V – Easternisation

Parts I, II, III and IV. This post is continues directly from part IV.

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.

About Richard Tsukamasa Green

Richard Tsukamasa Green is an economist. Public employment means he can't post on policy much anymore. Also found at @RHTGreen on twitter.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.
Notify of
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Paul Frijters
Paul Frijters
10 years ago

let’s pick this one apart….

1. anti-materialist philosophies. They dont get much more anti-materialist than Catholicism, which didnt prevent Italian city states or Spain from being having a very vibrant materialist merchant class. To claim any role for such philosophies is not really clear. One might argue a role for things like guilt and conscience because you can see how such traits might have an advantage in networking economies, but anti-materialism? Forget it.

2. Fine. The idea that modern companies are peculiar forms of social organisation and that they are more likely to grow out of something already resembling them is probably true and I will buy your word for it Japan had such prior organisations.

3. The role of risk sharing via financial institutions is not clearly a pivotal factor in development or take-off, but I take the point that their mere presence denotes a sophisticated form of interaction between people, along the lines of point 2.

4. I am not au fait with the Japanese institutions on learning and retaining knowledge, but am not sure Japan had the groups necessary to absorb the technology of the traders. The Dutch and Portuguese traders werent exactly known for exporting technology. They were to make money and cheat the natives.

5. This clearly hinges on how developed the coal mines were in Japan, not so much as to what was under the ground. Japan’s mountains are a whole lot less friendly than the gentle hills of Brittain underneath which large groups of people could dig away the coal.

6. Yep, sounds fair. Very reminiscent of the stories told about the Chinese closure in the late 15th century and even the destruction of commerce in Latin America (Brazil particularly) under the dictat of the Portuguese court. Eerily similar in fact.

Hence, yep, I will buy the idea that Japan probably would have started growing earlier if it didnt unify though that unification was nigh inevitable the way I read it (the natural and cultural barriers werent sufficiently great to keep the regions apart).

However, that still doesnt mean Japan’s co-growth would have been a match for the western growth. For one, as soon as one region would have grown, that region would have attempted successfully to take over the rest of Japan and once again kill growth. Second, even if the Japanese regions would have miraculously kept a balance, then that could only have been achieved by modest growth. Also of course, greater growth would have made it more of a target for colonial invasion. Only in a scenario whereby Japanese growth would have spilled over to the mainland (which seems quite inconceivable to me without Japanese unification) would you have a serious counter-force to Western growth.

Peter T
Peter T
10 years ago

1. Philosophies do not seem to make much difference – Japan, southern China, Gujarat and Bengal all reached similar levels of pre-industrial development.

2. Companies did not figure largely in Europe until the mid-late 19th century. The family partnership and the sole owner were the usual before then.

3. While some level of commercial and financial development seem to be pre-requisites for industrialisation, too much seems to be a preventive (an alternate path if you will).

4. You don’t just have to invent the machines, you have to be able to build/maintain/improve them at reasonable cost. Rapid industrialisation comes to grief on a shortage of welders, machinists, mechanics, foundrymen etc, not a shortage of PhDs and manuals. All trades learned by doing.

England had a widespread artisan base, a lot of commercial wealth, and government keenly interested in promoting many forms of industrial development (primarily through the Navy). The government – and the educated classes in general – were in competition with other governments and competing elites and so had a strong interest in trade (cash flow to finance war) and industry. Given the push to harness coal in place of wood or water, the ability to make and service complex machines and the linkages between trade, manufacture and the educated classes (promoted by complex patronage webs), the key breakthrough in steam technology was more likely here than elsewhere.

Some alternate paths (eg reforestation coupled with population control; or maybe very intensive agriculture coupled with greater commercialisation) were made difficult by the need to maintain social solidarity against the French threat.

Japan had some of this, but the overall social ecology lacked some key elements – strong competition with other nations, a government need to promote cash-flows, perhaps the same depth of linkages across classes.

10 years ago

I’ve been reading this series with great interest, curious to see if the hints you were dropping, Tsukamasa-sama, would lead you to precisely this question. I’ve often wondered on same, but come up with the opposite conclusion.

Apologies in advance for the long comment and the point form, but I wanted to tackle a bunch of issues you’ve raised across all the posts and threads, and it makes more sense to me to list them here than on Parts 1er à 4ème.

