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The Japanese Path to National Development
Apr 1, 2002

The twentieth century was marked by failed utopias: Maoist China, Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, and various fascist and communist states. Except for its inter-war militaristic period, Japan has been conspicuous for its absence.

Japan continues to baffle the world. How did a largely peasant feudal nation forcibly opened to the world only in 1853 manage to defeat Russia on the battlefield in 1905? How did a nation that was largely destroyed during World War II rise to such economic heights that by 1962 everyone was aware of the Japanese miracle? What transformed one of the most feared and brutal militaristic nations into a nation that now refuses to bear arms and only recently agreed to involve its soldiers in peace-keeping forces?

The ability to adapt

Japan emerged from its more than 200-year self-imposed exile only when Commodore Perry entered Edo (Tokyo) Bay in 1853 and forced it to do so. The new Meiji dynasty immediately announced the aim of returning to the events of antiquity and origins.(1) However, it simultaneously said that it would search for new knowledge throughout the world eliminate old customs and abuses, as if to immediately announce its intention to inaugurate a genuinely new beginning rather than arepetition.(2)

Even before this epochal date, the ruling Tokugawa dynasty had laid the groundwork for significant social change. For example, they had tamed the samurai, Japan's traditional warrior ruling elite, into non-landed town dwellers who received government stipends. In short, they became bureaucrats whose loyalty was guaranteed only if the person in charge was efficient. The tradition of absolute loyalty to one's clan lord was ended.

The four social classes of warrior, peasant, artisan, and merchant also were abolished, giving people freedom to find their own way in life. The former warrior elite was not threatened by this, for only it had the necessary knowledge to assume the high positions. But not all of them chose that path, for many participated enthusiastically in commerce, from which they had been excluded, and education. The increased social mobility and expanded horizons that this change ushered in was welcomed by all, especially the former elite.

Thus when the Meiji dynasty came to power in the newly opened Japan, it was able to abolish the last vestiges of feudalism quickly and without protest. More importantly, the former elite gave its loyalty to the Emperor willingly.

A few years after this, Japanese students were being sent to Europe and America to learn foreign languages and acquire modern knowledge and skills. Businessmen went abroad to visit factories and companies and buy products that they thought had potential back home. Japan's reputation as a nation of intensely curious people was not long in coming. Within the space of almost 50 years, Japan went from being an isolated xenophobic warrior-dominated nation to one that was curious about everything non-Japanese, even to the point of being ridiculed by other nations.

Education and experience-based knowledge

Even before schools began to proliferate during the Meiji era, people known as technologists actively traveled the country to locate home-grown improved agricultural implements to make farmers more efficient. Such information was published and distributed widely. Local people would show how to use the new tools or methods, and the results convinced people to abandon traditional ways in favor of the new ones, which were more effective.

This represented a disguised challenge to the ruling order, for: Not only were the technologists saying, by implication, that men with enough intelligence and enterprise to alter their status and style of life might ignore the limitations placed on them by birth; they were also saying in effect that the pursuit of private interest by enough people would change society for the better by adding to the sum of human welfare and therefore that the good of society was not uniquely determined by the moral quality of the ruler but might in part well up from the selfish strivings of the masses.(3)


In 1880, the government encouraged entrepreneurship in the national interest by selling its pilot plants to entrepreneurs, giving them exclusive licenses and other privileges, and often providing some portion of their capital funds.(4) These relations were unofficial and personal, as well as based on clan origins, marriages, and bribery. In 1881, the government attempted to manage such activities by creating the Ministry of Agriculture and Commerce.

After WWI, rural Japanese flooded into the urban centers looking for salaried jobs. Working conditions were often hazardous and pay was low, but still they came, driven by the desire to have a better life than their parents. In addition, they wanted to experience first hand what they were reading in the books and magazines promoting the American way of life. They saved their money, got educated, and opened their own businesses.

