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The rise of Japan

Andrew Mwenda in March stands in front of buildings of Japan’s oldest surviving private company, Kongo Gumi Co. Ltd in Osaka, which since 578 AD has done carpentry for the imperial palace, Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples.

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.

3 comments

  1. ejakait engoraton

    “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.”

    M9 seems not to have respect for circumstances and other factors when comparing issues which in HIS mind are the SAME or similar.

    JUST because M7 went to the bush 30+ years ago and killed Ugandans to come to power does not mean someone else would be able to the same in the present situation.

    The factors which made it possible then are not the same today so your comparison would be very sick.

  2. ejakait engoraton

    ” 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.”

    FOR heavens sake, unless you want to make your article long, why should it be difficult to know; that is what is cause and which is effect; which one of these two came first. It is like us asking ourselves if M 9 is a good writer because he went to school or if he went to school because he was a good writer. WE have a time frame of the events.

  3. ejakait engoraton

    “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.”

    I AM surprised , and indeed disappointed that you chose to see the 18th or 19th century Japanese(or indeed any society for that matter) through the eyes of the “western” society.

    Tell me a place where the whites went, be it ASIA – INDIA, CHINA etc, AFRICA, AMERICA both North and south (Native Americans, the Incas etc) , where the whites saw these societies, most of which had very advanced systems, other than as barbarians and savages, cannibals only fit for extermination, which they went ahead and almost did.

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