1) You kicked off the series with the reference to Greg Clark’s A Farewell to Alms, and his discussion of the industrial revolution as the catalyst for the escape from Mathusian subsistence living. This is a spectacularly interesting and important issue. However, as indicated by wizofaus’ reference to Pomeranz in Part II’s comment thread, Clark’s perspective is just one of many views on a highly contentious topic – “The Great Divergence” – with the so-called “California School” (named after the various UC-campi origins of its adherents, in particular Ken Pomeranz, Roy Bin Wong and Jack Goldstone) using recent analysis of Asian economic data to challenge the traditional/classical liberal – and also eurocentric – view (espoused, for example, by Rafe in Part II) that the industrial revolution had its origins in European cultural and social exceptionalism, i.e. the rise of laissez-faire capitalism.

The key problem I’ve always had with the California School view is that the quality of the historical data for Asian economies is far less reliable than that of European economies, so the core of the thesis – i.e. that as late as 1800 the standard of living in Europe was not materially different from that of Asia – is contentious. It also flies in the face of the considerable anecdotal evidence of the accumulated wealth and power of the English/British people and state in the 17th and 18th centuries, well before the material exploitation of fossil fuels that characterised the industrial revolution in the 19th-century.

That’s why the recent paper, British Economic Growth, 1270-1870, by Broadberry et al is so interesting, as it suggests that England’s economic development took off far earlier than asserted by The California School:

“Our results suggest English per capita income growth of 0.20 per cent per annum between 1270 and 1700, with the strongest growth after the Black Death and in the second half of the seventeenth century. For the period 1700-1870, we find British per capita income growth of 0.48 per cent per annum, broadly in line with the widely accepted estimates of Crafts and Harley (1992). This modest trend growth in per capita income before the Industrial Revolution suggests that, working back from the present, living standards in the late medieval period were well above “bare bones subsistence”. This can be reconciled with modest levels of kilocalorie consumption per head because of the very large share of pastoral production in agriculture. Contrary to the claims of the California School, Western Europe was on a very different path of development from Asia long before the Great Divergence, characterized by high value added, capital intensive and non-human energy intensive production.

This suggests a revision of the revisionist view may be in order, and that the assertion that England’s rise to economic dominance was an accident of geography (i.e. the “coal and colonies” argument) may be flawed from first principles.

2) In Part IV you list six pre-requisites for industrialisation, but I’m not sure you need that many. My favourite of yours is #6, the primacy of the mercantile constituency, because to my mind it is the most explanatory of the economic success of, first, the Netherlands and then England. As Niall Ferguson wrote – back when he was an historian and not a celebrity polemicist – in The Cash Nexus, a state backed by the mercantile class was materially stronger and more resilient, both in financing itself – e.g. through wars – and protecting the interests of that same mercantile class, including property rights and the rule of law. In essence, I suggest that a socio-political environment conducive to trade and the accumulation of capital is the only necessary condition for real economic growth.

3) Following from the above, I dispute your contention that Japan under a Western daimyo would have produced such an environment. The Sengoku warring states period was characterised by persistent rebellions amongst the feudal lords of Japan, enabled in the later stages by the armament of the peasantry with firearms. It was not the Tokugawas that enacted an anti-merchant caste system, but their predecessor, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who unified the country and promptly subjugated the population under the bushi caste by forbidding non-samurai from carrying weapons. He didn’t do this out of Confucianism but from the realpolitik necessity of preventing further peasant uprisings and/or their mobilisation by regional warlords that could rise to threaten him. Ironically, he enacted a fossilisation of Japan’s society that would have prevented a commoner such as he from exploiting the greater social dynamism of Sengoku Japan. Likewise, the near-closure of Japan to external trade was not borne out of ideology but from the Tokugawas’ fear of Spanish and Portuguese intrusion into domestic Japanese politics, a fear exacerbated by the Shimabara rebellion, blamed – largely falsely – on the agitation of Christian missionaries in Kyushu. Given the political state of Japan, dominated as it was by paranoid feudal warlords, the merchants never had a chance.