Realistic planning based on accurate data

Another concern was advance planning and record keeping so people would know how long a certain task should take. Authors were discussing such matters in the field of agriculture as early as the seventeenth century. By the early nineteenth century, technologists were exhorting farmers to keep detailed records of what they did and what was the result, so that they could be compared with past and future results.

In 1930, the Temporary Industrial Rationality Bureau drew up plans for the control of enterprises, implementation of scientific management principles, improvements in industrial financing, standardization of products, simplification of production processes, and subsidies to support the production and consumption of domestically manufactured goods.(5) Basing themselves on the German version, Japan used cooperation and cartels, instead of competition to lower costs. The main goal was not profit, but to cooperate and develop in a way that made Japan able to compete with the developed countries.

One deciding factor was that of historical continuity. For example, the people who had first formulated the relevant policies during the 1920s and 1930s were still there and hard at work in the 1950s. According to Johnson: This theme of historical continuity also draws attention to the fact that industrial policy is rooted in Japanese political rationality and conscious institutional innovation, and not primarily or exclusively in Japanese culture, vestiges of feudalism, insularity, frugality, the primacy of the social group over the individual, or any other special characteristic of Japanese society. Economic crisis gave birth to industrial policy.(6)

Women and government

Women were a critical factor in Japan's early development. According to Koji Taira, Japan's economic modernization, which meant the implementation of the factory system after the war [WWI], was ˜manned by women.' (7)

The government also was an active player, for it designed policies to create a predominantly American lifestyle based on rationality, efficiency, and economies in the conduct of social life.(8) The consumption of everything new was encouraged: toys, food, clothing, attitudes, identities, and so on. This policy was directed at women, for It not only announced the end of the seclusion and isolation women had experienced as virtual prisoners of the household, it had consequences for their status outside family life, as larger numbers began pouring into the labor force, especially in those areas like learning, education, and sports that had been male


This challenge to Japan's patriarchal culture and traditional gender roles was noted but subsumed by the government's attempt to present, at least on the surface, a society marked neither by social divisions nor by gender difference and sexual differentiation.(10) Concern was raised about the harmful effects of such materialism, self-indulgence, loss of spiritual values, and traditional roles. In fact, even though some blamed the 1923 earthquake on such departures from tradition, the new trends continued with full official encouragement and support.

Adaptation of foreign concepts and methods

After its defeat and occupation in 1945, Japan did not blame its fate on non-fidelity to tradition, straying from Buddhist or Shinto principles, or other such abstract ideas. Instead, the Emperor, who until then had been worshipped, went on national radio and told the Japanese to unite your total strength to be devoted to the construction for the future to keep pace with the progress of the world.(11) And the Japanese listened.

When the American occupation force began to use Japan as a supplier for its efforts during the Korean War and began to give it technological knowledge and help, Japan set off with a vengeance to benefit from them. Its efforts paid off so well that by 1962 the world for the first time heard the phrase the Japanese miracle. Its wholesale invasion of the electronic and auto industries was a spectacular success.

From the ashes of WWII came a new policy: administrative guidance. The Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) established many informal rules that sought to restrict foreign access to the Japanese market until its nascent industries could compete. Its main proponent and representative, Sahashi Shigeru, went up against Singer Sewing Company and IBM-and won. He even told the IBM representative that we do not have an inferiority complex toward you; we only need time and money to compete effectively.(12) Calls by internal and foreign interests for economic liberalization were resisted, despite the distortions caused by administrative guidance (e.g., excessive investment in production facilities and overproduction of products), so that the new home-grown industries would not be swamped.

In the 1960s, MITI developed a policy of administration by inducement to deal with the dangers of economic liberalization that both internal and foreign sectors were demanding. The goal was flexibility to adapt to fast-changing situations and new challenges confronting the national economy. Thus, laws were intentionally vague so that a suitable interpretation could be found. In short, this meant committees of cooperating bureaucrats, industrialists, and financiers that would set investment rates, promote mergers, discourage new firms from entering given industries, and in general try to build an industrial structure on a par with those of the United Sates and West Germany, the two prime external reference economies.(13)

This policy, along with certain understandings when it came to banking and investing, was open to abuse and caused its own share of difficulties, but it succeeded brilliantly. Furthermore, a large share of the profits was reinvested in heavy industry and new technology so that Japan could keep up with the industrialized world.

