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Japan and Its Unique Pre-Industrialization

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Pablo Melendez

Dr. Luke Franks

History 370

April 18, 2019

Japan and its Unique Pre-Industrialization

Understanding the development of Japan’s industrialization requires analyzing their unique history. The Tokugawa era (1603-1868), formally known as the Edo period, became the center stage for Japan’s pre-modern growth.  The economic progression of Japan was both prosperous and stagnant. Driven by increasing profits and improved yields, farmers and merchants enjoyed a better quality of life and began to earn more. Members of one family could have multiple jobs and each person could work more than one skilled labor. The social hierarchy in place enforced the status quo and kept people within their corresponding classes. Throughout Thomas C. Smith’s Native sources of Japanese Industrialization, 1750-1920, multiple factors are proposed to support his claim that Japan experienced a similar but distinct experience with pre-modern growth to that of industrialized western countries. The economic and social factors described by Smith helped shape Japan as it began its own industrial revolution.

As mentioned by Smith in Native Sources of Japanese Industrialization, one important factor in the development of Japan’s was the shift of the trade and industry towards the countryside. Castle-towns were “places of five thousand inhabitants or more, or places legally designated "towns" regardless of size. There were about two hundred of them scattered over the country roughly as population was distributed.”[1]  Castle-towns were meant to be epicenters of economic prosperity, but the opposite occurred. While towns such as Edo experienced significant growth, most of the castle-towns feel into steady economic decline. Seemingly enough, the population began shifting towards the countryside. The countryside provided the members of Japan’s developing economy with a new and improved market.

Smith list the specific economic advantages of the countryside as “nearness to raw materials and water power; closeness to the growing rural market for goods and services; tighter and more reliable networks of face-to-face relations,” became the “principal basis of security in commercial transactions; the ability of workers in the country to shift back and forth between farming and other employments; and greater freedom from taxation and guild restrictions.”[2] All of them create a strong basis for this new countryside economy.

 As they began to establish in the agricultural regions of Japan, trade and industry stumbled upon a largely unregulated landscape that had a favorable land tax system. According to Smith, in the rural villages he studied, the tax rates were relatively low. What he discovered is “in fact that from the middle of the seventeenth century to the end of the Tokugawa period, the land tax in most villages remained unchanged for all practical purposes, and in the remainder it was more often reduced than not.”[3] With the fluctuation of the land tax system favoring the merchants and peasants in the countryside, the opportunity to earn a profit and keep a larger surplus was possible for the people.  

Tessa Morris-Suzuki writes in her book, The Technological Transformation of Japan: From the Seventeenth to the Twenty-First Century, about Japan’s unique progression towards industrialization as a bit backwards in the sense that it required additional work. She states that “instead of' involving the application of inanimate energy to large machines, they involved increasingly painstaking observation and precise regulation of the processes of nature.”[4]  Skilled work required an emphasis on the quality of the product rather than quantity. While the labor required much more attention and skill, the opportunities provided were incredible for the lower-class peasants. Skilled work required an emphasis on the quality of the product rather than quantity.

 By-employment largely contributed towards this accomplishment. Thanks to by-employment, citizens could get an additional job, most likely another that required skilled labor. In his writings, Smith mentioned a survey of a county in southwestern Japan that was conducted right before modern growth occurred in Japan (unfortunately no date is provided for the survey). The survey provided proof that “the population consisted overwhelmingly of farm families; yet income was over half nonagricultural in origin,' suggesting that most farmers were heavily engaged in by-employments.”[5] For most of the farming families, much of the income came from jobs not related to agriculture. The transition towards the countryside created an ideal environment where members of different classes could be employed in various jobs. Japan re-identified itself as a prominent yet limited economy. Quality became the focus of artisanal and other skilled works. Merchant profits increased and were given the chance to buy into a higher social status. Still, most people in all the classes were limited to an outdated set of laws.

        The economy of Japan was limited by the strict hierarchy set in place during the Edo period. Japan experienced great progress towards becoming an industrialized nation yet only experienced pre-modern growth because of laws set in place by the government at the time. The four main social classes were the: samurai, peasant, artisan, and merchant. Samurai were considered the most honorable and important members of society. Their bloodline was key in determining what political sector they could work in, defined who thy could marry, and how much income was allotted to them by the Shogunate and their respective daimyo.[6] They also had the ability to tax the lower classes and keep an eye on their activities as part of their duties to their daimyo.

        Japan’s extremely stratified social hierarchy is an important factor as to how they developed. More specifically, the structure of their social order and its change led to the beginning of Japan’s industrialization. For an extended period of the Tokugawan era, the appointment of people to government roles was an “issue between upper and lower samurai, between those with more and those with less rank.”[7] While distrust for the system in place brewed within the samurai class, the general rule was to respect the status quo. The members who grew the most tired of the system were the lower samurais who were constricted to their spot in the social hierarchy. In the book, Smith mentions the idea of merit being important in choosing officials. In his words, he thought of merit as “a product of natural gifts, education, and environment: all three were equally essential. Natural superiority of intellect, temperament, and physique-the potential for merit-was a rare and mysterious gift that appeared at all social levels.”[8] Not only does merit provide qualified members of society that can properly lead the country, but it allows for all social classes to have an equal chance. No longer would your social standing or heritage matter. In Tokugawan government, the emperor was mostly symbolic and had no real control since the Shogunate controlled all main regions of Japan. With the use of the feudalistic government, they stayed in control.

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