanced in technology, it had a highly literate population. This was largely because education is a highly valued thing in Japan. Even under the Tokagawa Japan was a highly literate society, indeed more literate than western countries even for its women. This made modernization easier! In those old days, Japanese used to study writing and calculation. There was the equivalent of university education!
Secondly under the shogunate, many samurai (soldiers) had grown businesses over very many years! There had been, in some way, the development of capitalism. Its major (but not only) weakness was limited access to western technology and markets. Japan also had a centralised bureaucracy based on meritocratic recruitment long before western influence or before the West itself adopted it. The system was open to everyone as it allowed anyone to climb the social ladder regardless of background. Any kid regarded talented and was ambitious could progress to the top.
This brings me back to cultural theories of development. For many cultural theorists, Japanese culture with its penchant for punctuality, hard work, speed, honesty, trust and diligence is the main explanation behind its rapid development. Yet one wonders whether things like hard work and punctuality (which increase labour productivity) are causes or consequences of development. To understand the weakness in these cultural explanations, we need to look at the impressions Europeans travelers had of the Japanese.
In his book, Bad Samaritans, Ha-Joon Chung, a South Korean economist at Cambridge, has a host of stories to tell about this. In 1905, an Australian management consultant who had been invited by the Japanese government told its bureaucrats: to see your men at work made me feel that you are a very satisfied easy-going race who reckon time is no object.” Sidney Gulick was an American missionary who lived in Japan for 25 years from 1888 to 1913. He spoke fluent Japanese, even teaching in Japanese universities.
In his 1903 book, The Evolution of the Japanese, Gulick said that many Japanese “give an impression of being lazy and are utterly indifferent to the passage of time”. Interestingly, he also found them “emotional, possessing lightness of heart and freedom from all anxiety for the future – living chiefly for the present.”
Beatrice Webb, a leader of British Fabian socialism, after her tour of Japan in 1911-12 described the Japanese as having “objectionable notions of leisure” and that “there is evidently no desire to teach people to think.” She described Koreans as “12 millions of dirty, degraded, sullen, lazy and religionless savages who slouch around in dirty white garments of the most inept kind…”
Yet these stereotypes, Ha tells us, were not only about other peoples. Europeans traveling through Prussia used to describe Germans in the same way. Mary Shelley, a Briton, said of the Germans that they were never in hurry. A French manufacturer who hired Germans complained that they work “as and when they wish.” John Russell, a British travel writer of the 1820s said the Germans were “easily contented people… endowed with neither great acuteness of perception nor quickness of feeling.” He felt they were not open to new ideas. Now look at the Germans today.
If one has read the writings of Timothy Kalyegira about Africans today, he would be struck by how much this Ugandan journalist has borrowed from 19th Century European stereotypes of other societies. The point is that cultural explanations can be misleading predictors of a nation’s future trajectory. A lot of the observations of laziness as opposed to hard work are mere references to characteristics of a backward society rather than causes of that backwardness. As societies move from agriculture to industry, a sense of time begins to be cultivated in a people’s social consciousness. Punctuality is, therefore, a consequence not a cause of development – and the lack of it an impediment to development.
One important thing is that Japan did not have any religious fundamentalism. During the Tokagawa period Christianity had been banned! There was Buddhism but Japanese Buddhism is very secular. So Japan was a secular society. But does this explain her rapid adoption of Western technology? Max Weber had argued that the protestant ethic was responsible for the raise of capitalism. However, when the catholic nations of Portugal, Spain and Italy rapidly industrialised, this argument lost a lot of its shine.
Cultural theorists have argued that Korean and Chinese culture was built on Confucian fundamentalism, which said making profit is a bad thing! Japan did not have this anti-money making belief. If you made money it was good and fun! However, Christianity also used to teach that making money for its own sake is a sin of avarice and lending money on interest was a sin called usury. As time has shown, neither these Christian teachings, nor the Confucian fundamentalist teachings in Korea and China have stopped the development of capitalism in these countries.