Time management

Time management is fundamental to a modern industrialized society, for any industrial undertaking depends upon performing a set of specific steps in a predetermined chronological order. For the process to succeed, everything must be in place so that it can be used at the correct time. But for the process to be efficient, people must know how long each step should take.

Traditional Japanese society considered time to be communal, for that was the way the people organized their lives. Like any other crop, rice has to be planted and harvested at the appropriate times to be sold and feed the family. As mentioned above, technologists who sought to replace ineffective methods with new ones, often not from the same area, had been active for centuries. The value of time was recognized and linked to the family and the village as a whole. If it were neglected, the family farm could easily fail in this highly competitive environment, which was viewed as dishonoring one's ancestors and often resulted in the family's self-banishment from the village.

This attitude is still a feature of Japanese life. After WWI, working days of 18 hours were common and welcomed, provided that the workers were paid adequately. Often, there were complaints that the company was not letting the people work more hours. This has been ascribed to the traditional Japanese preference for income over leisure, which corporate Japan has harnessed it its benefit.(14)

Also, the fact that Japan is community-oriented enables practices that cannot be reduplicated in other countries: government and business working as partners instead of adversaries, businesses and unions agreeing on acceptable contracts instead of one side trying to lay down the law to others, increased production through willing teamwork and mutual cooperation instead of everyone looking out for himself or herself alone.


Japan, having almost no natural resources, never had the option of depending upon one or more natural resources or products to fuel its development. After its self-imposed isolation ended, Japan's rulers realized just how weak the country was vis A vis the industrialized powers and so began to devise a strategy to equal and then surpass them. China lost its role as Japan's source of inspiration practically overnight. But these strategies were always regarded as subject to change if the situation so warranted. Moreover, these strategies and any subsequent changes were enacted only after conducting a thorough and realistic analysis of what they had to work with and what challenges they had to face. In short, the Japanese were not afraid to try and learn from their mistakes or to change.

Other major factors in Japan's successful development were the ability to see when traditions needed to be modified or reinterpreted, the desire to reach a broad social consensus on what should be done and how it should be done, and the constant appeal to rationalize each task so it could be done faster and more efficiently. Since failure was not an option, bureaucrats and businessmen did not appeal to tradition, what should be, a past golden age, and others heard from various quarters today.

What Japan had to work with was a government that had a realistic vision of what the nation could be, an already established foundation for an industrialized and modern society, and people who were anxious to see their country become a major power due to their skills, education, competitiveness, concern for quality, adapting existing technology for new uses, and will to succeed. Unfortunately, this cannot be said of many countries today.

In the 1960s, when one saw Made in Japan on a product, it was a source of laughter. No one laughs any more, for this phrase has become synonymous with quality and state-of-the-art technology and efficiency.


  1. Harry Harootunian, Overcome by Modernity: History, Culture, and Community in Interwar Japan (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000), 300.
  2. Ibid., 301.
  3. Thomas C. Smith, Native Sources of Japanese Industrialization: 1750-1920 (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1989), 197.
  4. Chalmers Johnson, MITI and the Japanese Miracle: The Growth of Industrial Policy, 1925-1975 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1982), 85.
  5. Ibid., 104.
  6. Ibid., 114.
  7. Harootunian, Overcome by Modernity, 12.
  8. Ibid., 15.
  9. Ibid., 17.
  10. Ibid., 18.
  11. Akio Morito, Made in Japan (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1986), 35.
  12. Johnson, MITI, 246-47.
  13. Ibid., 256.
  14. Smith, Native Sources, 222.