4) One key difference between England and Japan is that England, unlike Japan, was repeatedly invaded, successfully. It was only the centralisation of power under the Plantagenets and their successors, the Tudors, that enabled England to produce a state – and eventually a navy – strong enough to prevent future invasion. This was radically different from the Japanese experience, where neither Korea nor China (aside from the Mongol period) presented much of a threat to Japan, removing the necessity (i.e. a strong external threat) for strong central government, instead producing the prolonged period of feudal warring in the centuries leading up to the Tokugawa shogunate.

5) A minor point, but England was not deforested in the Tudor period for fuel, but for land clearance (the growing population and consequent need for farmland) and the production of warships – see above.

Peter T
Peter T
10 years ago

Just because we have better figures for England than elsewhere does not prove it was unique. The indications are that the Netherlands, northern France, some parts of India and China were all as commercial as England.

Property rights and the rule of law are irrelevant to this issue – they are basic to just about every society. That English Whigs liked to pat themselves on the back over their Protestant liberties is no reason to go on doing so. We know better now.

They central breakthrough was the steam engine. Why Newcomen and why Watt? A pressing need, a large artisan class, a good level of scientific understanding, a good level of engineering expertise, good connections between those with scientific understanding and the “engineers”, and plenty of spare money.

Note that some of this – especially the science – was common across western Europe. The need and the connections were probably the factors that stood out as strongest in Britain.

10 years ago

I don’t accept the concept of history having one or two really critical stages, especially the history of technology. You started talking about “The Agrarian Revolution” as if there was just one and it was over quickly. However, key steps in agriculture happened widely spread throughout history, and not even the same time in all places:

* Nomads becoming settlers
* Deliberately planting crops
* Irrigation of those crops
* Understanding that crops benefit from fertilizer
* Tracking the seasons, optimising plant and harvest times (Stonehenge, etc)
* Food storage technology (grain silos, pottery, cats, etc)
* Chemistry of food preservation (vinegar, salt, dehydration, etc)
* Metallurgy for farm implements (and weapons)… copper, bronze, iron, steel
* Food transport technology (facilitating trade)
* Animals trained for farm work
* Human specialization to particular trades
* Selective breeding of plants & animals for domestication
* Wind and water as source of mechanical energy
* Steam engines & coal as energy source
* Otto-cycle engines & oil as energy source
* Understanding nutrition and balanced diet
* Phosphate and nitrate mining (chemistry of fertilizer production)
* Refrigeration
* Haber–Bosch process
* Genetic engineering

Each of these could probably be further subdivided into several particular inventions or key discoveries. I’ve probably missed some on my list anyhow.

If you want to know why people are fat these days, it would be enough to consider that the Otto-cycle engine and the Haber–Bosch process happened in the same century as the birth control pill. On the whole though, technology is accelerating and that’s not unexpected when each new discovery opens up avenues for further discoveries. There’s no particular reason to believe we have crossed some magic threshold on this path — perhaps there’s a psychological threshold when more than one major discovery happens inside a given human lifetime.

10 years ago

Just because we have better figures for England than elsewhere does not prove it was unique.

We KNOW England was unique – its status as the birthplace of the industrial revolution is beyond dispute. The question is when and how it achieved the escape from Malthusian poverty. The research I linked to suggests it was materially earlier than is commonly assumed by revisionists, and before the widespread adoption of steam engines.

The indications are that the Netherlands, northern France, some parts of India and China were all as commercial as England.

No, that’s a contentious assertion, for the reason stated above.

Property rights and the rule of law are irrelevant to this issue – they are basic to just about every society.

Is that right? Are you seriously suggesting that “just about every society” of the 18th century enjoyed property rights and the rule of law?

That English Whigs liked to pat themselves on the back over their Protestant liberties is no reason to go on doing so. We know better now.

Heh. Show, don’t tell.

They central breakthrough was the steam engine. Why Newcomen and why Watt? A pressing need, a large artisan class, a good level of scientific understanding, a good level of engineering expertise, good connections between those with scientific understanding and the “engineers”, and plenty of spare money.

Again, contentious. Arguably the steam engine followed the economic takeoff of England, not vice versa. Also, it seems strange for you to assert that England was able to sustain a large artisan class, scientific understanding etc. when no other country did, without the country being able to do so because it was materially wealthier.

Note that some of this – especially the science – was common across western Europe. The need and the connections were probably the factors that stood out as strongest in Britain.

What “need”?