From part 4 – If the necessary conditions I listed in part four are valid, there is a good case to be made that Japan came very close to having the conditions to create the modernity virus in the 17th century, but for some small vagaries of history. Lets look at each of the conditions.
1/ Unlike Europe, Japan did not need a philosophical base to shake the anti materialism of existing religion or ethics. Buddhism was only ever a thin facade and the fiercely anti commercial Confucianism was adopted by the Samurai class as a weapon against the merchant class after the crucial period I’m talking about. It was not a pre existing condition. Christianity, as far as it existed, was tightly associated with trade. This left the wide range of folk beliefs we now call Shinto, in which the traditional material quid pro quos between human and the supernatural were still in existence.
2/ Such organisations had already begun to come into existence in the 17th century. Some of the Zaibatsu that later played important roles in Japanese industrialisation such as Mitsui and Sumitomo were founded in the early 17th century and even through the Edo period became large organisations pursuing interests across a wide range of industries, enduring well after the deaths of their founders. They were not joint stock companies, but the clearly could (and later did) fulfil the same role of providing economies of scale, dispersed risk and longevity. This was also made possible by the role of clans in legal and social practice. The clan could assume a personage in the same way companies would in Europe. [fn1]
3/ Even under Tokugawa rule these same organisations were creating networks of money exchanges that significantly limited the risk of financial dealings, and these later became the great banks of modern Japan. It is also interesting to note that the world’s first futures market (vital for sharing risk) was in Osaka, so they were well ahead of the pack on some financial instruments. Trade would probably have allowed other innovations, including Arabic numeracy to be adopted.
4/ The 17th century I think had this given level of technological development and contact with Europeans would have made it easily adopted.
5/ Whilst not as friendly as British reserves, Japan certainly had enough coal to fuel it’s early industrialisation, and there was enough hydroelectric potential that it was providing half the countries electricity in 1950s. One source of coal was Hashima Island in the commercial west, and I freely admit I added this condition in part to link to that extraordinary Wikipedia article.
There is a dynamic that may also be at play. British coal mining was developed through necessity in the later Tudor era due to deforestation that removed wood as an easier, but limited source of energy. The high forestation in contemporary Japan (lauded by Diamond here) is a result of significant growth in the Tokugawa era. Since fire suppression technology was not possible, this was due to reforestation of a denuded landscape. Had trends continued, coal would likely have become necessary in Japan as well.
6/ This is the kicker, where things got so close, but no cigar. The centuries preceding the 17th century had seen a break down in central authority and a wide range of regional warlords – daimyo. Conflict between these forces began a process of consolidation, especially under Oda Nobunaga. At the same time a merchant class was prospering, particularly in the Western parts where Portuguese seafarers were appearing, bringing trade (and Jesuits) and leading local lords to start in trade themselves. Likewise many Western fiefs were engaged in the wukou pirate network in East Asia which, like English piracy, could have taken to trade.
Here history may have hinged. The western lords were profiting from commerce, and they had a constituency that supported them. Even today stereotypes of the money love of Western Japanese persist [fn2]. By inevitable political dynamics, this constituency became the enemy of the rivals of these lords in the East, notably the Tokugawa clan. When the country was finally unified, it was a Tokugawa who was in charge. They took a number of steps to curb (destroying was impossible) the power of commerce and thus their rivals; the adoption of a anti merchant caste system based on Confucianism and most stunningly, the nigh complete closure of the country to foreign influence and trade which persisted for over two centuries. This was not Japanese xenophobia (as the story is traditionally told) but the real politik of the government in power. There’s a lot to be said for the rule of the Tokugawas. They brought stability after a long period of conflict, and by restricting violence (particularly through gun control) removed fear from the lives of many Japanese. In fact, the main thing against the Tokugawas is that they may have inadvertently prevented the age of growth beginning and the associated rise in human welfare – and there was absolutely no reason for anyone to expect the modern world until it happened.
I think there’s good reason to believe that if a Western clan had taken power in the 17th century and allowed condition 6 to be in place, we may have seen industrialisation in Japan then. Almost all the conditions and institutions that allowed Japan’s stunningly rapid industrialisation after the 19th century opening were already present in the 17th or became present under the less favourable conditions of Tokugawa rule, including large commercial organisations and vibrant cities amongst the largest in the world. It is also worth noting that when Tokugawas were removed after internal disequilibrium and Perry’s Black Ships provided an opportunity, it was the western fiefs such as Satsuma and Choshu that did so (using the court of the Meiji Emperor). Once they were in charge, industrialisation rapidly followed.
But conditions were sufficient, and the modern age began in Japan in the 17th century, rather than in North West Europe in the 18th, the world would be a much different place. We would talk of Easternisation for a start, and there’s all sorts of speculations we could make.
-Would the Japanese born pirate king of Formosa (Taiwan) Koxinga have entered into some sort of alliance (maybe marriage) with the Japanese to promote their joint interest in keeping the ports of Southern China open against the wishes of the Ming and Qing? Would he have then not improbably become the last claimant to the Ming mandate (as he did in our world) and instead remain unconquered by the Qing?
-Would smuggling trade with China (along with or from Formosa) have awoken the commercial instincts in Southern China that later created Hong Kong and Shenzhen’s prosperity? Would this have created a constituency using wealth from trade to combine with anti Manchu resentment and through revolt form a new dynasty, if only in the South.
-How would the inevitable conflicts with the Portuguese in Macau and Timor, the Dutch in Java and the nascent English and French interests in the Sub continent play out?
-Who, if anyone, would colonise Australia. Strangely I think this may have ended up similar. The British would still have industrialised, if maybe a little swifter. Enlightenment values would have provided an excuse to go to the South Pacific (like Cook went to Tahiti) not held by Japanese allowing further exploration. God knows if they would still have a convict problem (they may still have had the North American colonies) but a lucrative East Asian trade would make the Blainey hypothesis of Sydney’s foundation a great deal more probable than it seems in our world – NSW providing a base for ships coming off the roaring 40s and creeping up the Eastern Seaboard.
A final point though, is that parallels are far too easy to draw. To illustrate (and for intellectual honesty’s sake) we can also say the following: Britain and Japan are both large islands off the coast of a larger continent. They both celebrate incidents in their past where formidable invasion fleets by the main continental power were destroyed in a storm. The great revolutions that started their modern ages both were justified on the basis on ancient institutions. They both have a historically hostile minority in the far north. They both have a smaller neighbour to the west whom they once brutally colonised but whose pop music they now enjoy. They both have legacies of vicious conquest, the sins of which they decline to acknowledge. They both have abysmally bland and limited cuisines and they both have terrible teeth. For all I really know, the conditions I listed may have no more or less relevance than these parallels.
[fn1] Even today an individual only legally exists by the presence on an official family register, rather than having an individual birth certificate.
[fn2] The most persistent include the idea that Osakans greet each other with “mokkarimakka?” or “How’s business”. Sometimes the stereotypes can ring true. I was once quizzing my Osakan wife about her knowledge of Japanese religion. It became apparent she knew nothing of Buddhism, and knew no Shinto kami, not even the sun goddess Amaterasu, from whom the Imperial household gain legitimacy. She quickly however named Daikokuten – the god of money.